As far as anyone involved can remember, it started with the Shaq and Kobe game. For seven seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant had comprised one of the most devastating, successful on-court partnerships in NBA history ...
Paul George is the latest NBA star to have his homecoming hyped. (Washington Post Illustration/Joe Moore; Chris Carlson/Associated Press, J Pat Carter/Getty Images, Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
As far as anyone involved can remember, it started with the Shaq and Kobe game.
For seven seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant had comprised one of the most devastating, successful on-court partnerships in NBA history, winning three straight titles — and one of its most drama-filled off-court partnerships. By 2004, the superstars were undergoing a messy public divorce, culminating in O’Neal being traded to the Miami Heat. With attention cresting, the league looked to capitalize on what was sure to be an emotional moment: the star center’s return to L.A.’s Staples Center.
“Shaq’s mere presence always gave your team the feel that your games were on a global platform,” said Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra, then an assistant to Pat Riley in Miami.
The NBA of 2004 didn’t have the ever-present status that it enjoys on television these days — “we had far less nationally televised games,” said Tom Carelli, the league’s senior vice president of broadcasting — so decision-makers were constantly searching for ways to stand out. The NBA tabbed Christmas Day for O’Neal’s return to Los Angeles, one of two games on the holiday that year — far from the five-game Christmas slate the league has held for the past decade.
Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant both had huge games in O’Neal’s return to Los Angeles on Christmas Day 2004. O’Neal had 24 points and 11 rebounds in the Heat’s 104-102 overtime win. Bryant led all scorers with 42 points. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
“There was tremendous hype around Shaq’s return to Los Angeles, which wasn’t lost on the schedule-makers,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who was then serving as president and chief operating officer of NBA Entertainment. “And we knew putting that game on Christmas Day would only intensify the interest. I also remember that Kobe and Shaq didn’t disappoint, and it turned out to be one of those games — with a Heat overtime win — that exceeded even our rosy expectations.”
Just like that, the much-ballyhooed “reunion game” was born.
Each year, the NBA schedule is now littered with such matchups, baked into television networks’ plans. Wednesday night brings one of the biggest: ESPN will broadcast ex-Pacers star Paul George’s return to Indiana with his new team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“It’s a must-see,” said George, who was dealt to the Thunder in June after word leaked of his desire to leave Indiana after seven seasons. “It’s my back against the wall, against the team that I played for. I think, more than anything, it’s a story that’s being told, and [the league and its broadcast partners] just want to document it.”
Upon its release, this season’s schedule offered seven other high-profile, highly anticipated reunions built off last summer’s player movement: Kyrie Irving (Cleveland, Oct. 17), Paul Millsap (Atlanta, Oct. 27), Carmelo Anthony (New York, Dec. 16), Isaiah Thomas (Boston, Jan. 3), Chris Paul (Los Angeles, Jan. 15), Jimmy Butler (Chicago, Feb. 9) and Gordon Hayward (Utah, March 28), though the new Celtic’s injury on the season’s opening night casts serious doubt on his availability. All of those games were circled by bloggers and the NBA itself as “season highlights” when the schedule was released in August. All of them were picked to be televised nationally, except for Millsap’s lackluster trip back to Atlanta as a member of the Denver Nuggets.
“At some point. Oklahoma City has to go to Indiana, right?” NBA VP Carelli said about making this season’s schedule. “So you try and look at it and go, ‘Well, all right. That’s a good story.’ ”
While these games have naturally occurred throughout NBA history, the way the league marketed and promoted the Shaq and Kobe game in 2004 laid the groundwork for what has become an essential part of the way it does business. Six years later, LeBron James’s return to Cleveland five months after defecting for the Heat in free agency pushed the notion of the reunion game to another level.
Cavaliers fans gave LeBron James a hostile homecoming during his first game in Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat on Dec. 2, 2010. (Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)
“Rarely do you have regular season games that have a true playoff intensity feel in the crowd,” said Spoelstra, who was there that night, too, as head coach of the star-studded Heat. “The Cleveland game, in particular, had a unique vitriol and hostility from the fans. I could hear the crowd from the coach’s office in the opposing locker room an hour before the game.”
While that December 2010 game remains one of the NBA’s most talked-about nights of the past decade for the emotion on display, there was one problem: It wasn’t competitive. Miami led by 19 points at halftime and 30 after three quarters.
“On paper it looked great, and we had a good pregame, and then the game was a blowout,” said Scooter Vertino, senior vice president of programming for Turner Sports, which landed James’s return against the Cavaliers. “Those are the games that are attractive, but you hope both teams are somewhat evenly matched up when it comes to talent.”
Even if the game didn’t live up to hopes, TNT couldn’t be unhappy with the results: The Cavaliers-Heat broadcast topped “Thursday Night Football” in nationwide ratings.
Things got chippy when Kevin Durant went back to Oklahoma City for the first time on Feb. 11. (Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)
Increased player movement in recent seasons has benefited the league’s viewership. When James switched teams in 2010, he empowered other stars to also pursue what’s best for them, regardless of public reaction or fallout. Since then, Paul, Anthony, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge, among others, have made waves by switching uniforms via trade or free agency. This instantly creates story lines for the league to push, such as last season’s marquee broadcast event: Durant’s bitter Oklahoma City visit in February after signing with the Golden State Warriors in free agency.
Even moves that don’t happen occasionally lead to national TV opportunities. The defining memory of the 2015 NBA offseason remains Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan reneging on an agreement to sign with the Dallas Mavericks — after being “held hostage” at his Houston home by several teammates and Coach Doc Rivers, as he waffled on the final day of the free agency moratorium. It was the perfect social media moment, with hour-by-hour reporting of the events and an emoji war among players.
To take advantage of the attention, ESPN elected to broadcast Jordan’s Clippers coming to American Airlines Center for the first time in November. The network got the drama it wanted: Jordan was mercilessly booed by angry Dallas fans every time he touched the ball.
“It’s not just the on-the-court matchups but what other compelling story lines have evolved in the offseason that we should look to focus on,” said Matt Volk, director of programming and acquisitions for ESPN. “NBA fans are going to care about this stuff.”
That will be the case Wednesday, when George returns to Indianapolis. ESPN could be getting the competitive matchup it hopes for as well: The upstart Pacers have surprisingly won several more games than the glitzy Thunder. Two players acquired for George — Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis — have far exceeded expectations, giving this game intrigue beyond George’s homecoming. Still, George’s return remains the primary reason people will be tuning in.
“It makes for appointment viewing, which, thank you very much,” Turner Sports’ Vertino said. “We’ll take it every time.”
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