LeBron James, NBA champion -- at last

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LeBron James, NBA champion -- at last

From Comcast SportsNet
MIAMI (AP) -- LeBron James looked at the crowd, knowing he had just a few moments left on the court for the season. He waved his arms to them. They roared back. Moments later, he was atop the stage at center court, wearing a champions' hat and T-shirt, and waving a champions' towel. He smiled. He danced. For the first time in nine years, he enjoyed the ultimate relief. Maligned for so long, by so many, it brought him to this moment. On Thursday night -- with a triple-double, no less, 26 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds -- LeBron James got his NBA title. "You can't win," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, speaking about James, "unless you win." That's no longer an issue. The man who was called heartless, callous, narcissistic, cowardly and selfish -- and that was just in one scorned, angry letter from Dan Gilbert, the man who used to pay him to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers -- will forever be called something else. He's a champion. "When he gets involved in something, business, basketball, he puts everything he has into it," longtime associate Maverick Carter said. "And this year, during the playoffs, he took it up another notch. He dedicated himself even more. I don't think he's any more dedicated than he was last year, but he found ways this year to channel it better, to limit his distractions and it raised his focus." It raised the city of Miami, and raised the Heat back to the mountaintop as well. And next fall, James will be there when they raise a second championship banner. "He's one of a kind," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "One of a kind." Vilified for both exercising his right to leave Cleveland and for the manner in which he announced the move, James came to Miami for this very thing. It took two years -- one more than many people expected. The change of address didn't come with a change in stature. He remains one of the world's most polarizing and best-paid athletes, with his annual income recently estimated by Forbes to be 53 million. But apparently, when it comes to James, enormous money and fame is not enough to satisfy everyone. A guy who is already a lock for the Hall of Fame -- and might only be halfway or so through his career -- needed a championship as validation. Fairly or unfairly, that was the deal. And that title is now his. "Perceptions better change, OK?" Heat forward Mike Miller said before Game 5. "You would be looking at a three-time MVP and a world champion. There's a very, very, very, very, very short list of those. A very short list. The way I've seen him improve in just the two years I've been around him, I've seen the maturation the whole time, and it's a scary thought because it's not going to stop. It's a freight train right now." James is 27 years old. Michael Jordan was 28 when he won the first of his six championships. Which raises one question that might just scare a few people around the NBA: Could this just be the start of what James is going to accomplish? Maybe. "I see LeBron James," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "I see the best and most dominant player in the game." Most talked-about as well. He regretted lashing out at a question about critics posed not long after last season's finals ended, one where he answered by saying "I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things I want to do." That criticism was deserved. But some is just silly. He even takes heat for his hairline. With James, nothing is off-limits for critiquing. "He's been through a hell of a lot these past two years, and that makes you stronger," Heat forward Chris Bosh said. "Just the fact that he can just come out and play and show his strength, his strength of mind, his will to win, I think that's just really important for everybody else to see, not only us but everybody in the stands and watching on TV how much a person can really have some perseverance and really grow as their career goes on." There is no in-between with James, it seems. Fans either love him or hate him. They love his ability. They hate that he left Cleveland. They love the staggering statistics. They hate the phrase "take my talents." He might be more criticized than any athlete in American pro sports today, and that's even without some huge glaring incident of wrongdoing on his resume. It took time for the Heat to get used to that element of the James world. "It's different than anything I've been around, there's no question about that," said Spoelstra, who, it bears noting, has spent the vast majority of his adult life around another lightning-rod personality in Pat Riley. "It's unfortunate that somebody who has the qualities that he has would be critiqued as negatively as he's been because he embodies so many of the things that you would want from a professional athlete. "He's never been in trouble," Spoelstra added. "He's a team guy. He's a pass-first guy. He's a scorer, he's a defender, a two-way player, he's a great teammate. He's honored all of his contracts and he has a dream that he's been trying to chase but he's been doing it within a team concept." The mouthpiece he wore throughout these playoffs said "XVI" -- the Roman numerals for 16, how many postseason wins it takes to win an NBA championship. The towels that the Heat handed out Thursday night said the same thing, both a reminder of the goal and a tribute to what James flashed every time he opened his mouth on the court in