A season of sacrifice for LeBron James
As LeBron James' private jet started its descent into Miami International Airport in the early morning hours of July 9, he was probably feeling a sense of excitement and accomplishment.
Waiting down on the tarmac were Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, along with his future. The next day he would arrive at the Miami Heat's offices and meet up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and do what the three of them had been thinking about for years -- sign free-agent contracts.
James knew they were burning his jersey in Cleveland. But the way he saw it, he was about to be a role model everywhere else. He was accepting less money and a lesser role to, in his mind, put winning ahead of any individual priority. And, in doing so, he had just raised millions for a charity.
It was the sort of altruistic stuff sports fans talked about wanting to see when they complain about the modern-day self-involved millionaire athlete. This was the sort of thing athletes get character awards for.
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Obviously that wasn't the reaction. As James later admitted -- needlessly considering it was so obvious -- he could've handled the mechanics of his move better. Actually, a lot better. His new team did him no favors by creating another television spectacle with an obnoxious free-agent pep rally. By then, the dye was pretty much cast on the public-perception front.
Easily lost in all that furor were the personal sacrifices that James truly made and has continued to make since the same jet cleared Cleveland air space. This has been a season of sacrifice for James. From the basics, like that smaller pay check, to the big stuff, like making over his game to fit in with new teammates.
While everyone was booing and the Heat were losing close games and Derrick Rose was taking his most valuable player award, it may have been hard for anyone to actually notice.
"I don't think people understand it, but at the end of the day people don't care," James said this week as he amped up his preparations for the start of the playoffs.
"It doesn't matter to me if they care about what I've had to sacrifice. It is about me, and me going out and preparing and making sure I'm there for my team."
There was a time when James very much cared what people thought. While he hasn't given up his designs on becoming a "global icon," the circumstances of the season have desensitized him to a certain point. He stopped reacting to the boos on the road. He even gave his MVP concession speech before the All-Star break, acknowledging he didn't have the backing to win a third in a row even if his game was, in some ways, as strong as ever.
His teammates get it, not that they control his national approval rating.
"I think a lot of people misjudged who he was," Wade said. "He's a winner and he put himself in a position to win. LeBron is going to be a Hall of Famer whether he plays another basketball game or not. That is not what he plays the game for. He plays because he wants to win. He felt that leaving Cleveland and coming to Miami was the best chance to do it. Hopefully, at the end of the day, that story is written perfectly and he gets what he wants."
James didn't get a whole lot of what he wanted during the regular season. There were thorns right from the start. He got caught chirping about playing so much point guard ("I'm not a point guard"), and then playing too many minutes ("44 minutes is too much, I think Coach Spo knows that").
These statements were dutifully noted, especially when the Heat were struggling, as there was increasing speculation about Spoesltra's job status.
Then James went through a torturous stretch in which he repeatedly came up short when trying to make game-winning or -saving plays at the end of big games. There was no place to run from his failures, the badly missed 3-pointers or the blocked shots or the unsteady decisions. It got to the point that he issued an apology in the locker room after he came up short in a home loss to the Chicago Bulls last month. Never before had James had to address his team to explain that he wasn't doing enough.
That was James then. Now, he's a different player. The positional issue is long gone. It's now routine for him to play power forward and point guard at different ends of the floor at the same time. In some games, he will check the opposing center and point guard during the same floor shift. He asks not to come out of games, brushing off concern about growing minutes. On balance, he's played the fewest minutes at his natural position, small forward, than at any time of his career.
In the fourth quarters of close games, which the Heat have started to win regularly, James will often just set a screen or even serve as a decoy. At times, he will actually stand in the corner and accept that, on game-defining possessions, his role may be to stand still.
This may be easy to pass off as his new job description, but it's also a large departure from James' comfort zone. These are tradeoffs he was never willing to make -- nor was asked to make -- since he was a freshman in high school.
Wade and Bosh made adjustments, too. Bosh went from the No. 1 option to the No. 3 option on offense. Wade had to yield time with the ball and his role as hub of the offense. But neither teammate had to surrender as much as James, who has never been asked to play such a variety of positions while giving up some of his usual offensive control.
"I didn't think I'd have to change my game as much -- I didn't know what to expect really," James said. "Doing things like trying to get my teammates open, that is not stuff I've done in the past. But I'm willing to do it. At this point you just have to do whatever [it] takes."
It goes back to why James pursued this whole thing in the first place. There has been a lot of speculation as to what took place to get James and Bosh to leave so much on the table elsewhere to come to the Heat. One thing that isn't under debate is the sales job that Wade did on his friends.
This week, with the playoffs and the real test of their experiment bearing down, Wade explained how he sold it not only to James but to himself.
"When you're on the road a lot of people say why would I give up being the man of this franchise," Wade said.
"To me that means nothing, I determine my career by championships. I want to be able to be put in position to compete for championships. There's a lot of guys who have been put in position to be great individual players but never felt what it was like to succeed at the ultimate level. When I retire I wanted to say I put myself in a position to do that.
"So I opened up my arms in Miami to LeBron and Chris and understood that if we win, we all get rewarded. It isn't about being the man. That is overrated. You're not getting far that way. Saying you want to be the face of something, you need a lot of faces to make something work."
That speech, or some version of it, helped convince James to be where he is today. At the moment, that means being on a team on which all the faults are analyzed and catalogued, while the sacrifices go overlooked.
There's a chance the Heat could change that by putting it all together in the playoffs. If they win it all, as is their self-appointed charge, they probably will be lauded for it. If they don't, what James has gone through this season may not be fully comprehended until time passes, at which point the tempers will cool and perspectives can be changed.
"If you watch LeBron's game now compared to the way it used to be it is in some ways [strikingly] different," Spoelstra said. "He's arguably the most versatile player in the league and I've asked him to do more this year than he's accustomed to. He's played different positions but also different roles within those positions.
"We don't take his talent for granted. There will be a time when people say, 'Wow, what he's doing is pretty amazing.'"
Check out other playoff teams' leading menDerrick Rose | Kobe Bryant | Paul Pierce | Carmelo Anthony | LeBron James | Dirk Nowitzki
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