LeBron delivers blunt message to New Yorkers

Published Dec. 17, 2010 11:12 p.m. ET

NEW YORK — Before the game, in a cramped space full of hostility where LeBron James sat alone at a microphone, something seemed different.

He was different.

With each question — with every member of the New York media perplexed that he would pass up their city — The King answered stoically but with a tension that was hard to place.

Nerves? Anger? Resentment? Focus? Determination?

"It's not a spotlight I can't handle," he told a reporter, his voice monotone but his vibe something else. "It's not a situation I can't handle."

All season, LeBron has tried to shrug off the very real issues — from how he left Cleveland to how he began at Miami — he himself created.

But this was different.

Maybe it was the peculiarity of New Yorkers thinking they had more of a claim to LeBron than Cleveland.

Maybe he's learned to cope with the new role he's crafted for himself.

Maybe, on what became an 11-game winning streak after the Heat went on to beat the Knicks, 113-91, it's simply become easier to bear the brunt of life as a bad guy.

Or maybe the city of New York — as all those New Yorkers half-expected, half-needed to be true — really does agree with the former King of Cleveland, now the King of South Beach.

"There's certain buildings in this league that you just thrive on, and get excited about," LeBron said shortly after scoring 32 points, dishing 10 assists and pulling 11 rebounds for another triple-double.

"And this being the Mecca of basketball, as a kid you always envision not only playing in the NBA but also having a chance to play in Madison Square Garden."

Has he ever fulfilled that dream.

In his previous four games here, LeBron averaged 40.3 points. He went off for 50 points, nine rebounds and 11 assists two seasons ago.

For these reasons and more, there was a particular vision of LeBron James in New York City: Of LeBron in Knicks blue, of the greatest player on earth bonded to what those here believe to be its greatest city, of banners won and glory gained.

All this and more fueled the same kind of boos and hostility at Madison Square Garden that have marked or will mark his time this season in New Jersey, Chicago, Los Angeles and, in different ways, Cleveland.

But whereas Cleveland had a true claim to LeBron — not to mention an unmet expectation that, if he departed, he would do so with grace and class — New York had only the false expectation that being New York was claim enough.

Sometimes the only thing scarier than a jilted lover is someone arrogant enough to have a lover's expectations before any real relationship was consummated.

Stunning beauty, unequaled glitz and a deep sense of self-importance — these things a relationship does not make.

"No comparison," LeBron said afterwards. "I spent seven years in Cleveland and grew up 35 minutes from that arena. There's no comparison."

What does this all mean about LeBron?

That the spoiled, clueless kid who set his own reputation and brand on fire with The Decision may have found in the ashes something previously unseen: real mettle.

First, New York booed him viciously Friday — during the national anthem, no less — and poured on the vitriol in the first quarter. The newspapers called him "LeBum" and "LeChicken."

LeBron turned those harsh feeling into fuel, going off in that same first quarter for 14 points, four assists and two rebounds.

Like they say: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. So certainly if you can make it against this place, you should be able to make it against anyone.

New Yorkers are tough. The media, the people, the streets, the expectations. The questions in the days leading up to this game often came from New York media who seemed — one could argue much like the man they were questioning — to live in a bubble in which the rest of the universe hardly registers.

To court him, New York threw everything at its would-be savior, including the pitch only New York City could turn LeBron into a billionaire.

The Chosen One didn't just choose somewhere else; he eschewed everything New York pitched about itself — the greed and green of Wall Street, the glitz of an unrivaled metropolis, the glory of the Garden.

So when incredulous New Yorkers crave to understand what on earth he was thinking — how he could reject, of all people, them — LeBron James can't shrug his shoulders, sigh, and say, "Dude, if anyone had a right to be PO-ed, it was Cleveland. Not New York.

"Not. New. York."

No, LeBron can't say that.

Not with words.

But he could with his play — he could channel all that anger, as he did against Cleveland, but this time direct it at a city that had no real claim to turning against him.

Deep down, somewhere, The King must realize he did Cleveland wrong.

He must also realize New York needs to get a grip.

What we saw Friday was LeBron, at home in the big city, at home with the hate, at home under the spotlight he rightly predicted could not faze him.

What we saw was LeBron facing down not a skinny weakling but a hulking city and, yes, a very good basketball team.

What we saw Friday was LeBron with righteous anger on his side — LeBron using a triple-double to say to New York: I'm my own man, you had no claim on me, this is my response.

I've said all season — and I still maintain — that LeBron James is unequaled in his ability to either wreak havoc or generate greatness among his teammates. So his New York City response was also notable for how well his teammates played.

Dwyane Wade scored 26 points and had eight rebounds and five assists. Chris Bosh had 26 points and seven rebounds. The entire team continued to play with heightened energy and confidence.

"We thrive in this kind of environment," Bosh said.

That's true now. It wasn't a short time again ago.

The change in this team, and what happened in New York Friday night, says everything about a change in LeBron.

Yes, New Yorkers are tough.

But for now, LeBron James is much tougher.

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