- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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TAMPA, Fla. -- The conversation at Alex Rodriguez's locker started with LeBron James, the new A-Rod, the latest superman finding his Gatorade spiked with kryptonite in the breathless moments of the biggest games.
Rodriguez had been there, done that, and conquered that, too. He weathered his performance-enhancing drug confession and won his liberating championship with a monster of a 2009 postseason, passing the former burdens of John Elway, Peyton Manning and Alex Rodriguez -- the burdens of title-free greatness -- to one LeBron Raymone James.
So A-Rod was approached as a credible voice on LeBron's plight, a subject he embraced eagerly enough to open a window on his competitive soul that he rarely opens. Rodriguez talked with ESPNNewYork.com on Friday about James, about the mental and emotional hurdles he cleared to win a title with the New York Yankees, about the advice Elway gave him in pursuit of that title, and about the relentless pressure applied to him by the news media that's now being applied to the starting small forward of the Miami Heat.
A starting small forward who has inspired a national conversation on his inability to make a clutch endgame shot.
"When LeBron overcomes, it's going to be sweet for him," Rodriguez said. "But these are the little battles he has to go through, and a lot of it is going to a different place. If this happened in Cleveland, it never gets talked about. But once you expose yourself, like me leaving Seattle, the training wheels are off.
"If I would have stayed in Seattle, none of that would've happened to me. If LeBron would've stayed in Cleveland, I think none of this would've happened, because you're protected by the media, you're protected by the market and you never left. But once you go out, it's, 'OK, you're fair game now.'"
Rodriguez became fair game the day he signed his landmark $252 million contract to play for Texas and again when he escaped to New York to join Derek Jeter's Yankees, four-time champs.
"And the Heat had won a title [before James arrived], so it's a good comparison," A-Rod said. "That's huge, because if they'd never won, he's coming in as the guy who can take them over the top.
"But I'm a big LeBron James fan, and he's going to be fine. ... He's too good. His time is going to come, and it's up to [the media] to make it miserable for him until he does. That's just the way it goes."
This is precisely what Elway told Rodriguez at a charity event in Miami seven years ago -- the media's job is to constantly remind the star athlete of his or her final frontier until, of course, it is conquered.
"When John told me that, it helped me a lot and put things in perspective," A-Rod said. "It lit me up because I said, 'OK, man, I'm 28, and he did it when he was . I have a shot here.' Before that, I felt I was 28 and running out of time already."
Rodriguez wasn't blaming the media for keeping him down; he understood that would be an absurd premise to advance. "I think I created a lot of that for myself," he said. "I had a lot of maturing to do, and I've done that. I think a lot of the noise around me was self-imposed ... and I made it easier on you guys to write about me. But what I've done now is basically eliminated a lot of that stuff and just play baseball."
Baseball. It's the most challenging team sport for an elite athlete to master, as an A-Rod doesn't get any more opportunities on offense -- touches, in the NBA vernacular -- than a Brett Gardner does.
Rodriguez was most passionate about this subject, his eyes widening, his tone framed by deep conviction.
"Baseball is different," he said. "It's kind of been in vogue the last 10-15 years to say, 'Has he won?' ... I never heard the expression of Willie Mays never winning, or Hank Aaron [Mays and Aaron each won one title], but that was a different era.
"In basketball, when you have a guy like Michael Jordan, that's 20 percent of your team. So when I was put almost in the category of an NBA guard or a quarterback in football, I just laughed at it for a long time."
Yes, Rodriguez had given this issue some considerable thought.
"You can really move the needle as a quarterback," he said, "and if you want to make that judgment in football, that's more fair. And if [Mark Teixeira] and I played on a basketball team, that's 40 percent of the team. You can get the ball every time with the game on the line. In baseball, if you're lucky, you get four at-bats.
"The minute you start talking about basketball or a quarterback, it's legit because the quarterback has so much influence. I grew up watching [Dan] Marino, and that's why I wear 13. But baseball is a silly comparison to make, because you can play well in the clutch and if you don't have the horses, the [CC] Sabathias, then you're helpless."
Rodriguez wasn't helpless in 2009, not after the Yankees spent nearly half a billion dollars in new acquisitions, Sabathia foremost among them. But A-Rod believes he needed to hit rock bottom to remake himself as a team-centric winner.
Rock bottom came in the form of his PED admissions and a serious hip surgery that left him wondering whether his career was in tatters for keeps.
"I just think the whole thing that happened to me over the last three years," Rodriguez said. "I'm just in a much better place now. ... That idea that it took me 15 years to become part of a team that won a championship, that actually was the sweetest part."
LeBron James has gone only seven years without a ring, and he carried into Friday night's 30-point loss at San Antonio a travel bag full of recent endgame misses against the Magic, Knicks and Bulls.
At 26, James is already the reigning king of the uncrowned megastars, the loneliest sports title to hold. So Rodriguez was asked whether he would approach James the same way Elway once approached him.
"If the time is right," A-Rod said, "but I don't think he's there yet. LeBron is so young, although sometimes we judge him like he's 35 because he's done so many good things.
"Eventually if you have it in you to never give up, and you fight and you have talent, then you will break through. And I think LeBron will break through in a big way."
The same way Alex Rodriguez broke through in the biggest way two seasons back.
In an exclusive Q&A, A-Rod sympathizes with LeBron's struggles in the clutch.