The summer months offered the chance of a only short vacation for LeBron James, but he strode beach-tanned and full of face into the interview room at AmericanAirlines Arena appearing as fresh and as alive as a man returning to work from a year-long sabbatical.
His booming voice announced his presence before entering the room. He joked with teammate Dwyane Wade, and Wade joked about James’ healthy complexion.
“I hope everyone had a good summer,” said James, sitting down in a chair before an eager throng of reporters on Friday, the Heat’s official media day and the eve of preseason training camp.
For James, it was a summer he will cherish for the rest of his life. For three months, he has basked in the glow of his first NBA championship and in between that indescribable joy he celebrated when the United States won an Olympic gold medal in London.
Now, it’s back to work, but the business of being LeBron James has never felt more like a child’s game — enjoyable, carefree, easy as ice cream.
For a moment, consider the past 24 months of James’ life. In September 2010, he was glowering through a sullen existence that drew out like a rusty blade. Every cut of the jagged edge was more painful than the last until the Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki sliced James’ entire world into agony.
The NBA’s prolonged lockout was a lingering wound, but when the 2011 season finally began, James healed quickly. His MVP season was a tour de force of artistry and absolution. Then the playoffs. One series after another, the Heat fell behind its opponents and one series after another James clawed and fought like a champion.
And now, with the long days of 2012 sliding to autumn, James is something new: the skeleton key. It opens all doors and unlocks all possibilities. That is James now, the Heat’s master solution standing at the threshold of basketball eternity.
Already, the questions of legacy and history have begun. Fast and heavy they came:
• Do you think about your legacy?
• Where do you stack up against the greats?
• What is your lasting mark on the game?
• Have you created a blueprint for an unusual position, point-forward?
“I don’t think about what the other greats have done,” James said. “I know the history of this league. ... I’m my own man, and I have to make my own mark.”
And that mark is plain to see. James’ unequaled versatility on the court is etched into the roster the Heat has assembled around him for the team’s repeat bid at the NBA championship. The team has no traditional center — a prospect so unfathomable for this franchise only a few years ago — nor will the Heat start a traditional point guard.
Instead, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will mold a new vision around James beginning with Saturday’s first official practice. He calls it “position-less basketball.”
He said he came to his players with the concept to “free their minds.”
“We don’t want to be constricted by conventional wisdom,” Spoelstra said. “They don’t need to think about conventional boxes.”
In 2011, the Heat added Shane Battier to the roster to broaden the team’s options on the wing. This season, two more shooters of varying size and utility — Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis — have been added to the fold. Power forward Chris Bosh can play multiple roles and so, too, can Wade, who will begin training camp gingerly on a surgically repaired left knee.
“After all the lineups we had last year, who knows what is going on,” Battier joked. “The early rumor is Joel [Anthony] is going to be our new point guard in the new position-less era of Miami Heat basketball.
“I think you’re going to see some funky lineups out there, and you’re going to think what the heck is [Spoelstra] doing, but it’s all part of the process. It took us 90 games to get to that point last year. It will be the grand experiment, 2012.”
Unlike last year, Spoelstra has a monthlong training camp and a full season to craft his amorphous concept into a solid title contender. Misty of shadow it may seem to be now, but there are hard-and-fast tenets. Amid so many shooters, Spoelstra has challenged the team to view itself with an inside-out mentality. Attack the paint first; shoot second; run always.
“We’re just putting players out there,” Spoelstra said. “We’re playing to what we think our strengths are.”
And at the center of the strength is James, the player of no position but the lord of every.
“Talk about a skeleton key if there ever was one, it’s LeBron,” Battier said. “You can throw any lineup out there with him in it, and it will work.”