Fiery James takes court with Heat

Posted Sept. 28, 2010, at 7:20 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 28, 2010, at 8:23 p.m.

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. — On Day 1, LeBron James looked perfectly comfortable in new surroundings.

He pumped his fist after passing over a double-team and setting Joel Anthony up for a dunk. He got wide-eyed after breaking free in a defensive drill for a thunderous slam that left teammates more than impressed. He shouted instructions during drills, then got into an animated argument with Dwyane Wade over a scoring dispute as practice was ending.

“That’s just me,” James said.

That’s who the Miami Heat wanted.

The NBA’s reigning two-time MVP went through his first full practice with the Heat on Tuesday, a workout so intense even coach Erik Spoelstra was dripping sweat when the first session of training camp was over at a U.S. Air Force installation on Florida’s Panhandle. A snaking line of reporters and camera crews surrounded nearly half the court, and James gave them a memorable show.

“It’s not normal,” James said. “It’s not normal just yet. It’s a new beginning for me. I don’t feel like a rookie but I feel like it’s a new start. I’ve been around training camps before, but it’s not normal. You guys know it’s not normal. But as the year goes on, with the team getting to know each other, I continue to get to know you … you get more comfortable with one another.”

He’d put on the Heat practice uniform before, doing so over the summer after joining Miami and spurning an offer to remain with the Cleveland Cavaliers, essentially his hometown team and the place where he grew into a global icon over his first seven pro seasons.

And he wasn’t laid-back in his first formal Miami practice. Quite the contrary.

“That’s what we’re trying to get from everybody, no possessions off, to have that mentality,” Spoelstra said. “It was a good start.”

Miami arrived 12 hours before its first practice amid fanfare, a large crowd of military personnel packed into a hangar to greet the team that decided for many reasons to hold their weeklong camp about 650 miles from home. Col. Michael T. Plehn, commander of Hurlburt Field’s 1st Special Operations Wing, had a midcourt seat alongside Heat president Pat Riley for practice.

Players posed for pictures with some reporters after practice, a sight that rarely, if ever, happens in Miami.

“We can train here side by side with some of the best to do it,” Wade said, referring to the airmen stationed at Hurlburt and nearby Eglin Air Force Base. “So for us, it’s an honor and a privilege to be here.”

In Miami, interest has apparently never been higher. The Heat said more than 20,000 single-game tickets for home contests were sold Tuesday, the top one-day total in franchise history — and noted that none of the 41 regular-season matchups has even sold out yet.

There will be many non-traditional events on the Heat itinerary this week, including guest speakers, meet-and-greets with military members, even a chance for players to go through real training — doing things like loading (dummy) bombs and navigating through simulated battle situations — alongside airmen.

That being said, the trip is about basketball.

“It is, and it was very intense from start to finish,” Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. “The intensity was high. No one was slacking. We got our work done. Everything was good.”

Spoelstra said he isn’t changing much of the Heat structure for this camp. Nonetheless, given all the roster revamping — Mike Miller, Eddie House, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and other new faces joined the fray as well — the structure of things might change on its own.

There’s already clear competition for two starting spots, plus plenty of minutes in what’s likely to be a nine-man rotation when the season opens for real Oct. 26 against the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics.

In short, camp will be exactly the way James, Wade and Spoelstra would prefer: Tough.

“I think it pushes us,” said forward Chris Bosh, Miami’s other marquee free-agent acquisition of the summer, whose decision helped pave the way for James to join the Heat. “The intensity stays up because there’s so much talent. These guys really want to win and we know what it takes to win. It’s not easy.”

Wade was guarding James at times during the first practice of the season, with the drills getting so heated that even Spoelstra was getting low into textbook defensive position. Bodies flew everywhere, like when Juwan Howard unintentionally leveled James Jones while trying to defend a 3-point attempt. And it was heated, especially when Wade and James were trying to persuade assistant coach Bob McAdoo — a Hall of Fame player — that he had the score wrong of a drill. After all, a down and back sprint was at stake.

James won the discussion, by the way, so off on a run Wade went.

“I was just trying to argue,” Wade said. “I just wanted to get in on the argument.”

James talked Tuesday of how much it means to him to train at a military installation, especially after having worn a Team USA uniform — Olympics style — of his own in the past. He talked again of how much he likes being around his new teammates. He also talked of how the Heat should have championship expectations.

He did a lot of talking on the court as well.

Clearly, fitting in to the Heat world won’t be an awkward process.

“I’ve always been vocal,” James said. “I’m always going to continue to be a leader, no matter what team I’m on.”

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