Friday December 3rd, 2010

The worst is over. LeBron James was supposed to be in fear for his safety when he led his new team into his old, angry city Thursday night. Now that he has gone back to Cleveland again and responded with his best game of this notorious season, he can say with confidence that the role of villain isn't so bad. He has nothing left to fear. What could be worse than subjecting oneself to tens of thousands of newly sworn enemies?

Whenever times are hard, James can look back on this night and remember the 38 points he scored in three quarters, and how he turned the owner, team and all its fans into his victims.

Ever since last summer, when he instantly transformed himself from Michael Jordan's heir into a far more divisive and controversial star than Jordan ever has been, James has appeared to be coming to grips with his new public character. He has appeared uncertain of how to play alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and of how to joust constructively with coach Erik Spoelstra.

One night doesn't fix everything, but it has to reduce anxiety. He looks more and more like someone who cares less and less about what people might think of him. No doubt he was caught off guard by the response to his televised announcement last July; but ever since then he has appeared to be encouraging his critics. When TNT's Craig Sager asked James after Thursday's game if he would like to apologize to the fans of Cleveland, he said no, he would not, and then he went onto flaunt his own "greatness," as he chose to put it.

He doesn't rule out racism as a reason for the backlash against him. He gripes in small but telling ways about his new coach. He goes to Cleveland and tosses chalk in the faces of lovers-turned-haters and then -- far from looking overwhelmed or victimized by the oppressive climate -- he destroys his former team while confronting the fans who sought to intimidate him and making them feel less influential than ever.

Is he purposely inciting opinion? Is his marketing goal to remain viral by encouraging critics to keep criticizing?

I don't know what to make of this next part, but I find it interesting: James (and the same goes for Wade and Bosh) has yet to snap or snarl publicly at reporters who scrutinize his every move. This is something I don't remember seeing in pro sports. I'm used to players barking back at intrusive questioning or critical speculation. That James, Wade and Bosh have refused to engage themselves emotionally in the public debate over their failures is another sign that these AAU-bred stars have a different set of values and goals than the generations who came before them. Magic, Bird, Isiah, Michael, Shaq and especially Kobe -- each would have derided reporters for making too much of his shoulder bump with a coach, as was made of James' brief collision with Spoelstra recently.

As a member of a coaching staff that recently beat Miami pointed out to me, the Heat's problems have little to do with the coaching and much to do with the fact that James was shooting 31 percent outside 10 feet through his first 18 games, and Wade was 26.6 percent from the same distances through his opening 17 appearances.

"Why haven't they been running more?" I asked the coach.

"Because they don't have a shot-blocker," he answered. "All teams are going to do against them is zone up and force them to shoot from the outside. They'll be a championship team in two years when James and Wade have improved their shooting and they've added some size."

In the meantime, James has less to worry about now that the bad names can no longer hurt him. He walked into the arena that he made toxic, and he walked out smiling and celebrating.

Winning a championship, though, won't come nearly as easily.

The questions are fabricated, my answers are for real.

In the last year, I went through a horrible breakup. I said some things I shouldn't have said, but I don't regret them either. I couldn't help myself. The relationship was a lie. Don't I have a responsibility to my extended family to not let the traitor get away with it? -- D.G., Cleveland

Dan Gilbert, as Cavaliers owner you need to understand that you probably aren't going to receive justice -- as you see it -- from the NBA. Your ongoing plan, as laid out this week by Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, has been to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a private investigation to prove that Miami tampered illegally with James before he became a free agent last July.

The truth is you're going to need a number of owners to join with you in demanding that the league take these charges seriously. But are you likely to inspire widespread support? At the moment, commissioner David Stern is much more concerned with developing a structure to share revenues among owners while negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the players. Somehow you're going to have to show that the alleged tampering was a crime against the entire league -- and good luck getting your fellow owners to pay attention to that argument while there are so many larger issues in play.

My advice is to see your investigation all the way through and let public opinion be your judge. Let everyone know what happened. You may not be able to call it justice, but it will bring you and your fans some small satisfaction.

I know there is a media bias against my small adopted town. Here I am in the middle of a scandalous divorce while I'm playing my best basketball in years and my team is the hottest thing going. But all you ever hear is LeBron this and that, LeBron shouldering his coach, LeBron going home. There are stories outside Miami, you know. -- T.P., San Antonio

Tony Parker, I know you're not interested in being famous at all costs. But you and your teammates have long been victims of your own success. Most people don't see the news in another story about the Spurs being in contention, because you've been in contention for so long. But if you keep this up all year to challenge the Lakers next spring, you're going to find the country showing newfound interest in your team. People love the old guys, and your guys are endearingly old.

I'm what you might call middle-aged: I'm closer to the end of my career than to the beginning. I'm in a turbulent business, and after my contract runs out this year I have no idea where or when I'll be working next. The uncertainty is new to me. How should I handle it? -- J.C., Atlanta

Jamal Crawford, you have been provided your opportunity by Joe Johnson, who is out 4-6 weeks after undergoing elbow surgery. The Hawks need you to score in Johnson's absence. Most of all, they need your leadership. This is the chance to make yourself indispensable to a franchise in need.