these past four series. XVI wins later, the mission is complete. "It's a dream that he's had since I've known him, to be in the NBA and be a champion," his longtime friend Randy Mims said. James' successes are celebrated. His failures might be more celebrated. When the Heat lost last year's finals to the Dallas Mavericks, all the blame went James' way, and with good reason. He averaged three points in fourth quarters of those six games. The most common complaint, one that James acknowledges is true, is that he didn't make enough plays in the biggest moments. He managed only eight points in the loss that turned the series around and spun it in the Mavericks' favor. "Old Lesson for all," Gilbert tweeted a few minutes after Dallas won the championship in Miami. "There are NO SHORTCUTS. NONE." Gilbert didn't mention James by name in the tweet -- or in his letter that came out shortly after The Decision. He didn't have to, either. The Heat are understandably biased when it comes to perceptions about James. Some of Miami's competitors are as well. "He does the right thing," Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "When he makes the right pass and the guy misses the shot, he's criticized. When he forces a shot in a double team, he's criticized. It's the way it is for him, for whatever reason. He's competitive as heck. He's one of the most powerful players to ever play the game. And maybe it isn't enough. I don't know." Rivers said he thinks only one athlete might be able to relate to what James has to deal with -- Tiger Woods. "Tiger over the last two or three years," Rivers said. "Other than that, no one. No athlete that I can ever remember being under the scrutiny -- definitely in basketball. I've never seen anyone under the scrutiny that LeBron James is under." So in these playoffs, instead of trying to defeat the scrutiny or use it as fuel, James tried to ignore it as much as he could. He turned his phones off. Literally, off. And they stayed off. When the NBA tried to send word that he won the MVP award, James wasn't reachable. The message eventually got to Mims, who delivered the news. "I can't remember being as nervous with a message," Mims said. No phone calls. No tweeting. He didn't watch much television. Instead of reading articles about himself or the playoffs, he was reading books, something that became part of his pregame ritual. He would sit at his locker, usually with headphones on, pregame snack of a meal-replacement bar next to him, and flip through a few pages. ("It slows my mind down," James said.) "He's just focused, you know, just like the rest of this team," Wade said. "He has a goal, and he wants to reach that goal, and he doesn't want nothing to stand in his way, and he doesn't want himself to stand in his way. He wants to make sure once you leave the game or you leave the series, you can say, I gave it my all. I don't know if we all could have said that last season." They couldn't. That's why James made a slew of changes after the 2011 finals. He worked out harder. He said he was getting rid of the anger that he played with last season, something he did in an effort to prove people wrong. This year, he said he played with joy again -- and figured out that the best way to win wasn't to prove detractors wrong, but to pro" "He's made some changes, obviously, to his game and more importantly, to his approach, how he views it and how he prepares for a game," Heat forward Juwan Howard said. "I commend him for some of the decisions that he made, looking at himself in the mirror and saying I want to make some changes.' A lot of players won't do that. Obviously, it shows he's very bright and that he's humble. He wants to get better." But first, he had to address not being happy. His family -- then-girlfriend, now-fiancee Savannah Brinson, and the couple's two sons -- spent long stretches of last season in Ohio. James confided to those in his close circle last year that at times he felt isolated. When Brinson and their kids moved to Miami full-time, things changed in a hurry. James asked Brinson to marry him. The nuptials are next summer. Why then? Well, this summer will be a little busy, for starters. There's the Olympics. Another close friend's wedding. Some off-court business responsibilities. Training camp will be here soon enough. Oh, and first, a parade to celebrate the world champions. "Life is the best experience you can get," Mims said. "That's what's basically happened with him that whole year, from leaving Cleveland to coming here to being here basically alone for that year. And then you see things change. His family came here. He got engaged. He learned more about the team, became more of a leader." James' free-agent courtship officially lasted about a week, The Decision went on for an hour, and the words that changed so many aspects of James' life that night took only four seconds to say that night. "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat," James said, that unforgettable phrase. He'll forever be linked to what he said in that infamous welcome party-turned-rock concert -- which despite countless insistence to the contrary was arranged not for him, but for Wade and with the goal of topping how the organization celebrated Shaquille O'Neal's arrival in 2004. And the most-replayed moment from that night was when James started peeling off how many championships he would hope to win in Miami. "Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven," James said that night, as Wade and Bosh nodded in the seats next to him. No, he doesn't have any of those yet. However, at long last, he does have one.

