- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- The doors swung open to Aderholt Gym on Hurlburt Field’s military base in the Florida Panhandle four years ago, unveiling a scene that remains as vivid now as it was on the opening day of the LeBron James era during his first training camp with the Miami Heat.
“That’s bulls---, man,” LeBron shouted.
Wearing a netted yellow vest over his black cutoff shooting shirt, LeBron was livid that day in late September 2010. These were the first words heard as nearly 100 reporters filed past the base’s bomb-sniffing dogs, filtered through the security checkpoint and found their way into the facility.
Once inside, the baritone-voiced barking and frustrated banter of the boulder-shouldered man standing near the free throw line was essentially bouncing off the walls.
“That’s bulls---,” LeBron repeated in the heat of battle. “Get it right. Stop cheating.”
The Heat’s first scrimmage with the Big Three had devolved into a verbal scrum.
Standing across from LeBron was new teammate and temporary practice adversary Dwyane Wade, leading an opposing group of players in the split-squad game. Standing between LeBron and Wade was Heat assistant coach, Hall of Famer and resident scrimmage referee-scorekeeper Bob McAdoo.
Somehow, McAdoo screwed up the count.
First, he ruled Wade’s team was ahead. LeBron exploded. McAdoo was reminded of a score he hadn’t accounted for earlier in the game and granted LeBron’s team the lead. Then Wade lost it. Meanwhile, Heat president Pat Riley sat nearby with a smirk as he proudly took it all in.
There was one prevailing thought that day: Buckle up for a wild and crazy ride.
It didn’t take long to comprehend the level of intensity, heavy artillery and fireworks that would be in play covering arguably the most dynamic and polarizing team in NBA history for the Heat Index. It proved to be a thrill ride that never disappointed despite the highs and lows.
After four straight trips to the Finals and consecutive championships in 2012 and 2013, LeBron walked away as a free agent Friday to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite the articulately crafted essay he wrote to explain his decision for Sports Illustrated, LeBron needs to face some real questions about why he left and when he knew he would be leaving to reunite with his home-state team that drafted him No. 1 in 2003.
But there’s one thing that can’t be questioned. It’s his relentless, passionate effort that never ceased.
Before he took off for Cleveland, LeBron hardly took off a day in Miami. From his first training camp practice amid the Heat’s bunker mentality in that sweaty, cramped gym to the final game he played in a desperate yet ultimately failed push against San Antonio in a series-clinching Game 5 of the Finals last month, James gave the Heat everything he had -- even in times when his body literally gave out.
Then he took the first option out allowed in his contract to return to a place he never emotionally left. Some are still struggling with whether to shame LeBron or thank LeBron. But as some of the numbness and shock subsides from his abrupt departure, it’s growing more difficult to truly blame LeBron. He didn’t make a public spectacle of his free agency like Carmelo Anthony, who was within his rights to tease and flirt through a four-team recruiting tour before returning for mega money in New York.
And LeBron didn’t spend the season working behind the scenes to force a trade to Cleveland. He simply did his job at an MVP level -- sore back, bum ankles, broken nose, creaky knees and all -- every night. It can be tough to focus on what’s ahead when that level of excellence hangs in the rearview mirror.
The Heat have rallied the past few days to recover from LeBron’s departure with a flurry of moves that have included re-signing or closing in on deals with Wade, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem.
That’s a surefire playoff team, especially in the wide-open East. That’s a squad that could win 45 to 50 games next season if healthy. Solid but hardly spectacular. Teams don’t recover quickly from losing the best player in the game. They regroup as much as possible and hope for the best.
That’s the 2014-15 Miami Heat -- almost certain to be better than they were the three years before James arrived but probably never as dynamic and dominant during the four-year run with him. There’s no way to recreate the self-described Heatles, sans LeBron as the front man. No one expected the Jacksons to extend the same magic for long once Michael left to do his own thing.
After closing the chapter on LeBron, the franchise began this week contemplating plans to start removing his No. 6 jersey either completely or at least from prominent display in the team stores at AmericanAirlines Arena. It remains to be seen whether the Heat take a similar approach with some of the floor-to-ceiling images displaying LeBron’s postseason exploits the past four years.
One of the most prominent murals is the one positioned just outside the Heat’s locker room. It’s the photo that captured LeBron’s maniacal stare as he crouched down in a defensive stance during his epic Game 6 performance against Boston in the Eastern Conference finals.
It’s the first image players see as they head down the “Championship Alley” tunnel to enter the court. It’s the last glance that holds them accountable as they head back to the locker room after games.
There’s no denying what LeBron has meant to the Heat on and off the court the past four years. But what is overlooked is the way he conducted his business with the media. The same player who controlled every aspect of the game also had the wherewithal to engage many on a personal level.
There were the moments before games when he asked, unprompted, about the recovery of one reporter’s mother, who was hospitalized and needed surgery. There was another time when, after a big game against Oklahoma City, he checked on the baseball performance of another reporter’s son.
Covering the huge performances in marquee games as well as the demoralizing losses and controversies were all memorable. But so were many of the behind-the-scenes moments, like the time when LeBron turned up the volume to ear-splitting levels in the pregame locker room and engaged Shane Battier in a rap battle as they recited N.W.A.’s explicit lyrics.
Yes, that Shane Battier.
Should LeBron have given the Heat more of a clear heads-up on his way out?
Absolutely. Perhaps he did as much and Miami simply refused to take no for an answer. In hindsight, there were plenty of hints and subtle messages that were either dismissed or overlooked along the way, especially the final six months of this season.
But LeBron left without owing the Heat anything else.
That was clear from his first day of work to his last.