Athletics

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.

A's rookie Olson stays humble during record-breaking power surge

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A's rookie Olson stays humble during record-breaking power surge

OAKLAND — Matt Olson is aware of the company he’s keeping in the A’s record books.

His reaction is a mix of reverence and a shrug-of-the-shoulders type humbleness.

That’s the personality of the A’s rookie first baseman. Even as the conversation about him and his awe-inspiring home run pace grows louder, he remains the same steady, grounded presence.

“I’m happy for him,” A’s hitting coach Darren Bush said. “The guy’s worked his butt off. He’s the same today as was when he first got called up.”

Olson cleared the fences once again Friday night, his two-run homer off Nick Martinez in the second inning helping the A’s to a 4-1 victory over the Texas Rangers. At this point, it’s much more newsworthy when Olson doesn’t homer than when he does.

He’s crammed 24 homers into just 57 games this season. Taking into account his first call-up last September, and Olson’s 24 homers over the first 68 games of his career are the second-most in the history of major league baseball over that span to open a career. The Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger also hit 24 and only the White Sox’s Jose Abreu, with 25, hit more over his first 68.

Olson’s 13 homers in September are the most by any rookie in major league history for the month, and there’s still eight games left in it. But Olson’s hot streak dates back to Aug. 27. He’s hit a major league-best 16 homers in 23 games since then.

Among rookies in A’s history, only Mark McGwire (49) in 1987 and Jose Canseco (33) in 1986 have hit more than Olson’s 24. But neither Bash Brother, nor any other player in Oakland history, ever hit 15 homers in a 21-game span as Olson recently did.

“It’s definitely an honor,” Olson said before Friday’s game. “I grew up with a Mark McGwire poster on my wall. It’s a little surreal.”

Who saw this coming?

Olson went 2-for-21 without a single RBI in his first taste of the bigs last September. Then he shuttled five times between Triple-A and the majors this season before getting called up once again Aug. 8 and being told he’d get a shot as the A’s regular first baseman with Yonder Alonso having been traded. The constant shuttling took its toll, though Olson never let on about that publicly to reporters.

“You could see (the frustration),” said Ryan Christenson, his manager at Triple-A. “When he walks in and you tell him ‘You’re getting sent up,’ and he’s like, ‘Well, how many days is it for this time?’ He wouldn’t voice it necessarily, but you could sense it.”

Olson, with help from Bush and others, made an adjustment coming into this season. He began holding his hands out farther away from his body to begin his swing. With his 6-foot-5 frame, Olson had found himself getting jammed inside. Then in trying to adjust to that, he couldn’t square up pitches on the outer half.

“Now, his hands are firing from where he wants them to,” Bush said. “He doesn’t have to fight. You want your hands to have a clean path. Now he can stay in there, stay behind the ball, let his hands work for him.”

Olson, a 23-year-old from Lilburn, Ga., takes this sudden burst of success — and attention — in stride.

“I’ve been hit with so many stats here in the past week, I can’t even keep track of who’s done what, and honestly what I’ve done,” he said. “I kind of try to ignore all that.”

That’s OK. Others are taking plenty of notice.

 

As Dodgers celebrate, Bochy turns eyes to franchise-altering talent

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As Dodgers celebrate, Bochy turns eyes to franchise-altering talent

LOS ANGELES — The Giants left their dugout quickly after Friday’s loss, escaping a celebration on the mound and a fireworks show in the sky. As Dodger Stadium shook with cheers, Bruce Bochy sat in the visiting clubhouse and smiled. He nodded at his laptop, which earlier had been used to pull up highlights of Japanese two-way star Shohei Otani. 

“He’s good,” Bochy said, laughing. “I absolutely would play him every day.”

Earlier in the week, when it became known that Bobby Evans and Jeremy Shelley were headed to Japan to scout Otani, Bochy said he couldn’t imagine a player pitching and then moving to the outfield between starts. What changed? 

Perhaps it was the tape Bochy saw. Otani throws 100 mph and hits homers with ease. Or perhaps it was the game he watched Friday. The Giants lost for the 94th time, with the big blow coming from a 22-year-old Dodgers star. Cody Bellinger’s blast was the difference in a 4-2 win, and the Giants don’t have a Bellinger, or anything close. Otani, 23, is a long shot for a team that very well could finish with the worst record in baseball. Still, he’s the kind of talent that could help pull the Giants closer in a hurry. He’s the  kind of talent they haven’t developed in years, and Bochy certainly sounded a bit wistful as he talked of the power Bellinger has put on display. 

“You call up a guy and he does that — that just doesn’t happen,” he said. “It’s a rare deal.”

The ninth inning of the Dodgers’ clincher reinforced that point for the Giants. They got a homer from Pablo Sandoval, but he’s playing only because Christian Arroyo — the Giants’ best prospect bet this year — is hurt. Ryder Jones, their 23-year-old prospect, struck out to end the night, dropping his average to .180. 

That set off a celebration for Bellinger and the Dodgers. They have won five straight NL West titles, with three of the last four clinched against the Giants. 

“Congrats to them,” Bochy said. “They’ve had a tremendous year across the board, and they’ve played great baseball. They brought some guys up that really did a great job for them. It’s well deserved.”

Bochy said it was not difficult to watch this one. The division has been wrapped up for months, with only a September slide keeping the Dodgers from clinching earlier. 

“We knew what we were facing here,” Bochy said. 

The Giants have two more against the Dodgers and then six more before a long winter. The Dodgers, on the other hand, will host an NLDS series here at Dodger Stadium. Both Bochy and starter Jeff Samardzija made the same observation, that the Dodgers will have a hard time cutting their deep roster down to 25 postseason players. 

That’s a nice problem to have. It’s a foreign one right now for the Giants, who have a serious talent gap and no clear solutions internally. It’s no wonder, then, that Bochy has all of a sudden become so intrigued by a wondrous talent overseas.