Giants notes: Growing group of infielders trying to transition to outfield

Giants notes: Growing group of infielders trying to transition to outfield

CHICAGO — It was easy for Giants fans to dream on Wednesday morning when power-hitting prospect Chris Shaw was bumped up to Triple-A. General manager Bobby Evans pumped the brakes a bit in the afternoon. The Giants do not expect Shaw to come up this year, even as a September call-up.

Shaw does, however, join a growing group of infielders trying to transition in Richmond. The closest to the big leagues right now is occasional big leaguer Kelby Tomlinson, who started in center field for the fourth time in five games. Could Tomlinson soon be back as a super-utility player, maybe giving the Giants some coverage in case they part ways with Gorkys Hernandez?

“Not ideally yet,” Evans said. “You’d like for him to get more time out there.”

[PAVLOVIC: Giants promote power-hitting outfield prospect to Triple-A]

Evans said the reports on Tomlinson are that he’s athletic in center and gets good reads. He’s not quite considered a big league option yet, but that’ll be a big part of his future. Tomlinson was joined in the outfield Wednesday by Austin Slater, who will start adding some reps at first with Chris Marrero now in Japan. Slater sounds like he's the next man up at some point. 

Ryder Jones and Jae-Gyun Hwang will also play more first. Jones has played quite a bit of left this season and Evans said the reports on him out there have been good. Hwang will be back in the headlines one way or the other at some point soon. He’s batting .280 with a .298 on-base percentage and three homers, which doesn’t scream promotion. But Hwang does have an opt-out on July 1, so something might have to be done. 

--- Matt Moore gave up two homers to Anthony Rizzo in a 5-4 loss to the Cubs, but this still continued his push in the right direction. In six innings, he gave up four runs, three earned. Not great, but better than it was in April. Moore has three straight quality starts. 

“Earlier in the year there were a couple of gaps in games where I wasn’t competitive,” he said. “I do think the last two or three weeks, I’ve gotten comfortable with the way the ball is coming out.”

--- Eduardo Nuñez extended his hitting streak to a career-high 11 games, but he came up lame on the play. Nuñez felt tightness near his left knee, right at the bottom of his hamstring. He played the rest of the game, but couldn’t go full speed. He’s confident he’ll be fine. 

--- Denard Span’s thumb is apparently 100 percent, or pretty close. He smacked a long homer, his third in his last 10 games. 

--- Conor Gillaspie (back) and Aaron Hill (forearm) will return on the homestand, possibly as soon as Friday against the Braves. Hunter Pence is further away. Bochy said he’ll need a quick rehab assignment, so it’s probably more likely he’s back the next Friday in Philadelphia. 

--- Bochy said Johnny Cueto was checked a couple of days before his Tuesday start and the trainers will do the same thing before his next start. Cueto is dealing with two blisters, but the Giants are not considering shutting him down. 

“He finds a way to get out there and pitch,” Bochy said. “It’s not a case where we’re pushing it. He wants to pitch.”

Under different circumstances, maybe the Giants would shut Cueto down for a couple of weeks to let these blisters pass. But they can’t afford to lose a second ace, and Cueto doesn’t want to miss any time. Bochy said he hasn’t been told this is something that will bother Cueto all year. 

One-time A's draft pick Aaron Judge now toast of New York

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USATI

One-time A's draft pick Aaron Judge now toast of New York

Long before Yankees rookie Aaron Judge was gracing Sports Illustrated covers and taking part in “Tonight Show” skits, the A’s had visions of the hulking outfielder wearing green and gold.

