How does it feel to play in that heat? I know all too well from Boston in the 1980s.
Correction appended: June 7
If you attended any recent showing of The Fault in Our Stars, you would have heard open sobbing from much of the audience. You could probably have heard the same from Miami Heat fans after Thursday’s opening game of the Finals, which should be called The Fault in Our Air Conditioning.
Some people blame LeBron James, accusing him of wilting like a hothouse orchid. Detractors have pointed out that pro football players battle it out in heat, rain, snow, and sleet. They slosh through sticky mud, slip on icy turf, suffocate in oven-like helmets under a blistering sun. Those same people wonder how lame it is that the $19 Million Dollar Man pulls up, well, lame just because the air-conditioning falters.
Those people don’t know what they’re talking about.
The average pro football game lasts 3 hours and 12 minutes. But, according to a Wall Street Journal study, only 11 of the minutes are actual play. The rest is commercials, huddling, standing around, calling out plays, and jock adjusting. An NBA game is 48 minutes and, while they also spend some time huddling and adjusting, most of those 48 minutes are spent running up and down a 94-foot court. Again and again. Believe me, under those conditions, the heat can be a significant factor.
Why should you believe me? Because I played a Championship Finals game in 100-degree heat against the Celtics on June 8, 1984 (before LeBron was even born). The Boston Garden didn’t have air-conditioning at the time and Boston was in the middle of a hellish heat wave. I was 37 at the time (eight years older than LeBron is now), so the heat might have affected me a little more than the younger players. At one point during the game I was given oxygen as a precaution.
How does it feel to play in that heat? Here’s what I said at the time, with my typical charm: “I suggest that you go to your local steam bath, do 100 pushups with all your clothes on, then try to run back and forth for 48 minutes. The game was in slow motion. It was like we were running in mud.”
The Celtics won that series in the seventh game. We didn’t sit around blaming the heat. (We blamed Larry Bird for playing so phenomenally.) In fact, that loss in the Boston Oven, I mean Garden, only fueled us to come back the next year and beat the Celtics in the Finals, for the first time in Laker history.
Maybe Miami would have won if the air-conditioning hadn’t broken. But why even ask that question? Injuries are part of every sport. LeBron could have twisted his ankle, torn his ACL, or any of a dozen other common injuries. His particular kryptonite was heat.
The real winner here is the NBA. They couldn’t have asked for more—except a guaranteed seventh game—to add drama to the Finals. And, of course, bigger drama usually equals bigger ratings.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time National Basketball Association champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). Mr. Abdul-Jabbar also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated LeBron James’ birthday. He was born Dec. 30, 1984.