LeBron James hasn't shied away from the New York stage at the Garden; it's quite the opposite.
NEW YORK – Wednesday evening, Chris Bosh was trying to arrange for a private jet to Miami for the birth of his son. Most of the Heat players were settling into their Manhattan hotel and thinking about dinner plans. Pat Riley and few other team staff were headed to Newark for a Bruce Springsteen concert.
LeBron James and Udonis Haslem, meanwhile, were on the street hailing a taxi. The directions to the driver were simple: “The Garden.”
Every player has routines and personal ways to prepare for big games. James’ has gotten more attention over the years. It’s because of who he is and they often seem to be grand in nature, even if he’s not looking for attention. Last year, his first in Miami, James kept wanting to spend extra time in AmericanAirlines Arena before playoff games.
During the series with the Celtics he called friends and went to the gym in the middle of the night to take some shots. On the eve of the Finals, he joined Dwyane Wade and Bosh in the middle of the empty arena just to take in the scene and share some bonding.
James had these thoughts again Wednesday following the flight in from Florida. After he came with teammates across the river from the airport, he re-boarded the team bus headed for Madison Square Garden. He’d never played a playoff game in the arena and he wanted to get the feel of the place. His people had made the calls and the lights were on and it waiting for him and Haslem, one of the Heat's team captains.
“You always get excited playing at the Mecca,” James had said. “I knew it was going to be emotional.”
Only the team bus broke down shortly after it left hotel, sending James and Haslem to the street in their workout clothes looking for another mode of transport. By the time they got over to Four Pennsylvania Plaza it was 9 p.m.
For an hour or so James, Haslem and a couple Heat staffers were on the floor. The players put shots up, broke a sweat and tried to find a comfort level. It was quiet, people working in the building huddled around televisions keeping an eye on the Rangers-Capitals playoff game down in Washington.
About 24 hours later, there were more than 19,700 fans all calling James a curse word.
“It’s not the first time but it’s the first time it was in unison like that,” James said. “Fans are going to be fans, I understand. I didn’t have much of a reaction to it.”
James reaction to the taunts was to shrug off turnovers and foul trouble to put together a brilliant fourth quarter that buried the Knicks and put the Heat up 3-0 in the series. Could any of that calm be attributed to his private commune with the Garden the night before?
“I was just happy we won the game,” James said.
James isn’t into talking much about his emotions these days. Other than a few outbursts at officials or Mario Chalmers, the teammate James calls his “little brother” that he seems to take out all his frustration on, James has been even-keeled so far during this first-round series. One of his friends described him as being Zen-like over the last two weeks.
Using his influence to get access to opposing arenas on off nights for extra work isn’t going to make James a champion this year. He’s got to do it when the place is packed and the pressure is on. But there’s little doubt about James’ focus at the start of this playoff run, perhaps his best chance yet to shed the burden he’s been playing under for as long as he can remember of getting that first title.
A few nights at the Garden, with the crowds and without, are the first steps.