SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
There has been uninterrupted excellence from LeBron James all season, which is why his third MVP award was hardly a surprise.
But do you know what else there has been inside the privacy of the Heat locker-room?
A new level of admiration from teammates, for how he has sharpened his game, matured as a person, and become more enjoyable to be around because of his mental resolve to become a happier, less distracted superstar since his Finals failure last June.
“The guy,” Juwan Howard said, “is just so warm and pleasant to be around. “He’s so misunderstood. He doesn’t get enough credit for how unselfish he is, on and off the court. I believe he would give you his last dollar or last meal.” Said Heat president Pat Riley: "He's grown as a man" this year.
For years, James has been considered a good teammate, one who bought fancy headphones for Heat players last year and takes rookie Terrel Harris and others out for meals at Soho Beach House and other pricey places. But he’s looser now – “That’s the way he needs to be; that’s his personality,” Mike Miller said. And that makes the team looser.
One example: A few weeks ago, James received permission, for the first time, to play blaring rap music when the media is in the locker-room before games; he was shaking his body to the rhythm before Game 2 of the Knicks series. “He’s happy every day now,” Udonis Haslem said. “I haven’t seen him down at all this season.”
Dwyane Wade calls it “being more at peace, more himself, more relaxed.”
Fact is, “there were days last year he let everything outside the game dictate his moods,” James Jones said. “Now, the only thing that sways his mood is the team’s performance. Everything else is irrelevant.”
As James put in at his MVP presentation Saturday: "I was playing with hate last year instead of love and passion and fun."
The new mindset was a conscious decision by James, made easier by his fiancée (who accepted his proposal last New Year’s Eve) and two children living with him in Miami; the three of them were in Ohio last season so his kids could finish their school year.
“To have my kids and fiancée around this year, and a lot of my family and friends, has done some amazing things mentally and allowed me to go out and play the game I love,” James said during a private conversation Friday, a point he reiterated during Saturday's MVP news conference. “Definitely given me peace of mind.”
Here’s what else has changed from his first season here: “The maturity level,” Jones said, “to understand peoples’ perception of him can’t define you. He’s more confident,… more efficient on and off the court as far as his time, rest, preparation. He always wanted to prove to himself he’s the world’s best player. Physically, he’s unparalleled. Mentally, he had to be tougher. He’s been that this year.”
Jones said one of James’ “biggest challenges was making the transition from the game’s most dominant athlete to the game’s most dominant, efficient and prepared athlete.” James has achieved that, and the seeds were planted last summer.
Beyond sharpening his post game with Hakeem Olajuwon, meeting with Magic Johnson and others, James worked harder than he ever did. “I stayed in the gym twice a day,” he said Friday. “I was on the court. I was in the weight room. I was on the football field running and conditioning.
"I wanted to prepare my body mentally and physically for a shortened season because I knew the lockout was inevitable but we would figure out a way to come to an agreement. It was mostly what I did before the season that got me here now. I only took a couple weeks off and then was working non-stop from July to December.”
What's more, Erik Spoelstra said Saturday that James "is the first one here," arriving 3 1/2 hours before games to do pilates and other work.
James has said what bothers him most about failure is letting teammates down. Heat players have told him to stop that. “Damn right I have,” Howard said. “I said it last year and I repeated it again this year. He wants to win more than any one of us.”
Harris marvels at how “humble” James is as a global icon. Biggest surprise for Battier? “How generous he is with teammates,” noting he will sign anything for a player’s friend’s relative, or whomever.
The biggest prize James can give them is delivering a winning performance in the Finals. But his teammates -- whom he called to the stage to join him at his MVP presentation Saturday -- will always appreciate everything he has done to this point. "An historic year," Battier said.
