BOSTON – When LeBron James(notes) was running roughshod over the Cleveland Cavaliers, it became common for him to respond to tough coaching and differing degrees of conflict with the sheer shutdown mode. There goes LeBron, stomping off to the locker room with a staff member in hot pursuit to talk him back into practice. Come on back, King. We need you.
James would mope back onto the floor, reluctant to be told that someone disagreed with his belief on a matter. The Cavaliers' culture of enabling, letting things go and go, exacerbated these issues. James stayed in a cocoon of perpetual adolescence.
"His coping skills," one perceptive ex-teammate said, "had been largely underdeveloped."
The world is watching James in a different way now, with a far more critical eye. Everything changed in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last May, when the private acting out spilled into the public for the first time. Without leaving the floor, LeBron walked out on the Cavaliers and so started a spiral that eventually led him on that private jet to Miami International and into the waiting arms of old man Riles and his boy wonder, Erik Spoelstra.
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James had come to Miami to escape the cocoon of Cleveland, the so-so talent surrounding him, a management and ownership who never commanded his respect. He had come to find a way through the Orlando Magic and the Boston Celtics, yet suddenly it felt like old times on opening night at the Garden. Around LeBron James, Chris Bosh(notes) played the part of J.J. Hickson(notes), and Dwyane Wade(notes) had the playoff touch of Mo Williams(notes).
"Rome wasn't built in a day," James declared.
He had 31 points and eight turnovers, a part-splashy, part-sloppy debut. This was no coronation for the Miami Heat but an affirmation of some hard truths: For the incredible strengths they'll have this season, they'll have severe flaws too: size, shooting and the bench. The Celtics exposed every one of those elements in an 88-80 victory on opening night. Miami will get its 58, 60 regular-season victories, but it won't get through Boston or Orlando unless James understands that this Miami franchise under Pat Riley can have transformative powers.
There was a Finals-esque media crush at the Garden, a night that Celtics general manager Danny Ainge brought him "more ticket requests for any game ever." This wasn't because of the deepest Celtics roster since the 1980s, nor Wade and Bosh. Everyone comes for the Drama King, LeBron James.
"We know what's going on," Bosh said. "You turn on TV [and] you see what's going on. We knew it was going to be like that. Dealing with it is another thing."
Coping with it, he means. That's James' burden. He didn't take well to the pressure a season ago and cracked before everyone's eyes in that exit series to the Celtics. The Heat are James' team, and that has nothing to do with who'll score the most points or who'll take the most shots, or even the big ones. For better and worse, James fills up the locker room, the team plane, the floor – fills up space – in a way that demands most of the room's air. He stepped out of LRMR's kiddy marketing pool this week into the big leagues with a Nike campaign that asks: What should I do?
The Heat are telling him simply: Stay in line. After a preseason game in New Orleans, a league source said, James was chatting with Chris Paul(notes) outside the locker room and decided that he wanted to hit the town with the Hornets star. The Heat's charter planned to fly home that night, but James suggested to Wade that perhaps they ought to ask Spoelstra about leaving in the morning to return home.
James could always do this in Cleveland, but Wade wanted no part of seeking permission. James did, and the message the coach delivered was unmistakable: Get on the plane; we're going home.
[Photos: See hoops star LeBron James in action]
This is how the Riley regime will make James accountable in ways the Cavaliers never did. James isn't holding them hostage the way he did in Cleveland. No more separate sections of the team plane that belong just to James and his guys. He signed his free-agent deal and shouldered a burden to win – and win now – unmatched in the history of American sport.
There's never been such a target in the NBA, and that includes the Jordan Bulls, the Showtime Lakers, no one. These Heat are the creation of the digital media age, the time of 24-7 viral assault on your senses. Bosh is right: It isn't going away. So how do you deal with it all? Eventually, he isn't going to like something Spoelstra tells him. Or one of Spoelstra's assistants tells him. He won't like the way he's getting blame when the team's struggling and Wade, the Miami icon, gets a pass.
Something will spur him because it always does, and then everyone will find out again about LeBron James' coping mechanisms.
James never has been able to make fun of himself, and he needed a Nike campaign to do it for him. He'd better find a way to take a sobering look at his flaws, his failures and scrub away old stains with a new start on South Beach.
What should he do?
Take a look around, embrace Riley's culture and understand that he needs the Heat as much as they need him.
What should he do?
No more running, LeBron. No more hiding. Finally, there's someone to confront James. There's someone who isn't held hostage, who isn't terrified of telling him, "No." Opening night, a sluggish loss to the Celtics, and none of it mattered so much in late October. Cleveland is long gone, and so needs to be the perpetual adolescence of that cocoon. He's under Old Man Riles' watch now, and that could change everything for LeBron James. That could complete him.