A Curious Malfunction Cramps LeBron’s Style

An old advertising jingle is bouncing around my head. “Like Mike, if I could be like Mike …,’’ goes the chorus, still catchy years later. It was an ode to Michael Jordan, in his endorsement-pumping prime, and the TV commercial was for …

Gatorade.

If only LeBron James endorsed Gatorade, maybe he wouldn’t have cramped out of Game 1 of the NBA Finals. I am only half-kidding, at the risk of being called a stumper for the sports drink, which I am not. Way back when, as a teen, LeBron couldn’t complete a sponsorship deal with the sports-drink company. “Pretty simply, the value that we place on individual athlete marketing is very, very far from where his people think he should be,’’ a Gatorade spokesman said at the time, announcing that talks had ended.

Maybe no brand of replenishments could have saved LeBron in the AT&T Center, now known as The Steam Room. But in a world where young sports pundits insist on comparing James and Jordan, it’s worth a passing thought.

The word for the arena would be meh. Allow me to disparage the home of the San Antonio Spurs as distinctly unimpressive — the sort of place where, yes, the air conditioning system randomly would break down in a big moment. It looks like a small-market building done on the cheap, shabby rodeo chic, and as much as I’d enjoy advancing a conspiracy theory that such a failure was contrived by Spurs operatives who knew that James easily cramps up, I prefer to embrace this gem from coach and resident smartass Gregg Popovich:

“Hopefully, we can pay our bills.’’

An electrical failure that knocked out power in the building also claimed James as a victim, injecting unusual intrigue and frustration into the Finals. While every player had to deal with extreme heat conditions, James was the only one carried to the bench with severe leg cramping. I agree with his coach, Erik Spoelstra, who said it would take “an incredible mind’’ to sabotage James by shutting down the coolants, turning the building into a sauna and hoping the heat would trigger the cramping that has sidelined James in this postseason and those previous. Still, while I’m not a handyman, can I ask why the air conditioning suddenly was running an hour after the game? And whether this malfunction will lead to more problems in the series for basketball’s greatest player — physical, psychological or otherwise — after his exit led directly to the Heat’s demise in a 110-95 loss?

“It was the whole left leg, damn near the whole left side,” said James, describing the pain that forced him from the game with 7:31 left in the fourth quarter. “It was extremely hot in the building — you know, both teams, fans, everybody could feel it. I was the one that had to take the shot.

“I lost all the fluids that I was putting in in the last couple of days out there on the floor. It sucks not being out there for your team, especially at this point in the season. After I came out of the game, they kind of took off. It was frustrating.’’

Before he departed, the Heat led and looked prime to steal the first game of the eagerly awaited rematch of last year’s Finals. After he left, the Spurs launched a 15-4 burst with a magnificent three-point shooting show led by Danny Green, who looked comfortable in the 90-degree conditions. As someone who sat in the old Boston Garden in the mid-1980s, when Red Auerbach cranked up the temperature and tried to make the Lakers wilt, I initially questioned if this was a Popovichian ploy. Even James said as much on the sideline at one point, telling his teammates, “They’re trying to smoke us out of here.’’ And, sure, theorists can point to the songs with “hot’’ references played over the arena speakers.

But before we call in Oliver Stone, consider two factors: (1) Both teams had to deal with the conditions, with Tim Duncan admitting to `serious dehydration;’’ and (2) The Heat, by extension of their south Florida base, sometimes play in a warm arena themselves and shouldn’t be unsually impacted by a steamy second half. “I think it was probably tough on both teams,” Popovich said. “Players were pretty dead. So we tried to get guys in and out a little bit more than we usually do. Kind of screws up the rhythm a little bit but it was mighty hot out there.”

“I don’t think I’ve played in anything like this since I left the (Virgin) Islands,’’ said Duncan, referring to his childhood home. “It was pretty bad out there.”

Spoelstra wasn’t complaining, either … except about his team’s inability to compete without James. “I think it felt like a punch in the gut when you see your leader limping like that back to the bench,” he said. “It was an unusual environment. We’re used to having the hotter arena at this time of year. But both teams had to deal with it. It’s unfortunate that it was that way. It was how we responded in those minutes after that point. I think it felt like a punch in the gut when you see your leader limping like that back to the bench, but at the same time, we still had an opportunity to make plays going down the stretch, and they made obviously the biggest plays in the last five minutes.”

