LeBron has to hope legacy won't be tarnished by cramps
THERE IS still time for the narrative to change.
During a NBA Finals the script often shifts from game to game. Prevailing images from Game 1 can often be viewed differently, depending on what happens in Games 2, 3, 4, etc.
So, if LeBron James has a huge Game 2 tomorrow night and then goes on to lead the Miami Heat to a third consecutive NBA Championship, the leg cramps that forced him to sit out the crucial stretch of a Game 1 loss on Thursday will be looked at differently.
If James gets a third Finals MVP award and the Heat "threepeat," the cramps will become a symbol of the great obstacles champions must overcome to stay on the top of the mountain.
I was in the Delta Center on June 11, 1997, when Michael Jordan starred in the "Flu Game." Fighting off the effects of food poisoning, Jordan scored 38 points - 15 in the fourth quarter - as the Chicago Bulls pulled out a crucial 90-88 victory in Game 5 of the NBA Finals over the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City.
The image of Jordan collapsing from fatigue in the arms of teammate Scottie Pippen after the Bulls took a 3-2 lead in the series is the lasting image of the Bulls' fifth NBA title.
Today, a day before Game 2, the image of James being carried to the bench with leg cramps and watching as the San Antonio Spurs took control of the game and won 110-95 is the polar opposite of the "Flu Game."
It's about as "unJordanesque" as it can get.
The Miami Heat lost Game 1 of the Finals because LeBron James got cramps? Really, is that how this is going to roll?
Let's be clear: I am not questioning James' toughness or saying he should have played through cramps the way Jordan played through food poisoning.
Once the cramps occurred, the pain was likely as severe as an ankle or knee sprain. James went back into the game but could not play. That was legitimate. It wasn't as if he did not want to play or did not try to return. He could not walk.
"It sucks not being out there for your team, especially at this point in the season," James said.
Still, it is also not as simple to say James got hurt.
As far as perceptions, James would have been better off rolling his ankle or landing awkwardly and twisting his knee.
Those are chance-of-fate injuries, things that can happen to any player at any time during the course of a game.
But cramps aren't necessarily seen that way. Not that the pain is not as real, but it still brings up the question of why it happned. Cramps are viewed as a preventable injury. They are looked at as things that proper game preparation should have acted as a preventative.
You stretch properly; you make sure you stay hydrated, because you know ahead of time that if you don't do those things, cramping can occur.
Now, you can say no one could have predicted there would be air conditioning problems at San Antonio's AT&T Center that pushed the temperature into the 90s.
It is understandable that playing basketball in such steamy conditions could lead to cramping.
The only problem with that argument is that 17 other players operated in the same conditions, and no one else suffered cramps that forced him out of the game.
San Antonio big man Tim Duncan is 38, yet he logged 33 minutes and scored 21 points on 9-for-10 shooting and added 10 rebounds.
Spurs point guard Tony Parker who came in nursing an ankle injury played a game-high 37 minutes and had 19 points and eight assists.
Miami guard Dwyane Wade was limited to 54 regular-season games because of injury, put played 33 minutes on Thursday.
Eleven players played at least 28 minutes in the AT&T sauna. The conditions were miserably the same for all of the players, but only one had to leave the game because of cramps.
"It was the whole left leg, damn near the whole left side," James said. "I was losing a lot throughout the game.
"It was extremely hot in the building, you know; both teams, fans, everybody could feel it. I was the one that to take the shot."
Of course, this is not fair to James. Stuff can happen to any athlete at any time.
But as I have said over and over, James is in a different stratosphere. It's no longer about his belonging among history's greatest players. That's established.
James is vying to be considered "The Greatest Player Ever," the most elite of the elite. Nothing is out of bounds of consideration because at that level, the lines of comparison are so thin.
This narrative could all change tomorrow if James rebounds with a monster effort - something he has done in the face of adversity before.
But for right now, on June 7, 1997, Michael Jordan led his team to victory in the NBA Finals while fighting through food poisoning.
LeBron James let his team lose Game 1 in the NBA Finals because he got cramps.