SAN ANTONIO — LeBron James had seemingly escaped the cacophony, with two NBA championship rings and four MVP trophies yielding greater appreciation for his transcendent talents and shielding him from criticism and mockery. But as James stood near his basket, paralyzed by a left leg cramp with roughly four minutes left in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the harsh reaction on social media provided evidence his status as the best player in the game has only made him a greater target for derision.
James has always understood the downside of the deal that had to be made when he received his immense basketball gifts, that the scrutiny would be irrational at times. Since the disappointing loss in the 2011 Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, James learned to shut out unnecessary distractions during the playoffs, but he remains plugged in by friends and family. So he was aware of the ridicule from the Twitter accounts ranging from sports drink company Gatorade to NFL bullying victim Jonathan Martin after that poorly timed cramp forced him to be a spectator for the finish of the Miami Heat’s 110-95 loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
“What everybody has to say — you guys should know me by now — I don’t care, I really don’t,” James said Friday, refusing to mention his detractors by name. “This is about the Spurs and the Heat, and it’s not about everybody else. Man, I don’t care.”
Nearly 14 hours after his body betrayed him under the suffocating humidity of AT&T Center — where a bat once stormed the court, a snake once invaded the visitor’s locker room and a malfunctioning air conditioning unit created unusual conditions for an NBA Finals game — James was able to walk the length of the court at the Spurs’ practice facility, albeit with a slight limp. James hadn’t fully recovered from the muscle spasms and was sleep-deprived after taking 21 / 2 bags of intravenous fluids and making repeated trips to the bathroom.
“My body just shut down,” James said, explaining what happened. “Basically my body said, ‘Okay, enough jumping for you for the night. You’ve had enough.’ Nothing I could do about it.”
James has had trouble with muscle cramps in past, most notably in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals, when he had to be carried off the court against the Oklahoma City Thunder but returned to make a critical three-pointer to inspire a Heat victory.
The Heat medical and training staff has taken every precaution to prevent a recurrence, studying the science behind the problem so that James is aware of the amount of fluids, electrolytes and potassium required to keep him on the floor. James sensed he could be in trouble Thursday because of how swiftly his jersey became drenched in sweat. He was caught on a television microphone joking with teammate Dwyane Wade, “They’re trying to smoke us out of here.”
James stayed hydrated throughout the game, drinking during every break, applying cold towels and ice packs. At halftime, James changed his entire uniform, something he has never done. Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said James even took seven pills to avoid cramping. At least three times, James asked to be taken out of the game because he could feel his body locking up.
“They were some extreme conditions,” James said. “I’ve never played an NBA game like it was, as far as the heat. Not an excuse, but it was an extreme condition. I looked at the stands at one point, and I saw every last fan having fans, double entendre, waving fans, and I knew at that point, this is something different.”
As the game wore on and his second jersey began to look more maroon than red from the loss of fluids, James started to fatigue. James missed jumpers on consecutive possessions and raised his hand, signaling to Spoelstra he needed a breather. He hobbled to the bench with 7 minutes 31 seconds remaining with the Heat leading by two. When he returned, Miami trailed 94-90. James quickly went around Boris Diaw for a layup, proving again to be a destructive, unstoppable force — until his leg stopped moving.
“I was disappointed in myself,” James said after scoring a game-high 25 points. “I mean, I did everything that I needed to do to prepare for this game, prepare for this moment and, you know, to feel like my body failed me, I was angry in the fact that I couldn’t help my team get over the hump. In a huge Game 1, wanting to make a statement. After I made that layup, we was down two. I couldn’t be out there where I knew my team needed me the most. That was frustrating for sure.”
With James crippled by the cramps, the Heat crumbled. Spoelstra said James was edging to get back into the game before he told him, “Not a chance.”
“It was killing him being on that sideline, but you also have your health to look after,” Spoelstra said. “Look, 99.9 percentile of people have never pushed their body to that level — at that level where you’re past the point where your tank is empty and your body shuts down. And, again, for a competitor and for the best player in the game at this level to constantly push his body past that point, I think is incredibly admirable.”
That didn’t spare James from questions about his physical and mental toughness and needless, incongruent comparisons to Michael Jordan’s flu game in 1997 or Isiah Thomas’s sprained ankle game in 1988. Thomas and Spurs big man Tim Duncan were among the many players who defended James while explaining the difficulty in developing cramps.
“From the outside, ‘Oh, it’s a cramp. Can’t play through a cramp?’ 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,” Wade said. “If a player like LeBron James coming out of the ballgame, down two, then it’s serious. It’s not nothing to be joked about.”
Gatorade, which Wade endorses, issued an apology and deleted the tweets about James on Friday. James endorses Gatorade rival Powerade but wanted to stay out of the fray and focus on evening up the series in Game 2.
“I’ll be all right,” James said. “Don’t worry, you guys can talk about me as much as you want. I’ll be there on Sunday. I’m not hiding.”