LeBron focused on winning first title
MIAMI -- Twitter isn't the only thing LeBron James has shut down during this postseason.
"His phone is off during the playoffs," James' former high school coach, Keith Dambrot, said Wednesday about how focused the Miami star has been.
James last sent a tweet on April 27, the day before the playoffs started. And that's about the last time Dambrot, who is very close to James, could send a text directly to James' phone and expect it to be read.
In order to now contact James, Dambrot said he either sends a text to Mike Mancias, James' trainer, or to Randy Mims, his personal assistant. It is then shown to James, who requests any response to be sent.
There's no word on whether James has asked the post office to hold all his mail during the playoffs. Regardless, this is one focused guy who will try in Thursday's Game 5 of the Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena to win the first championship of his nine-year NBA career. His Heat lead Oklahoma City 3-1, the first time in his three Finals appearances the Akron, Ohio, native has been within one game of a crown.
"(A championship) is what he wants really badly," said Dambrot, who is now University of Akron coach and coached James his freshman and sophomore seasons (1999-2001) just down the road at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. "He's one of the greatest players of all time, but he's never going to get his due until he gets that title.
"I hope he finishes the job, and he really gets what he deserves. He's always tried to play basketball the right way and he gets undue criticism, harsh criticism… I've been texting his trainer during the playoffs to make sure he keeps his raincoat on and deflects all that criticism."
That's understandable since James often is criticized when others would be praised. It sure appeared to be a gutsy moment when James battled leg cramps in Tuesday's 104-98 win in Game 4, and had to be carried off the court with 5:15 left in the game. He eventually returned for a three-minute stint, hitting a key 3-pointer, before leaving for good with 55.5 seconds left when he again barely could walk.
Nevertheless, a number of NHL players were among those sharply criticizing James on Twitter for perceived exaggeration of his injury. Washington Capitals forward Ryan Potulny wrote that "James is embarrassing himself and the NBA or actually all athletes."
Regardless, James on Wednesday pronounced himself fit for Game 5.
"I feel a lot better than I did (Tuesday) night," he said. "I'm still sore. I was able to get some treatment… I'm going to use (time before the game) as an opportunity to continue to improve with my legs… I should be fine by (Thursday) night."
Dambrot said James has a history of cramping. He said he cramped really badly in a narrow loss to powerhouse Oak Hill (Va.) in James' sophomore season of 2000-01.
But Dambrot has no doubt James will be ready to go all out Thursday in pursuit of that elusive first title. And so do his teammates.
"It's a big deal to (James)," forward Udonis Haslem said. "You got a guy who has probably achieved all the individual accolades that you can achieve at the highest level of basketball, and doesn't have a title. It's kind of like it's not complete. You're not whole. For him, that gives him an opportunity to close another chapter in his book in his Hall of Fame career."
If the Heat don't win Thursday, they would have to return to Oklahoma City for Game 6 and a possible Game 7. So it's no wonder James said he's approaching Game 5 like a Game 7, calling it a "must-win'' for the Heat.
"I have a job to do, and my job is not done," James said. "I've been very focused, and I'm determined for us to play at a high level…. I haven't even looked at it as just one game away (from a title)… Human nature is to automatically think about after we win it, what are we going to do. I'm not there. I won't get there until those zeroes hit and I see that we won.''
James' teammates are more willing to speculate about how important it would be for James to finally hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
"It would mean the world because winning the championship is obviously what is fueling him right now," center Joel Anthony said.
"It would mean everything," guard Mike Miller said. "It would give him obviously what he shoots for and it would keep people off his back for once."
Well, maybe not. Hall of Famer Willis Reed said Wednesday that even if James wins his first title, there will will be some saying, "How many rings does Kobe (Bryant) have (five)?"
Criticism for James probably will never go away. How to better handle it was one of the issues Dambrot said he addressed with James last year during the NBA lockout when James stopped by to work out at the University of Akron.
During a break, Dambrot said he wanted to talk with James in the player's lounge. James was all ears.
"LeBron is a guy who wants the truth told all the time," Dambrot said. "I had a big heart-to-heart with him. I told him, ‘Just stop me at any time if you think I'm full of it.' He was so receptive because he knew he wanted to make some changes."
Dambrot talked to James about improving some parts of his court game. But he mainly wanted to talk to James about the mental aspect.
"I told him you got to (shake off) all the criticism," Dambrot said. "You got to trust your instincts and don't listen to what people say. I told him that he just had to play through missed shots and not worry about it. I'm not a sports psychologist but a lot of the issues came from he let the criticism get to him… He's been (in Northeast Ohio) all of his life, and he had to learn how to be a villain (in Miami). It was a difficult ordeal for him."
Much of the criticism came from James' July 2010 decision to bolt Cleveland as a free agent for Miami, and announcing it on the ESPN-aired "The Decision." James bashing reached a peak when he had an awful Finals last year against Dallas, routinely wilting in fourth quarters as the Heat lost 4-2.
James didn't leave his house for two weeks afterward. Eventually, though, he was determined to come back better than ever.
James did just that, having his best regular season ever and winning his third MVP award. He has talked regularly this season about going back to having fun with the game, and he touched upon that again Wednesday.
"After losing once again, I was frustrated," James said of his second Finals defeat, the first a 4-0 setback by Cleveland to San Antonio in 2007. "I was very hurt that I had let my teammates down, and I was very immature. Last year, I played to prove people wrong instead of just playing my game, instead of just going out and having fun and playing a game that I grew up loving.
"I was very immature last year after Game 6 toward (the media) and toward everyone that was watching. One thing that I learned (is) the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. I've experienced some things in my long but short career, and I'm able to make it better of myself throughout these playoffs… I'm just happy (being back in the Finals) where I can do the things that I can to make this team proud… And we'll see what happens."
If James is able to win his first championship, he can turn his phone back on. He might not mind spending two weeks holed up in his house after these Finals if it's to read congratulatory texts.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Twitter @christomasson