LEBRON’S DEBUT: TALES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM

Our man Will Clapton gets the inside track at the most eagerly-anticipated regular season game of all-time.

It’s hard to feel sorry for someone who just signed a $100m contract. Yet that’s exactly how I felt as I stood next to LeBron James in the locker room, just minutes prior to his debut game for the Miami Heat.

King James laced up his Nike Air Max LeBron VIII trainers while miming the lyrics of the songs being played through his headphones, presumably in an attempt to block out the fuss and intrusion of the cameras all around him.

And yet, perhaps surprisingly, the locker room was filled with a respectful silence; the kind of suspenseful silence you only hear in anticipation of something big. Something big like the debut of the reigning MVP for his new team in arguably the most eagerly anticipated regular season game of all-time (an argument later backed up by the record television ratings).

Just a few metres away, Dwyane Wade was strapping up his hamstring following his much publicised pre-season injury. His new teammate, Mike Miller, in reference to the number of TV cameras in the locker room, shouted across “hey, putting your tights on kid… live on TNT!”, which encouraged a smile from Wade, who himself was refusing to answer pre-game questions.

Instead, I turned my attentions to Miller, who was friendly and relaxed and happy to chat (not surprising, since he faced none of the pre-game pressure owing to an injured thumb that will keep him out until “at least January”). I asked Miller if he ever expected to be part of something so big when he was drafted nearly ten years earlier. “It’s great to finally have a chance to win”, said the likeable sharp shooter.

(Miller told me he’d love to compete in the 3-Point Shootout at All-Star weekend if he’s invited. We then debated who the best shooters are in the league; Miller nominated Jason Kapono, before changing his mind and voting for Ray Allen – who made Miller look like a good judge of talent later during the game.)

Elsewhere in the visitors’ locker room, Chris Bosh sat in a corner surrounded by teammates and an assistant coach, having just given a television interview in which he’d stated that, in a tied game scenario, with 10 seconds left on the clock, the final shot would be taken by “whoever is hottest”.

I’m pretty sure he meant “LeBron James”.

Over in the Celtics locker room, the star players were being stretched and massaged by team physios. Suddenly, the door opened and in walked the 7’1″ Shaquille O’Neal. He paused to look around the locker room with an expression of bewilderment on his face. Even Shaq – after eighteen years in the league – appeared to be bemused by all the attention. Never has one man oozed so much charisma without even speaking. His mere presence in the locker room was enough to render reporters as wholly inferior and in awe. He is, quite simply, a massive human being.

One player with less experience – and less presence – was Celtics’ rookie Luke Harangody. Completely ignored by the journalists in the room (who were perhaps understandably still reeling from their first glimpse of Shaq), Harangody sat awkwardly playing with his MP3 player. I introduced myself and he seemed genuinely impressed that I’d travelled from the United Kingdom to attend the game. He said he was “gracious for any opportunity I can get to play alongside such talented players” in reference to his Hall-of-Fame calibre teammates.

I studied the keys to success that were written on the white board in the Celtics’ locker room:

“Wade/James: No easy baskets!”

Easier said than done, I thought to myself.

Before making my way to my seat, I grabbed myself a quick drink in the press room which was packed full of journalists, some more cliquey than others. A young man sat down next to me. I learned he would be singing the national anthem prior to the game. A few minutes later, he excused himself and made his way to the rest rooms. I could hardly blame him. The tension and suspense was felt by everybody.

The game itself lived up to expectations. Here are some of my observations:

– Ray Allen’s ability to get free from his defender was tremendous – a skill that the Heat players seemed to lack, instead taking it in turns to dominate control of the ball

– The Celtics fans should be commended for creating a playoff atmosphere which made the NBA’s pre-season games in London seem like a funeral by comparison

– Shaq became an overnight fan favourite in Boston. He dunked his first two baskets so emphatically that it was hard to believe he’s the oldest player in the league (…until I saw him attempting to change direction, which was akin to watching an articulated lorry attempt a three-point turn).

– The Miami Heat looked overwhelmed by the occasion, especially in the first quarter when they scored just 9 points.

-LeBron James, however, soon reminded everyone what all the fuss is about. He took over in the second half and was able to get to the basket at will and showed excellent range on his jump shot, finishing with a game-high 31 points.

– In the end, Boston’s defense and team chemistry proved too much for the Heat.

After the game, I headed to the press conference and pulled up a chair just three rows from the players and coaches. Celtics’ coach Doc Rivers came out first and, upon seeing the mass of cameras and reporters, sat down and joked “it was a big game, I guess!” before commending the Celtics’ defense and, in particular, Glen Davis for his “terrific” performance off the bench.

Miami’s young coach, Erik Spoelstra, came out followed by Chris Bosh who said that he’s “not really caught up in point averages” before accidentally letting slip that “when I was, it didn’t really matter”, suggesting that last year he played for statistics rather than wins in Toronto. Whoops.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade came out together – a sign of unity – dressed smartly in suits. James reminded us that “Rome wasn’t built in a day” while Wade said “sorry if everyone thought we were going 82-0, it just ain’t happening”.

Finally, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were the last players to face reporters’ questions. “Are we in the Finals already?!” joked KG.

No. But it sure felt like it.

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