The Heat led the Spurs by two points with just under seven minutes remaining in Game 1 of the NBA Finals when LeBron James asked to be pulled. With the air conditioning busted at the AT&T Center and temperatures reaching near 90 degrees on the court, James couldn't prevent his body from cramping. With LeBron out, the Spurs blitzed the Heat to steal a 110-95 victory. It was a great game ruined by horrible playing conditions.
This is hardly the first time LeBron has cramped up in a big situation. You'll recall Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals when he had to be carried off the court by Juwan Howard and a Miami trainer. This was before James won his first title, and it got ugly as people did not go easy on him. You'll still see the image passed around today in memes about how basketball players aren't tough. It's petty, pathetic and not particularly original or funny.
We can only hope we're past that point two years later. James didn't ask out of the fourth quarter of an NBA Finals because he was afraid of the moment. When cameras showed him laying on the floor and falling down on the bench, you knew it was killing him inside. He does not gain anything from sitting out, especially since the Heat were blown off the court in his absence.
Save your tweets about how Michael Jordan wouldn't have been taken off the floor in that situation. James is a 6'9, 260-pound man who has played more basketball than anyone over the last five years. You can start with the 2008 Summer Olympics and trace it through four runs to the Finals. In the regular season and playoffs alone, James is playing over 100 games a year. Now, factor in how much he has to do on both ends of the court for Miami to be as good as it is, and you can see how the wear and tear can add up.
James doesn't miss many regular season games, because he knows fans bought tickets to watch him play. This is a player as big as Karl Malone that does everything: handle the ball, defend point guards, battle in the post. He runs around in Miami's dizzying defensive scheme and seemingly expends more energy than anyone else in the league. That's why he cramped up and others didn't.
James is his own man, and at this stage of his career, no one would argue that he's anything less than an all-time great player. He's proven it with back-to-back championships and four MVP trophies. If anyone has earned the benefit of the doubt, it's him. But this is James' burden not only as a superstar, but as a player who transcends his contemporaries. Because James is so dominant, it's natural to only compare him with the NBA's other historically great talents. It's a zero-sum game where there are no winners.
For a player who has been in a spotlight for as long as LeBron has been, a negative reaction to something like this is unavoidable. Even after becoming the first team to reach the Finals four consecutive seasons, the public still doesn't particularly care for Miami. Maybe it's something about the perception of the players running the franchise, the way the team went about its construction, or maybe it's based in ugly racial undertones.
But for whatever the reason, LeBron can't win. He must be indestructible. He cannot be human. He is blamed for not "battling through the pain," even though he tried and his coach wouldn't let him. Stop trying to making #LeBroning a thing.
This isn't about James failing to live up to the moment. It's about inhospitable conditions ruining what would have been a great ending to a terrific game.