ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
If you stayed up until midnight Eastern time last night to watch the NBA playoffs, you can boast witnessing one of the greatest performances of all time. LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers scored his team's final 25 points in a double overtime victory over the Detroit Pistons.
Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis of the Wall Street Journal joins us now as he does on Fridays. Welcome back, Stefan.
Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Sportswriter, Wall Street Journal): Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: And LeBron James scored not only the last 25 points but 29 of Cleveland's last 30, scored a total of 48 to lead Cleveland to a 109-107 win. And now, they can win the Eastern conference championship at home tomorrow night. Were you watching?
Mr. FATSIS: I was and I was never happier that I stayed up late to watch a sporting event. James literally was playing one on five for the last quarter and the overtimes. The Pistons knew he was going to get the ball and still they couldn't stop him. They didn't even seem to adjust to try to stop him, which was weird. Late in the fourth quarter, James just drove by the entire Piston's defense and dunked twice - it seemed unfair. And then, at the end of a second overtime with the game tied, he again drove past three Pistons for the game winning lay-up, after he had made these two remarkable off-balance long-ranged baskets. This was one of those transcendent sports moment that as a fan, you just hope will come and you'll be lucky enough to be watching.
SIEGEL: Transcendent for LeBron James who now has played four seasons in the NBA.
Mr. FATSIS: And with him, there's always this Michael Jordan comparison and now, it's even more apt. We forget that Jordan didn't win a championship until his seventh season in the league. And we also forget the LeBron is just 22 years old. Last night, he legitimized his greatness - the hype that had him on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 17 and signing a big Nike contract when he was 18. This season, LeBron took some grief. He doesn't get fired up for games. The other night he passed instead of shooting at the end of one of the games against Detroit.
But from what I've read about this guy, he's a remarkably studious player. He's got the rare vision in mind. Last night, he didn't look fired up. He looked focused and methodical and that's much more important.
SIEGEL: Yeah. The NBA must be ecstatic at least, the possibility that now it's, arguably, it's best player, LeBron James, could actually be in the finals. That would make for a good series.
Mr. FATSIS: It would. I think what LeBron did last night was effectively save the NBA playoffs. This has not been a great run for the league. You had a lot of controversy out West when two Phoenix Suns were suspended for barely violating this rule about leaving the bench during a game - that was against San Antonio. A lot of people don't like the way San Antonio plays. They were rooting for Dallas or Phoenix, the more up-tempo team to make it to the finals.
Off the court, you also had this academic research that showed some minor race bias in officiating, which dominated the headlines for a few days. But the thing that - and that's always impressed me about NBA commissioner David Stern is this sort of external equanimity. He understands that the popularity of sports and the emergence of sport stars are cyclical, but things are going to happen to distract from the games. You ride through the stuff then you wait for magic moments to happen. Last night, one of those moments happened.
SIEGEL: Now, if LeBron James is not the best player in the NBA, it would be because Kobe Bryant still is - someone have made the argument. Kobe Bryant has been the star of another off-court distraction to the playoffs. Demanding a trade on the radio and then saying he didn't want to be traded. What's going on?
Mr. FATSIS: And then saying he wanted to be traded.
SIEGEL: And he wants to get traded.
Mr. FATSIS: And then he didn't want to be traded. It went back and forth the other day. This all started with the report out in Los Angeles that Kobe was to blame for the trade of Shaquille O'Neal to Miami a few years ago. Bryant fueled the story. He said he wanted former Lakers' star and executive Jerry West to come back to the team. You can argue that this is just sort of an internal catfight on one team, but these are some very big names in the basketball business. The bottom line here, no way the Lakers trade Kobe Bryant. They pay him too much. He's worth too much to the team in terms of its business.
And it's also a reminder, I think, that it's much more fun to watch athletes play the way we watch LeBron last night than it is to listen to them talk.
SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis, talking with us about sports and the business of sports. Stefan, thanks a lot.
Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.