It wasn’t a restful night of recovery for LeBron James following his body’s betrayal on his sport’s biggest stage.
James had over two bags of fluids pumped into his body after Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and that doesn’t count all the salt tablets and potassium pills and sports drinks and recovery concoctions that he consumed following the 110-95 loss. All that stuff had to go somewhere, so James was up all night walking back and forth from his hotel room’s bed to his hotel room’s bathroom.
“Obviously, I got no sleep,” James said.
All the more time to beat himself up over something he simply couldn’t control.
James couldn’t move his legs in the final minutes of the fourth quarter on Thursday at AT&T Center. Severe cramping, caused by dehydration and the sauna-like conditions on the court, robbed James of a chance to finish the game and reduced him to a spectator.
He played just five minutes in the fourth quarter and watched from the bench after being helped and then carried off with 3:59 to play.
“For obvious reasons, I was angry,” James said. “I was disappointed in myself. I mean, I did everything that I needed to do to prepare for this game, prepare for this moment and, you know, to feel like my body failed me I was angry in the fact that I couldn't help my team get over the hump in a huge Game 1, wanting to make a statement.
James first showed signs of distress in the third quarter and he had already started cramping when he reentered the game with 4:33 to play. By that time, the temperature on the court was flirting with 90 degrees. Everything was sweating, including computer screens and smartphones.
“They were some extreme conditions,” James said. “I've never played an NBA game like it was last night as far as the heat. Not an excuse but it was an extreme condition.
“I looked at the stands at one point and I saw every last fan having fans, double entendre, waving fans and I knew at that point, this is something different.”
James scored a driving layup on his first and only play after subbing in for crunch time. It cut the Spurs’ lead to 94-92 and momentarily seemed to set the stage for a dramatic ending and a perfect start to this rematch of last year’s memorable Finals series. But James’ legs locked up after his field goal. The spasms he experienced essentially paralyzed him.
“My body just shut down,” James said. “Basically my body said, ‘OK, enough jumping for you for tonight. You’ve had enough.’ Nothing I could do about it.”
Said Spurs center Tim Duncan, who also has dealt with cramping during his career: “There is no shaking it off. Your body is shutting down and you're unable to move. Whatever is cramping, you're unable to get away from that. It's easy to say to shake it off but once it's gotten to that point it's hard to reverse in a short period of time.”
The Heat’s team doctor, Harlan Selesnick, wasn’t allowed to speak with reporters on Friday about James’ cramps, but one orthopedist described James’ condition as debilitating and said once James’ legs locked up it was “completely impossible” for him to return to action.
“The pain is intense and whatever joints that those muscles help serve can’t move,” said Dr. James Gladstone, an orthopedic surgeon and co-chief of sports medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. “The muscle turns to a block of ice and your muscle can’t move.”
Only ice is freezing cold. James was overheating and his leg spasms burned with uncontrollable pain.
“And once it starts cramping, you can’t just stretch it out and it goes away,” Gladstone said. “It triggers this response where as soon as you fire that muscle it seizes up again.”
The “cramping gate,” which is what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called it, set off a torrent of criticism for James on the Internet. Twitter gravitated towards the lowest common denominator — that James somehow wasn’t tough enough. Of course, physiology cares nothing of toughness. The oppressive heat inside AT&T Center was simply sucking fluids and calories out of James faster than he could replace them.
“Playing at the intensity level that they’re playing at, compounded with the conditions — no matter how much they’re putting in their bodies during breaks they can’t keep up with how much they’re losing,” said Gladstone, the orthopedist. “He’s giving his all from the get go and in many ways you can sort of take it as something commendable that it happened. It’s only through pure 150 percent effort that this is happening.”
Spoelstra, who described Thursday night’s sweatbox as a “hot-yoga environment,” echoed that opinion while also taking a shot at James’ detractors.
“Look, 99.9 percentile of people have never pushed their body to that level — at that level where you’re past the point where your tank is empty and your body shuts down,” Spoelstra said. “And, again, for a competitor and for the best player in the game at this level to constantly push his body past that point, I think, is incredibly admirable.”
The Spurs announced on Friday afternoon that the air conditioning had been repaired and also apologized “for the conditions.” Of course, no matter how this series ends, the lack of air conditioning in the arena for Game 1 — personnel blamed an electrical outage — will be viewed suspiciously by fans in Miami and basketball fans in general who are familiar with the rich history of NBA conspiracy theories. James said he would be ready to play on Sunday for Game 2 and Spoelstra suggested the Spurs should be fined if any more funny business arises.
“It was an extreme unfortunate situation for both teams,” Spoelstra said. “It probably won't happen again, ever. Now, we might have to deal with the absolute opposite in Game 7, who knows. It will be 55 degrees in the arena, unless they don't get it fixed, which if they don't there should be a fine.”