If I’m Heat president Pat Riley, I’m asking my training staff about advanced hydration efforts for James, knowing that Gatorade’s official Twitter feed couldn’t resist making harsh points about a superstar who endorses, um, Powerade Zero:

“The person cramping wasn’t our client. Our athletes can take the heat.’’

“We were waiting on the sidelines, but he prefers to drink something else.’’

Do we hear Jordan chuckling somewhere?

The NBA hates conspiracy theories and doesn’t enjoy seeing a potentially epic series marred by an immediate controversy. But just as a legitimate power outage knocked out the lights in the Superdome at the Super Bowl last year, no thoughts of funny business were raised by league officials. “They have from tonight until Sunday to get it fixed,” said Rod Thorn, president of basketball operations. “We do not foresee any problems at all come Sunday. We think it will be fixed come Sunday and we will be able to play under normal conditions.”

And if not? Is the Alamodome available?

Here’s another example of James being cursed in the enormous shadow of Michael Jordan. Though eating bad pizza in Utah is completely different from suffering a recurring thigh cramp, Jordan played through his misery and delivered an incredible perfromance in what commonly is known as “The Sick Game.’’ Some people watching James sitting on the bench are wondering why he couldn’t match Jordan’s will. That criticism is unfair — and it should be noted he wanted to return in the final two minutes only to be rejected by Spoelstra, who wisely didn’t want to risk exacerbating the problems and losing James for a longer period.

“It was an unusual circumstance,” James said. “I never played in a building like that, it’s been a while, like a high school game or (youth basketball), and everybody is sitting on top and you feel good being in a building like that.

“It’s frustration and anger, but at the same time, it’s something that you try to prevent, you try to control. I mean, I got all the fluids I need to get, I do my normal routine I’ve done and it was inevitable for me tonight, throughout the conditions, you know, out there on the floor.’’

Without James, the Heat looked like they didn’t belong in the Finals. If he is further hampered by cramping, the series won’t last long, not after the Spurs proved they are deeper, healthier and hungrier this time after blowing a championship last year with a Game 6 collapse and Game 7 loss. “Obviously, tonight we would’ve loved to have him in there to finish the game, but we’ve got to finish the game better,” said Heat star Dwyane Wade, who couldn’t keep up defensively.

The Heat were no match in defending the perimeter in the fourth quarter, where Green did the most damage and the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker piled on later. Incredibly, the Spurs hit 14 of 16 shots in the fourth and all six three-point attempts. And to think everyone was concerned that Parker, with a sore ankle, would be the injury issue in Game 1.

“Me personally, (the heat) didn’t bother me, felt like in Europe,” Parker said. “Felt like I was playing in the European championship. We never have A/C in Europe, so it didn’t bother me at all.”

Said Manu Ginobili, the native South American (note to Charles Barkley: Argentina is not in Europe): “For sure I play more years in situations like this than with A/C on the court. Not a big deal in that case. At a point, we would go to the bench and I would see cold towels everywhere. Then when we went to the locker room at halftime, whew, we were sweating more in the locker room than on the court, and when we came back, it was tough.”

So all attention turns to the AC repairman, who has three days to make sure the system is running properly for Game 2. Controlled climate or not, the series now is clouded by an unsettling reality that James’ cramps could alter history. LeBron and the Heat are trying to excute the rare three-peat, but if his health is less than optimum, they might be swept by a San Antonio wrecking ball. Remember Game 4 of the 2012 Finals, when cramps repeatedly sidelined James against the Thunder in Oklahoma City? He came back to hit a big shot in that game, but after returning to hit one late shot Thursday, he froze on the baseline. He couldn’t move.

“My muscles spasmed 10 out of 10,’’ James said.

The cramps have hit him in other postseasons, and if they recur Sunday or next week or the week after, well, an unfair question will be asked:

Why are cramps part of LeBron James’ legacy when they aren’t part of Michael Jordan’s legacy?

“We’re well-conditioned athletes; these are the circumstances that we have,” Ray Allen said. “I would’ve loved to have won the game and had a great story to tell, but we don’t have that. These are the things you have to overcome to win championships.”

“I have to put myself in position where I can be out there for my team,” James said. “Sitting on the sideline … is not good for us and not good for me.”

It is good for Gatorade, though.

And Mike.

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