### Tidbits from Saturday's presentation: James said, "I haven't been nervous like this in a long time.... I'm a little emotional right now. This is more emotional than the last two... This is overwhelming to me." But... "This is not the award I want. I want that championship. I'd give all three [MVP] trophies back for an NBA championship.''... Spoelstra revealed he calls James "one through five" -- a tribute to his versatility to play any positon on the court.... James said when a fan comes to a Heat game, "I want them leaving saying LeBron is the best basketball player on the court.''... James got 85 first-place votes, 25 second-place votes, nine third-place votes, and (rather absurdly) one fourth-place vote and one fifth- place vote. Kevin Durant (24), Chris Paul (6), Tony Parker (4) and Kobe Bryant (2) got the other first-place votes.
### Riley, speaking to reporters Saturday for the first time in many months, said of his team's championship hopes: "We've got a shot. We'll be in the game for a long time with these players. I'm scared to death of everyone - traps doors, land mines." He joked he has a penchant for worrying and tries to stay away from Spoelstra because he doesn't want to worry him.... He predicted James "will get his championship and there might be a lot more there, too." (Riley didn't offer a timetable.)
### Riley commended Wade for welcoming James here and making it all work. "It would be equivalent,'' Riley said, "to have somebody ask me, 'Do you want to go on the same bench with Phil Jackson and the two of you could be co-coaches?' How would that work? It says a lot about Dwyane. Not many guys in this league would give up that platform. Dwyane is LeBron's biggest supporter."
### What Riley especially liked about James' season was his field goal percentage rising to a career-high 53.1, above his 48.3 career average. "He's in the post a lot more and taking less threes and being more efficient in his medium range game."
### With Indiana considering using some zone defense against Miami, keep this in mind: Last year, the Heat shot 38.8 percent against the zone – sixth-worst in the league. This year, it shot 48.3 - fourth-best.
### A Heat official said it would be sensible to involve James in more game-on-the-line, late-possession plays so he can get used to it again (he was more involved last year). But Amare Stoudemire said for all the endless debate, it really makes no difference whether James or Wade gets the last-second shot, admitting that Erik Spoelstra opting for Wade late in Game 3 was smart “because of the mismatch against myself.”... James, incidentally, has led his teams in points, rebounds and assists 20 times in playoff games – by far the most in NBA history. Only Larry Bird (13) and Tim Duncan (11) have more than 10.
### TNT's Kenny Smith said Heat-Pacers "is much much evenly matched than I would have thought before the playoffs started. I could see six or seven games easily.".. Shaq picks the Heat in six. "Too much firepower."
FINS, UM, MARLINS CHATTER
### Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said “we feel pretty good about the [receiver] position as it stands.” But ESPN Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson, the former Browns scout, contends Miami is “worst in the league in terms of weaponry and wideouts. They’re too easy to play against. Mario Manningham [who got two years, $7.7 million from the 49ers] would have been their best receiver” if Miami had signed him…. Two Dolphins veterans say Julius Pruitt has stood out the most this offseason among the team’s young, largely unproved receivers.... Plaxico Burress said Reggie Bush told him he would love to have Burress in Miami. But that's the type of veteran receiver the Dolphins have stayed away from this offseason.
### Players are raving about how Ryan Tannehill looked at rookie minicamp. “He has both zip and accuracy,” receiver B.J. Cunningham said. “Really good touch on his deep balls,” cornerback Vince Agnew said. Troy Aikman, who dined with Tannehill twice recently, told WQAM’s Michael Irvin that he’s a “great pick” for Miami and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t start as a rookie if he wins the job. He is “no-nonsense, a leader, a guy who will put in the time.Very athletic guy. The familiarity with Mike Sherman's [offense] is going to help him a lot.”
### We’re told Randy Shannon is seeking close to $250,000 in his lawsuit against UM. A UM official called it a ridiculous suit but said UM nevertheless wants to settle to make it go away quietly.... The NCAA’s top investigator on the UM case has retired in the middle of his investigation, but the NCAA said that won’t delay the process, expected to continue at least a few more months.
### Though Anibal Sanchez allowed two earned runs or fewer in all six starts and ranks among the league leaders in strikeouts, the Marlins haven’t offered a new contract. But they are receptive to doing it eventually, provided he stays healthy and effective. He could make $12 million or more a year in free agency this winter… The mystifying decline continues for 2009 Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, who’s hitting .200 at Triple A New Orleans.