Oakland was the first team to draft Judge, when he was a three-sport star coming out of tiny Linden High School, about 50 miles southeast of Sacramento.

The A’s took him in the 31st round of the 2010 draft but weren’t able to sign Judge, who was firmly set on attending Fresno State. Three years later, New York grabbed him in the first round of the 2013 draft. Now Judge is the latest Bronx sensation, the major league co-leader with 15 home runs and having shown off his comedic skills by starring in a man-on-the-street skit for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

On Friday, he’ll face the A’s for the first time when they begin a three-game series at Yankee Stadium. But Oakland’s front office and scouting department long have been familiar with the 6-foot-7, 282-pound right fielder.

Jermaine Clark, the A’s area scout who followed Judge during his high school career, recently dusted off a scouting report he filed back in 2010 on Judge.

“Big kid with a body to dream on,” the report read. “Untapped monster.”

While at Linden, Judge also starred in football and basketball, and he was a dominant pitcher and first baseman. The problem was Linden played in a small league against competition that didn’t approach the best prep baseball leagues in California.

Clark recalls entering Judge’s information into the A’s database.

“I remember putting his schedule in the computer, and none of the schools he was playing registered in our system,” Clark said.

But the A’s recognized the physical tools. They invited Judge to take part in a workout at the Coliseum leading up to the 2010 draft, an event they plan annually for some of the best draft hopefuls in Northern California.

“He definitely made a good impression,” A’s scouting director Eric Kubota said. “You’d have to be blind to not see the physicality and athleticism. That’s the kind of thing that jumps out on the field. He’s bigger and more athletic than any guy he’s around.”

Still, he wasn’t a slam-dunk choice to be taken high in the 2010 draft. In a time when the majority of top baseball prospects grow up as one-sport specialists, playing the game year-round, Judge was a throwback to the athlete who dabbled in multiple sports. Therefore, his skills on the diamond weren’t as polished, and his 6-foot-7 height also worked against him.

“The frame was so long that things didn’t look so fluid,” Clark said.

The A’s took a flyer on Judge, as Kubota put it, drafting him in the 31st round but knowing it was a long shot that he would sign. Both of Judge’s parents are retired teachers, and a college education was important to them.

So why waste a draft pick on him at all?

“Many of these kids that get drafted late in the draft, clubs don’t have the wherewithal to go sign them,” said A’s special assistant Grady Fuson, who’s heavily involved in the team’s scouting. “But sometimes you take those guys because things change over the summer” regarding a player’s decision-making.

Attempts to arrange a phone interview with Judge were unsuccessful. But over the winter, he discussed the A’s drafting him with The Record newspaper in Stockton.

“I was drafted in high school but made the choice to go to college,” Judge said. “I wasn’t mature enough at that point to get right into minor league baseball. I learned from some great coaches at Fresno. It really helped prepare me.”

The Yankees drafted him with the 32nd overall pick in 2013, a draft that was deep in quality collegiate outfielders. Eight picks before that, at No. 24, the A’s selected Texas high school outfielder Billy McKinney.

“I think in general we’re always looking for the player we like best when he’s available at that pick,” Kubota said. “That’s how it worked out.”

In July 2014, the A’s packaged McKinney along with their top prospect at the time, Addison Russell, and right-hander Dan Straily and traded him to the Cubs for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, a trade that in hindsight still has A’s fans slapping their foreheads.

Last season, the Cubs dealt McKinney to the Yankees as part of another high-profile trade that landed Aroldis Chapman in Chicago.

How did the A’s and so many other clubs pass on Judge throughout the first round in 2013? Keep in mind that Mike Trout somehow lasted until the 25th pick in the 2009 draft, when the Los Angeles Angels finally scooped him up.

The draft is an inexact science in which some players blossom, some fail, and some wind up starring for other teams. But when Judge takes the field against the A’s this weekend, Kubota said he won’t be watching through the lens of what could have been.

“I think in general we root for kids from Northern California, we root for kids we drafted,” he said. “Ideally we’d love them to be doing it in white spikes, but we’re happy to watch them succeed no matter where they’re at.”