By David Fong
TROY — At least this time, Travis Mumma saw it coming.
And at least this time, it wasn’t him.
Last Sunday, Mumma was sitting in the comfort of his own home watching the closing minutes of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. With the game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors tied at 89 and a little less than two minutes to play, the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala seemingly broke free for an easy layup.
Just then, LeBron James happened.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the Cavaliers’ superstar came crashing in from behind, elevating over his fell0w NBA All-Star and pinning the ball against the glass, denying Iguodala the points heading into the stretch run. Momentum following the play — which has come to be known simply as “The Block — whipsawed, as the Cavaliers were able to win the game and bring Cleveland its first professional sports title in 52 years.
Mumma could relate to what Iguodala must have been feeling … 15 years prior, he had been on the receiving end of a play by James that was both eerily similar and remarkable at the same time.
“It definitely brought back memories — that play was pretty close to mine,” said Mumma, a 2001 Miami East High School graduate. “He may actually have caught me from a little further behind — although on my play, he only got his hand above the rim. On the play (against Iguodala), he got his whole head above the rim.”
In March of 2001, Mumma was the star player on a Miami East boys basketball team that reached the Division III state championship game. Their opponent that day was Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, which was led by James, then a sophomore in high school. Although he was quickly gaining fame around the state — James had been named Mr. Basketball Ohio that year and was drawing interest from college recruiters across the nation — he had yet to go national.
This was the year before he would appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated and ESPN would begin televising his high school games.
And through the first half of that game, James had been relatively quiet, thanks in large part to a diamond-and-one defense drawn up by East coach Allen Mack that saw him put Nathan Chivington — who gave up about 6 inches and 30 pounds to James — on Akron SVSM’s superstar. Chivington would hold James scoreless for the first eight minutes of the game.
With Chivington holding James in check — relatively speaking — East was able to build a double-digit lead in the first half. With time running out in the first half, the Vikings held a 26-18 lead when Mumma stole the ball from future Akron Universithy guard Dru Joyce and appeared to be free and clear for an easy bucket, which would have restored East’s lead to double digits and given the Vikings and even more momentum going into halftime.
It’s a shot Mumma made hundreds of times in his career. The sleepy-eyed swingman scored more than 1,600 points in his career, better than any player in school history.
“I didn’t see anyone around me,” Mumma said. “I was all alone. It’s a play I had made so many times. I went up for the finger roll and then he just kind of came out of nowhere.”
Just as he would 15 later in the NBA Finals, LeBron James happened.
There is no historical record of how much ground James made up on Mumma — he was so far behind him, however, that he doesn’t show up in the frame of any television replays from the game. All that’s left is Mumma’s own account, which had him free and clear for the easy shot.
As the ball left Mumma’s fingertips, James came flying in from behind, pterodactyl-like, swatting the ball away with a force so tremendous that it would sail into a throng of media members sitting courtside, smashing a camera lens.
“He bumped me a little bit and when I came down I hit the ground,” Mumma said. “I looked over and saw a camera lens laying there on the floor. I remember walking into the lockerroom and telling the team, ‘Did you see he just smashed a camera?’ I had never seen anything like that before.”
It was a play that left pretty much everyone in the sold-out Schottenstein Center in awe as they got a glimpse of a young man who would go on to become one of the greatest players in NBA history.
“After the season, we actually made a highlight reel of the season,” Mack said. “The highlights had been all positive plays for us, but that play was so incredible we actually had to put it on there. That turned out to be a crucial play in the game. We had all the momentum at that point. That gave St. Vincent-St. Mary a huge boost of confidence going into halftime. That was really the start of them getting it into their type of game.”
Miami East would hang tough through the second half — the Vikings trailed by just one, 52-51, with less than three minutes to play — but never could regain the lost momentum as the Irish eventually pulled out the 63-53 victory. James would finish with 25 points, 10 rebounds — and one unforgettable blocked shot.
Like Mumma, Mack — who still coaches at Miami East — was struck by the similarities between James’ block on Mumma and his block on Iguodala.
“What a series; what an unbelievable Game 7,” he said. “Those last three games, it felt like LeBron kind of willed them to victory. When he had that block, I texted a friend of mine. He didn’t go that high against us, but he did come out of nowhere and make and incredible play.”
Fifteen years after that game, both Mumma and Mack still are reminded of that game — and that play in particular — from time to time.
“Any time they show a highlight of LeBron in high school, I know there’s about a 90 percent chance I’m going to see my face,” Mumma said.
“Every once in awhile, I’ll be with someone and they’ll introduce me and talk about the game we played against LeBron,” Mack said. “They usually don’t mention the state title we won in 1996. I guess that’s the way it goes, though, because of that instant recognition with LeBron.”
Neither Mack or Mumma, however, have any resentment toward James.
“Any hurt feelings we may have had about losing that game have long since been erased,” Mack said. “He’s gone on to beat a lot of teams and a lot of people since then. I think it’s a special connection we’ll always have now. It’s been kind of incredible to watch his career develop.
“When he came right out of high school and signed the $92 million deal with Nike, you kind of wondered if he’d able to handle it. There have certainly been plenty of examples of athletes who couldn’t handle that kind of fame. But I think he’s handled it pretty well. It’s been a lot of fun watching his career.”
Mumma, too, said he’s enjoyed watching the man he battled for one memorable Saturday afternoon 15 years ago become one of the all-time greats.
“I don’t have anything against him,” said Mumma, who is now a PGA golf pro at Golf Galaxy in Miamisburg. “I was always more of a Michael Jordan fan — I still think he’s the greatest player ever — but I was definitely cheering for the Cavs. I’ll definitely tell my kids about the time I played against LeBron, if he’s still around when they get old enough. Maybe I’ll show them some highlights from the game.”
Contact David Fong at [email protected]; follow him on Twitter @thefong