When the final horn sounded Sunday at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., signaling the end of the 2016 NBA Finals and the city of Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue buried his face in his left hand and wept.
More than 1,800 miles away, Brandon Tate bounced around jubilantly at his parents’ house, where he watched the game after a Father’s Day gathering.
Tate was among several of Lue’s former Raytown High teammates enraptured by Cleveland’s hard-fought Game 7 win against Golden State.
“I was spilling drinks and food,” said Tate, who exchanged texts with Lue before the game. “After Kyrie (Irving) hit that shot to give (the Cavs) the lead, it was pandemonium.”
When Lue moved to Raytown from Mexico, Mo., before his sophomore year of high school, he forged a brotherly bond with Tate and, a few years later, Terry Nooner, who transferred from Lincoln Prep before Lue’s senior year.
The trio were inseparable during a magical 1994-1995 season for the Bluejays, who finished 27-1 after dropping a double-overtime thriller in the state quarterfinals against Central High at Municipal Auditorium — a game widely regarded as the best boys basketball game in Kansas City history.
During three seasons at Raytown, Lue’s talent became undeniable.
He went on to star at Nebraska, won two NBA titles with the Lakers alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and later spent two seasons as Michael Jordan’s teammate with the Wizards during an 11-year NBA career.
Under Doc Rivers’ tutelage, Lue rocketed through the coaching ranks and was the NBA’s highest-paid assistant before he was tapped in late January to replace David Blatt as Cleveland’s head coach.
“I pretty much can guarantee there’s a rabbit’s foot in his pocket,” said Tate, who hopes to connect with Lue when his daughter competes in a national dance competition later this month in Sandusky, Ohio. “... He’s always been in a position to help write history, so you couldn’t have scripted a better career for him.”
Still, the idea of Lue, a 1995 Raytown graduate, coaching a team to the NBA summit was unfathomable two decades ago.
Notre Dame played at Nebraska in September 2001.
Nooner, a beloved walk-on at Kansas after graduating from Raytown, was a diehard Fighting Irish fan and he met Lue in Lincoln, but the football game — a 27-10 Nebraska win — wasn’t the main attraction.
It really was a chance for old friends to reconnect, and Lue’s antics at a Lincoln mall the next day stole the show.
“We went to a costume shop, and he buys this mask and put it on,” Nooner said. “He’s walking through the mall scaring people. Then he goes up in this store and he stood next to the mannequin, and he’d scare people when they walked by. I’m looking at him and thinking, ‘He’s in the NBA.’ That dude was silly, man.”
Lue also was driven and never shy about discussing his NBA ambition.
“I remember how much we celebrated when he got his ACT score, where he would qualify to play D-I basketball,” Tate said.
There were also conversations about girls, clothes and other “normal high school stuff,” Tate said, but coaching never came up.
“It’s weird, because sometimes we’ll be talking about stuff now and it will just hit me, ‘This dude is the head coach of LeBron James,’ or it will kick in later, because everything is so normal between me and him,” said Nooner, an assistant coach for the reigning Big Ten champion Maryland women’s basketball team. “Our relationship is still pretty much the same.”
Nooner never misses Lue’s games unless the Terrapins have a conflicting game.
After each Cavs game, Lue and Nooner text each other and make time to chat by phone the day before games, especially during the playoffs.
Nooner is married with two children now, but during those moments on the phone, he and Lue are still just kids laughing and chatting as easily as they did in the mid-1990s after pickup games at Colman-Livengood Park.
Lue had strayed from the straight and narrow in Mexico, skipping class and staying out too late as a high school freshman, so his mom sent him to live with his uncle, Kevin Graves, in a townhouse off 59th Street in Raytown near the park.
Two years later, Nooner moved in a block away.
“I went to Mexico with him once, and they wore me out,” Nooner said. “They were out all night and I was tired, but that’s really how it was.”
It was different in Raytown, where Lue’s effervescent personality shined as brightly in the school’s halls as his play did on the basketball court.
Graves kept Lue on a tight leash and on track for a college basketball career.
“Grades were in question for him when he got to Raytown, but once he figured it out — and it didn’t take him long to figure it out — he was pretty focused,” said Brandon Weis, who played three seasons with Lue. “By the time he graduated, heck, he was on the honor roll.”
Weis credits Lue’s competitive nature and the desire to prove doubters wrong, a trait he also vividly remembers on the court during hours in the gym after practice watching Lue — all of 5 feet, 10 inches — perfect dunks.
“We were in awe of the guy and the things he could do,” Weis said. “Somebody would tell him, ‘You can’t do this dunk.’ Well, he would do it. It might take him three weeks to figure out how to extend a certain way to get the dunk down, but he would do it. He just had that mindset.”
Raytown’s players used to gather at Weis’ house after games. His parents, Frances Alfaro and Gary Weis, would videotape the games and invite the team over to snack on chocolate chip cookies.
“We’d watch the game and talk all the noise,” Weis said. “Tyronn really liked my mom’s cookies. If she could figure out how to get them to him, she’d still be sending them to him.”
Lue and Weis even donned aprons and baked the cookies on occasion.
“That was just him. He was always having fun,” Weis said. “It was fun until the ball went up. Then it was serious, and he wasn’t going to lose. He would do anything. We all took that frame of mind after you played with him so many times. You realized you’d better be ready to give everything, and you don’t accept losing if you’re on Tyronn’s team.”
Tate went to see Lue when the Cavs played in February at Oklahoma City.
He could tell Lue understood the expectations placed upon him, but Tate also still saw that familiar resolve.
“The biggest thing that’s changed since high school is just his maturity,” Tate said. “He’s taken all those lessons learned from Doc Rivers and the player relationships he’s developed — whether it was with LeBron, Chauncey Billups or Kevin Garnett — and put them with his own personality, work ethic and desire.”
Cleveland lost to Golden State in six games during last year’s NBA Finals without Irving and Kevin Love. Lue, seen by many as James’ handpicked coach, was expected to deliver a championship.
Things looked bleak when the Warriors, who won an NBA-record 73 games during the regular season, grabbed a 3-1 series lead.
No team in NBA history had come back from that deficit to win a title — until Lue’s squad did it Sunday.
“One thing that’s never changed is he’s never backed down from a big moment,” Tate said. “Even in high school, competition was like an inside joke. The better the competition, the more he stood up. He never choked under pressure. He lived and thrived on that. It’s the same thing now with coaching.”
That’s why Tate took particular notice as Lue lingered on the bench, crying tears of joy.
“In 20-plus years, we’ve been through some stuff, people dying and things, but I’ve never seen Tyronn cry,” Tate said. “I know this was the hardest thing that he’s done from a competitive standpoint. There was so much pressure on him, so many eyes on him and so much doubt from so many haters. To see him after they won, just uncontrollable — you can’t help but be proud of him.”