In this year's rematch, Haywood has very much made a name for himself. In highlight shows across the land, he's The Man Who Shoved LeBron James.
"I've been criticized normally for not fouling," Haywood said. "This is actually different ground for me."Under orders to give James a rough time in the paint, Haywood took the bruiser's act a bit too far when he pushed James with both hands while the Cavaliers' megastar was airborne during a layup attempt in the third quarter of Cleveland's Game 2 victory Monday night. Haywood, who made no attempt to go for the ball, was assessed a flagrant foul and ejected from the game.
James crashed to the floor but wasn't seriously hurt. The game hadn't resumed before the debates began: Will Haywood be suspended? Was it really that bad of a foul? Would he be getting the same punishment if he had fouled anyone other than the great LeBron? What happened to the rough-and-tumble days of old?
Haywood, to his relief, learned Tuesday that the answer to the first question is no. The league opted not to penalize his playing time any further, so he'll be back for Friday's Game 3 in Washington as the Wizards try to rebound from an 0-2 hole.
"I feared it could have been worse," Haywood said. "I was hoping the league wouldn't take action, but you never know. It's one of the star players, being LeBron James, I thought they might react a little bit differently. I mean, nothing was meant behind the foul. It was a bang-bang play. He said it himself: He is 6-9, 260, and if you go out there and try and foul him lightly, he is going to score the basketball."
Haywood said he apologized to James after the game.
"I didn't mean to hurt him. It's not one of those type of things," Haywood said. "I have been instructed to give him hard fouls so he doesn't get highlight dunks in the halfcourt. I have to do what my coaching staff tells me to do if I am going to stay out there on the court."
The foul was only one of many hard fouls in a series that has become testier than the trash-talk that preceded it. Both teams have pounded away -- Game 2 also included a non-ejection flagrant on Cleveland's Anderson Varejao for hitting Washington's Andray Blatche in the face -- but the Cavaliers had taken particular exception to the tactics used on James.
"Washington has come out and said they were going to hit LeBron. They said it time and time again," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. "You've got grown men who say they are going to hit somebody. If that happens, then you got to clean it up. I thought the officials did a nice job during the game of cleaning it up."
Meanwhile, some Wizards see a double standard because of James' star power.
"The first play I go up for a layup, LeBron hits me on the ground just like Brendan did LeBron. They let it go," said Washington guard DeShawn Stevenson, who called James "overrated" after a Wizards-Cavaliers game last month. "I think it's because it's LeBron, and people are looking at it because of all the trash-talking that happened before the playoffs. I think they are good fouls. It's the playoffs. You can't let LeBron go get dunks and get a rhythm."
Both sides agree on one point: The refs are a lot less tolerant than in the old days.
"I've never seen anybody get wiped out like that in a game I played in," Cleveland's Daniel Gibson said. "But you go back to watching some of those old, old games you see those type of things a lot."
Said Washington's Gilbert Arenas: "When I was young, watching basketball, the foul they're calling out there is like golf compared to what the Bad Boys used to do with Michael Jordan and each other. So, if it is getting out of hand, I must have been blind when I used to watch basketball."
Gibson said he expects the Wizards to keep up the physical play. The good news for the Cavaliers is that, unless Washington starts to play better, they'll only have to put up with it for two more games.
Beaten by 7 points in Game 1 and routed by 30 in Game 2, the Wizards are staring at a sweep from their Eastern Conference nemesis for the second straight year. They aren't shooting well and have been unable to take advantage of what appeared to be favorable matchups against a vulnerable Cavaliers team. All the hack-LeBron efforts in the world won't mean a thing if coach Eddie Jordan can't get the offense to run more effectively.
"I think coach had one of his better speeches today," Haywood said. "He really addressed some issues that had been lingering underneath the surface for a couple of months about ball movement and what's going to happen if there isn't ball movement. That's the biggest thing: Everybody came to the game yesterday thinking 'I am going to do it myself."