SAN ANTONIO -- Tucked away in a nondescript strip of concrete off the interstate and surrounded by fast food joints and medical offices is the Spurs’ practice facility. If not for the quaint address -- 1 Spurs Lane -- there is very little to differentiate this building from, say, the South Texas Radiology Center next door.
Here in the most insular of NBA bubbles, the basketball media assembled for the arrival of LeBron James, owner of the most famous tight leg muscles on the planet. This was not just a world away from the raging battles of what passes for sports debate, but another universe entirely from what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra dubbed "Crampgate." (As Spoisms go, it needed a little work.)
"Let's separate the past to last night." Spoelstra said. "(Thursday) night was such an extreme situation and you have to be able to differentiate the two. Last night was so extreme. That's the toughest part for people to understand."
Not here in this peculiar patch of Texas where no one who suffered through Game 1 will ever take air conditioning for granted again. "It was a very difficult game," said Miami forward Chris Bosh, who is known throughout the league as one of the few people who doesn’t care to coat his quotes in the time honored layers of bullshit that pass for good manners. "Probably the hardest game I’ve ever played in my career."
NBA Finals Game 1
The reflexive response among those in the bubble was to defend the four-time MVP, and not just because the criticism in question was unfounded and pointless. There is no one with any shred of medical or athletic credibility arguing that LeBron should have pushed through the pain that rendered his legs immobile at the worst possible moment. That would have been foolish at best and potentially damaging at worst.
As Dwyane Wade put it: "From the outside, 'oh, it's a cramp. Can't play through a cramp?' But until you walk into -- until you’re in that situation and you're in someone else's moccasins, you don't know what somebody else's body is going through. If a player like LeBron James coming out of the ballgame, [up] two, then it's serious. It's not nothing to be joked about."
There are really only two camps when it comes to LeBron James these days. There’s the group that admires his abilities on the court and appreciates his growth off the floor from callow self-obsessed star to an involved and often eloquent league spokesman. To them, this is a chance to witness history unfold in real time and try to make sense of it as happens with the full benefit of context.
And then there are those who hate him regardless and always will, no matter what he does. It could have been cramps, an innocuous word to describe a painful, involuntary, muscle spasm brought by on dehydration and fatigue. Or it could have been passing to Bosh in the corner with the game on the line, as he did at the end of Game 5 of the conference finals against the Pacers. It doesn’t really matter the cause. When LeBron is backed into a corner the wolves come out with fangs bared.
"What everybody has to say, you guys should know me by now; I don't care, I really don't," James said. "I really don't care what people say about me. I don't care about that sports group, the drink group that ‑‑ I'm not even going to say their name. I'm not going to give them a light in The Finals. This is about the Spurs and the Heat, and it's not about everybody else, man, I don't care."
It’s fair to say that the vast majority of the basketball establishment, from his peers to the press falls into the former camp. It’s only when you venture outside the bubble that the antagonism is still virulent. Whether it was Twitter snark, stupid memes rooted in unsubtle misogyny or desperate grabs for attention, LeBron was once again placed in the center of constructed controversy.
"If he wipes his nose, if he says anything he’s going to be scrutinized, he’s going to be heavily monitored under a big microscope," Bosh said. "I guess it just comes with the territory. It’s surprising still, but when you’re the best player in the world in this day and age people are interested in everything you do."
This wasn’t just the Heat players and coach sticking up for their teammate. Spurs swingman Danny Green called the criticism James received "silly," and Gregg Popovich praised LeBron for how he’s handled the attention over the years.
"What may be more amazing to me is the way he's conducted himself over the years with all the scrutiny," Pop said. "None of us really understand what that is. He's done it pretty damn well."
This near universal appreciation for LeBron within the confines of his own sport was not true four years ago when the Heat first arrived on the scene. Then, everything was up for debate and much of the criticism, while pointed, was fair. Four straight Finals appearances, two championships and two more MVPs have mollified that conversation. Now it’s a question of history as opposed to a constant redefinition of the present.
When you compete with the past, you are not only measured against the historical record, you are also competing with the legend. Whether it’s the old steambath known as the Boston Garden or Michael Jordan’s flu game, it’s an unfair fight because the grainy, inconvenient details are often swept aside.
Drive & Kick
Like the fact that even Jordan himself was undone by cramps and had to ask out of the game the Bulls lost to the Jazz before the famous flu game. That’s an anecdote that gets lost in the greatness of Jordan’s accomplishments, but was uncovered in Roland Lazenby’s meticulously researched new book about Jordan. It does nothing to diminish the Jordan legend. If anything, it humanizes a mythic god and adds to the mystique.
If LeBron drops 50 in Game 2 and leads the Heat to a third straight title, the cramp game will take on a different dimension. What’s lost in this day and age is the idea of empathy, but perhaps that was never truly present back in the day either.
It’s absurd that one game into a series that everyone expects will last six or seven games, we’re already wondering what the final moments of Game 1 will do to LeBron’s legacy. But here we are at this weird intersection of real life and false reality where perception is bent to fit someone’s preconceived notions.
"I don't get involved in what people say about me and my legacy," James said before the Finals began. "I think it's actually kind of stupid."
Of course it is, but it’s what we do, both positively and negatively. LeBron doesn’t need defending from those of us in the bubble. He can take care of himself and his record will stand on its own with the full consideration of time. As for the critics and the charlatans pushing their own invective-laden agendas, let them deal with history’s weight as their own burden.
Within LeBron’s insular world there is no doubt about his standing. From all appearances that’s good enough for him, and it should be good enough for us, as well.