LeBron James was still in his warmups and already the arena was rattling like a rickshaw on cobblestone.
The basketball fans inside MasterCard Center were beginning to lose their voices, and the Heat and Clippers hadn’t even advanced past the most basic of pregame customs. This was a preseason game, right? It felt more like a Game 7. Fans were on their feet and screaming during the layup line.
Seriously. That’s not hyperbole. The layup line. Whenever James cycled through the Heat’s conga dance of casual layups and found himself at the basket, the lower bowl of the arena erupted.
Already the sellout crowd of 17,000-plus had crammed itself into the arena like a subway car at rush hour. The temperature was rising. Men in finely tailored suits barked from the high-end seats. Fans dressed proudly in black-market jerseys and knockoff T-shirts beat their hands in approval.
Somehow, taken all together, it was more than basketball. This was something else, something different, larger, something innocent and pure.
James, a showman, took the pulse of the place. The barnstormers were burning down the joint and the propellant was still in five-gallon drums. The best basketball player in the world then doused the place with Tomahawk dunks. Fire.
Take note, oh loyal fans of the Heat. This is how you cheer for a defending NBA champion. And all this without the help of alcohol. Only water and soda pop were sold at the arena.
Yes, the first exhibition of the NBA’s China Games 2012 was a huge success. The Heat defeated the Clippers 94-80, but the score hardly mattered. It was a sellout, the arena’s bandwidth lurched and strained under the constant stream of social media and tickets to get in were selling outside the area for as much as $1,500 apiece.
“This was not a normal preseason atmosphere,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The crowd definitely motivated our guys. They wanted to play well in front of the fans, and that’s why we like this trip. It’s different than a normal preseason.”
Dwyane Wade, still recovering from his offseason knee surgery, could have easily skipped the game and no one would have questioned him. But he wasn’t missing this night for anything — not after he released his Li-Ning shoes Wednesday in Beijing. Wade’s shot was rusty and his legs were weak, but he still played 23 minutes in his first action since Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
At one point in the second quarter, Wade missed a dunk and the ball caromed off the back of the rim. The arena exploded with groans and yodels, and Wade cut an embarrassed smile at his teammates. Afterward, he explained the mistake.
“I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to do, so I kind of got caught in the middle,” said Wade, who finished with only five points. “I tried at the last minute to big-hand the dunk down, but I wasn’t able to make it. But I’ll make up for it.”
James scored 10 points in the first quarter and finished with a game-high 20. His put-back dunk on a missed layup sent the crowd into hysterics. By the third quarter, the arena had lost its collective wits.
Fans were given bags of swag before the game and inside those bags were large foam disks. Those disks became Frisbees and began flying by the thousands around the arena and onto the court. Officials had to briefly pause the game.
“It reminded me of the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park when they had Disco Demolition Night,” Shane Battier said. “Luckily they weren’t serving alcohol because it could have turned ugly.”
You knew the night was going to be different when Battier stepped out on the court about an hour before tipoff and a half-full arena began screaming and yelling. Battier addressed the fans before the game as a representative of the Heat and then thanked them again with his game by going 2 of 2 from three-point range.
“When I was here in 2009, I saw how fired up this country is about basketball, especially with LeBron, Dwyane and Chris [Bosh],” Battier said. “We knew it would be a great crowd and a positive crowd.”
Maybe the Heat knew what to expect: that the Chinese would cheer for it louder than its own hometown fans, that the smog in the rafters and the heat inside the building would foster a playful show of civil disobedience and that every missed free throw would be heckled. Nothing, however, could have prepared it for the best postgame question of the night, one every American journalist has wondered aloud in press rooms from Miami to Minneapolis but never had the guts to ask:
“LeBron, why does the team shower so long together?”
James chuckled with his deep laugh and actually gave a thoughtful answer.
“We just try to take care of our bodies,” James said. “It’s a long season.”