LeBron James’ Cramps Reveal Polarizing Star’s Critics, Defenders

2014 NBA Finals - Game OneABC, which has done a great job of resurrecting the old “NBA on NBC” feel to its broadcasts, right down to Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson snapping at each other like Steve Jones and Bill Walton, captured the moment perfectly.

After Tony Parker hit a corner 3-pointer with 1:14 left, essentially sealing the San Antonio Spurs’ 110-95 win over the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, the broadcast cut to a shot from a camera in that corner of the court. As Parker stroked the three, LeBron James watched helplessly from the corner of the frame.

It was the perfect snapshot of the final four minutes of the game, when James was forced out with severe leg cramps and the Spurs capitalized by ending the game on a 16-3 run. Broken air conditioning in the AT&T Center robbed the Spurs of their usual offensive precision for most of the game, while it robbed the Heat of their best player in the clutch. In an ironic twist that made tabloid headline writers squeal, the heat got the best of the Heat.

Naturally, when the world’s best player is hampered by being human, it’s a big deal. That goes for overcoming one’s bodily limitations or succumbing to them. James, the NBA’s most popular public piñata, sparked the usual outsize amount of reaction.

Essentially, James is either (a) a softee who would never last in the NBA’s rough old days of the 1960s, ’80s, ’90s or whatever, or (b) a superman completely above reproach because, hey guys, his legs didn’t work. The lightest sort of criticism leveled at James since last night has been met with the response, “LET’S SEE YOU PLAY THROUGH CRAMPS, BUDDY,” while any defense is scoffed at with some remark about Midol or hockey players.

Here’s the thing: Cramps suck. There is no “playing through” cramps. If the muscles in your legs aren’t cooperating, playing basketball is out of the question. Sure, the Spurs managed the heat, keeping all their key players upright and hydrated for 48 minutes, and the Boston Garden was insufferable in the days before A/C, but different bodies react differently to different conditions. Anybody demanding James gut it out probably has some story about themselves once playing a high school game with a bruised knee they’d loved to share with you, between handfuls of Fritos.

The Spurs were not immune to the heat, either. No one had to be carried to the bench, but they committed 22 turnovers (Their regular-season average: 14). Again, conditions affect everyone differently. Some people cramp. Some people start throwing the basketball around like a hot potato.

But this doesn’t mean we just wipe our hands of Game 1 and shrug, “It is what it is.” Cramps or not, the game counts. The Spurs have a 1-0 lead. James has dealt with cramping issues throughout his career. What if the A/C isn’t fixed by Sunday? James will need to make some sort of adjustment, whether the game is back in the sweltering Spurs arena or in some nearby college venue that lacks the normal NBA creature comforts.

It is fair to ask, with an uncertain Game 2 looming, what James and the Heat presume to do about the situation. If they are only going to throw up their hands in surrender, then what’s the use of even playing the series? If we can’t analyze the circumstances that just gave the Spurs a leg up in their quest for a championship, what are we even doing here?

Like Tim Duncan’s 21 points and 10 rebounds or Ray Allen’s fastbreak dunk, James’ cramps were part of the story of Game 1. They are different from the headband controversy — which I’m pretty sure was a thing once that I blocked from my memory — because unlike a headband, the cramps actually had a tangible impact on the game’s result. Still, it’s sports. It’s supposed to be emotional and enraging and even unreasonable at times. James’ cramps, like Parker’s balky ankle, is now something to watch in what is already shaping up to be a fascinating series filled with big plays, tight contests and, hopefully for the Heat, science fiction-worthy hydration methods.