On dealing with infection. This comes from former player and current Utah Jazz broadcaster Matt Harpring, who was forced to retire at age 32 after suffering a strep infection in his right ankle following bone-spur surgery in the summer of 2008:

"I had a bone spur on my ankle that was impinging on the front. I've had that numerous times, and I had the spur taken off, and a week after surgery I got tremendous pain. I went from walking that morning to where, you know, my Achilles hurts. And then I'm in the car and it's 'Oh my God' and it's starting to hurt, and then 20 minutes later it's to where I couldn't move a toe on my foot.

"I've had a lot of injuries and this pain was on a different scale. If I had closed my eyes, I was telling my wife, I felt like my ankle was broken and turned facing into me. It just felt like the infection was taking it and twisting it to me, and it felt like I was looking at the bottom of my foot -- and then I'd look at my ankle and everything would look fine, everything would look normal.

"Unfortunately I was in Savannah, Ga., so I had a three-hour car ride to get to the ER. So I was in the back seat of my car for three hours absolutely in tears with two kids -- they were 3 and 1 -- on the side of me just crying, and my wife, who is a doctor, is flying down the highway hoping that a cop picks us up because we need an escort to get through to the emergency room. I'm in the back and my wife looks at me and she sees tears, and I'm praying in the back, and she knows there's something up because she's never seen me that way.

"People don't know about them until you actually get one, but these infections are probably the scariest thing anyone can face because there's only so much you can do as far as medicine. The doctors didn't know what kind of infection I had. It takes three days to grow a culture and they started zapping me with all kinds of antibiotics -- the heaviest antibiotics they've got just in case it was MRSA or one of the worse ones. Three or four doctors came in and told me, 'Forget basketball. This is a life thing now.' Because people have lost limbs, they've died.

"They thought it was MRSA at first. Then the culture came back and I got lucky, because they knew what antibiotic killed strep. I was on the antibiotics for six straight weeks. They put a PICC line in my [left bicep], which goes right to your heart -- you go in this room, it's entirely plastic walls, germ-free, and they carefully put it into your arm so [the antibiotic] goes right to your heart. And you've got these two little things that stick out of your arm and they flap around, so I wore a wristband for six weeks around my biceps because otherwise they'd just dangle all the time. I'd sit there for half an hour every day and just drain the IVs in and that was for six weeks.

"I couldn't move my foot for three weeks, not even a toe. The infection got so bad in there that I even when I started finally rehabbing, I just lost all of my motion in the ankle. It doesn't bend down or up or to the side -- it's a lot tighter than my other ankle is still. I would work on stretching that thing for weeks and months and it never came. I came back to the Jazz. I kept rehabbing. I played. And I could tell on the court that I couldn't do things anymore because I couldn't get deep in a defensive stance where your ankle is supposed to bend a certain way. Mine still wouldn't go, and at the end of the year, I told them I'm going to do my best to rehab this ankle back. I already had a bad knee, but that summer it was rehab, rehab, rehab. And I still couldn't get the motion back.

"They think it was post-surgery for me, that somehow it got into the stitches. I noticed about five days after my surgery I started oozing a little bit of blood, and I remember calling the doctor and he was like, 'Put a Band-Aid over it and make sure every day you clean it and don't worry about it.' And I remember thinking that if things are being able to come out, then things are able to go in. And sure enough the infection came.

"This was my 11th or 12th bone-spur surgery, so I've been through the drill. My biggest fear if I ever have to have a surgery again is infection. It's not, 'Are they going to fix my ACL?' It's infection.

"I heard about David Lee and I was like, 'Oh my gosh.' When we play them again, I'd like to make sure what kind of infection he had.''

[The Warriors' Lee suffered a staph infection in his left elbow after Knicks forward Wilson Chandler's teeth punctured the joint when the two collided in a game on Nov. 10. "I was in the worst pain of my life," said Lee, who has returned to play after missing eight games.]

With Celtics coach Doc Rivers. On his success with after-timeout plays: "I really think being young helps me sometimes. I came in the league with not a lot of experience, so I wasn't scared to take a chance, and that probably has helped me. Most of the time, all of us coaches, we all have plays in our pocket. But sometimes the game will tell you what to run, and I have no problem doing it or trying it. Sometimes you'll outsmart yourself: [Early this season], I drew up something I'd never tried. I thought it would work, but it was an awful play. Afterward I said, 'That was me, I put them in an awful position.' And Jermaine [O'Neal] said, 'I haven't heard that [from a coach].' That turnover was completely because of what I drew up, but you don't want to have to say that often."

With Lakers center Pau Gasol. On keeping his emotions in check: "I try not to show too much emotion, even though I have a lot of emotion going through my mind and body. You don't need certain people to see what's going on in your mind or what's going on through your body at that particular time. You don't want to show any kind of weakness either. If it was a rough night for whatever reason, you try to do better the next night. But people don't really need to know. Because what do you want, for people to feel sorry about what's going on?"

