As they do every year on the day before the All-Star Game, the LeBron James Family Foundation, Sprite and the Boys & Girls Club unveiled a rejuvenated gymnasium on Saturday. As usual, it was a huge success.
James doesn’t compete in Sprite’s slam-dunk contest, but the shiny new hardwood floors, fresh paint and padding and new basketball goals at that Gretna, La., youth center will spark the imagination of children in a way the NBA’s All-Star extravaganza never could.
Of course, that’s not to say James’ charity event wasn’t a spectacle. It was, but in a good way.
For James, Dwyane Wade and even Chris Bosh, anywhere they go these days — even Boys & Girls clubs — is an ordeal that requires a professionally trained security detail, public relations handlers, in-house videographers and a full-time employee whose only job is sending out messages on the Heat’s Twitter account.
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Even rock stars would be envious of that entourage.
“My life is now a fishbowl,” Bosh said.
James and Wade have started referring to their defending back-to-back championship basketball team as The Heatles more and more — and for good reason. This moment in time — at the All-Star break and with 30 games left in the regular season — might be the height of their national and international popularity.
On Sunday, Feb.16, 1964 — 50 years ago to the day — the Beatles laid down a recording for The Ed Sullivan Show at Miami’s Deauville Hotel, and America has been in love with the Fab Four ever since. In the basketball world, it took a few years for fans outside South Florida to fall for The Heatles, but, somewhere in between those two titles, Miami’s basketball team went from being hated by most to being adored by many.
“We’ve got more fans now,” James said. “A lot of the pressure is off of us. A lot of the hatred is off of us. We just feel, as a group, we’re just more comfortable being around each other; 2010 seems so far away.”
On Sunday, there probably will be only cheers for the Heat’s Big 3 in the 2014 NBA All-Star Game at New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center. James, Wade and Bosh will suit up in Eastern Conference All-Star gear for the fourth time together as members of the Heat and their stars have never been brighter.
Wade even made “The Heatles” T-shirts for his teammates to remember this time in their lives.
“The whole Heatles thing is when you go into every arena and you’re selling out everywhere you go,” Wade said. “Whenever you step off the bus, whenever you go to dinner, it’s a show. And that’s where it came from, The Heatles, because we just took it from The Beatles because they’re the hugest group.
“You understand that this type of status doesn’t come often to teams. Not even just in basketball, but all around. You could say the Yankees have had it, you could say the Cowboys have had it the Fab Five, the Bulls, you can name them off the top of your head. There are not many teams that have that, so it’s different.”
This season, in places such as Portland, Ore., and Salt Lake City — basketball towns with strong traditions — fans of the Heat loiter outside team hotels at odd hours just to catch a glimpse of the basketball players with boy-band popularity.
“It’s crazy,” Battier said. “I’ve never seen anything like the crowds that the Big 3 generate in hotels now, and no matter what time we get in.”
In mega cities such as New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles, it has been a normal practice for years now for venues and nightclubs to pay James and Wade for the right to publicize parties claiming the players will attend. But now those promotional events are happening in sleepy cities such as Phoenix.
In the Heat’s division, the arenas in Washington, Atlanta and Charlotte often feel like satellites of 601 Biscayne Boulevard. Heat fans are often louder than the home team’s supporters. Even in Philadelphia, where the Heat was booed mercilessly for three consecutive years, fans have started to cheer for Miami.
In arenas around the league, the production arms of opposing teams have started putting together satirical videos ostracizing bandwagon Heat fans. When the Heat’s Big 3 first came together, some of those same arenas had to beef up security because the hate for the Heat was so raw. Some players, such as Battier, experienced both sides of the transformation by joining the team during the middle of its run.
“When I first got here, there was still some tension from the first year this team was together, but we still sold out everywhere we’ve went, and wherever we went we aroused emotion, whether it was good or bad, positive or negative,” Battier said. “After we won the championship, there were much more positive vibes generated whenever we were on the road together. Now it’s pretty amazing to go on the road and hear ‘let’s go Heat’ in a lot of arenas we’re playing.”
Battier has made good use of The Heatles phenomenon. His charity karaoke event, Battioke, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars this year and, once again, featured the Heat’s stars singing in front of a packed room.
But here’s how you really know The Heatles are, in some ways, bigger than the game of basketball at the moment. Wade and James are so popular right now that they’re developing television shows based on their lives.
No, seriously. James’ show, Survivor’s Remorse, is a project with Starz that will, according to the cable network, “explore the complexity, comedy and drama of an experience that everyone reads about, but few understand — what truly happens when you make it out.” Wade sold his story-turned-television sitcom, Three The Hard Way, to Fox.
How did this happen? How did James and Wade go from loathed to public figures so admired that TV shows could be made about their lives? It can’t just be about the wins.
“You got to understand that [people] didn’t hate us individually because they didn’t know us,” Wade said. “Most of the people who had negative things to say about the Heat never really sat down and had a conversation with us individually. So, we know it was just the way that they felt things came together.
“People don’t like change that much and we did something that’s never been done and it just took a while to grow on people, but I think once they saw us play the game, and once they saw us together, they realized it was something we wanted to do and we were happy with it.
“We play the game the right way and it’s exciting, so at the end of the day, if you’re a fan of basketball, you became a fan of the style of play that we play whether you like us or not. And I think that was the biggest change. No matter what you want to call us — Hollywood as hell — no matter what you want to say about the Heat, we work.”