With an NBA advance scout. On his prediction of a Finals rematch between the Celtics and Lakers, who lost four in a row this week: "Shaq is going to win. After all of the bull of last year, playing with LeBron James, Shaq is going to see that [Paul] Pierce and [Kevin] Garnett are more serious, and then he's going to prove himself again. He hasn't been with a legitimate championship contender since Miami [in 2005-06]. By the time [Kendrick] Perkins gets back, the Celtics are going to have a formidable front line and I really do think Shaq is going to be a force as a complementary player to rebound and defend. They've got enough depth that he won't be overused, or underused for that matter.

"His defense in the pick-and-roll definitely is a big factor, but they've got veterans who can adjust and they'll cover for him there because they've always been about that. I worry about Garnett being healthy more than anything. But they had a good chance last year and didn't get it done, and this is going to be the year they'll get over the top."

From the view of Jazz backup center Kyrylo Fesenko. The 7-foot-1 Ukrainian is in his fourth NBA season, and the transition hasn't been easy.

"When I was traveling here for the pre-draft workout, I had a one-stop at Cincinnati," he said.

He remembered scanning the flight departures screen at the airport.

"I'm like, 'OK, where is Utah? Utah, Utah, Utah ... I start panicking because I only have one hour left," he said. "I call my agent. I was like, 'Dude, I don't see Utah here!' He was like, 'Are you kidding me? Salt Lake City!' "

Apparently the workout in Salt Lake City went well, because the Jazz traded for his draft rights after the 76ers had taken Fesenko in the second round, as the 38th overall pick. Then came another problem: He didn't know how to drive and he had no interest in learning. This had not been an issue until he arrived in Salt Lake.

"Overseas, the taxi cabs are well developed," he said. "Good service, very cheap, they take you everywhere, you call and in less than five minutes you're there. And I was struggling here [in Salt Lake City] because I wasn't speaking really good English, and normally the drivers also don't know really good English. It was hard to explain where to go."

Is that why he was late so often to practice?

"Only one time I was late because of that," Fesenko said. "My rookie year, I was late like seven or eight times. Most of the time it was just the time change and I had problems going to sleep at a decent time. Now I don't have it because I'm taking sleeping pills so I can get my rest. I get my eight or nine hours sleep. Works fine for me."

Nothing was easy at first.

"I didn't know what to eat, I didn't know where to eat," he said. "I was thinking Denny's is the best food ever. Then I'd eat a lot of donuts, pizza, fast food. Put on a lot of weight. It was terrible."

At last, he reached out to his agent to hire him a driver. At the same time he didn't want to feel like a millionaire being chauffeured around Salt Lake City.

"I was like, 'OK, look, you don't have to open the door for me. I'm not handicapped,' " he said. "I hate when people open the door for me. Then I was like, 'You don't have to wear the shoes and ties because I don't care.' "

Then the relationship developed.

"I started asking him, 'Can you wake me up in the morning?' And then it was like, 'Can you cook me breakfast?' Yeah, that's how our relationship started."

The driver, Russell Ridge, and his wife, Terri, would come into Fesenko's home while he was sleeping to make him breakfast. They would wake him and feed him and then drive him to practice. They would run his errands, pay his bills.

Fesenko, 23, has lost 20 pounds to weigh a healthy 280. His girlfriend is living with him and has taken on most of the cooking and cleaning and bills-paying. Last season, Fesenko played a breakthrough 18.1 minutes per game during the playoffs. The Ridges still do the chauffeuring and errand-running, though Fesenko is promising to learn how to drive next season.

"I think a lot of rookies -- especially overseas rookies -- need their agent to get a system," he said. "Because I know how hard it is. It's almost impossible."

Great trios since the Magic-Bird era. Here I'm looking at teammates who won a championship after all three were named All-Stars. Much has been made of Miami's threesome, but they'll have a hard time ever cracking into the top four of this list.

1. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy With a point guard who was the best playmaker of his era, the highest-scoring center of all time and a sensational wing, the Lakers' trio won two titles after Worthy was named an All-Star in 1985.

2. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish They shared the front line without getting in each other's way, and earned three championships.

3. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman The most dominant player of modern times was complemented by two blue-collar stars -- a group that went on to win three titles together. I'm sure to receive many complaints about ranking them third on this list, but Magic's Lakers and Bird's Celtics played in a much more competitive decade than Jordan's Bulls.

4. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Tony Parker The best power forward of all time, complemented by a multidimensional wing and an up-tempo point guard, brought the Spurs two championships after Ginobili's 2005 All-Star appearance.

5. Magic Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes They were a lesser version of the top-ranked Lakers' trio.

6. Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Mark Aguirre Though they had two feisty guards and a wing scorer, the Pistons were defined by their defense -- a defense that guided them to a title before Dumars was an All-Star and one after.

7. Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks With the same formula as the Lakers, these three went on to win one title.

T-8. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen

T-8. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest Will the tiebreaker between the Celtics and Lakers be decided this spring?

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