Time was, baseball groundskeepers were considered the 10th man in the lineup. Emil Bossard tended to the grass at old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. When Babe Ruth and the Yankees came to town, Emil would line the batter’s box a few inches closer to the pitcher’s mound, giving Murderer’s Row a little less reaction time to turn on pitches.
Tony LaRussa’s groundskeepers in St. Louis would build tiny humps in the base line, to keep bunts from rolling foul.
And groundskeepers for decades grew grass high when singles-hitting teams came to town, keeping their ground balls from zipping into the outfield.
In the NFL, speedy teams know the drill. Play a road game on real grass, and you’re likely to get a swamp. Opposing teams will water down the field to keep everyone in slow motion. In the 1970s, when Missouri was the only grass field in the Big Eight, the Sooners every other year played on slippery turf at Faurot Field.
But in basketball, what can you do? The court is regulation size. The basket is regulation height. Maintenance works can’t go redrawing the lines of a wooden court. Can’t make the lane wider, or the 3-point line closer. Competitive advantage is harder to find.
But then came Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night, when the AT&T Center was turned into a fiery furnace. The air conditioning failed, and fans started fanning early in the game, and players were noticeably affected by the second quarter. On-court temperatures rose above 90 degrees.
We’ve all been in non-air conditioned gymnasiums. Played in or sat through gyms that turn into saunas. Heck, I spent three recent nights in San Antonio for games in the Western Conference Finals, sitting about halfway up off the court, and it was hot. H-O-T hot. And that’s when the air conditioning theoretically was working. I can’t imagine what the place was like when the cool air was gone.
You would think the lack of air conditioning would affect the old guys. You know, 38-year-old Tim Duncan or 36-year-old Manu Ginobili or 38-year-old Ray Allen.
Instead, LeBron James went down. Mr. Indestructible. LeBron suffered cramps throughout the fourth quarter and eventually missed the final, fateful four minutes. Superman, meet Kryptonite.
You would think the strongest, toughest, finest physical specimen would thrive in such dire conditions. Instead, LeBron twice motioned to be taken out of the game. Finally, after making a shot, he couldn’t even make it back downcourt. After play was stopped, LeBron eventually limped off and was carried to his seat on the Miami bench.
The score at the time was 94-92 Spurs. San Antonio ended the game with a 16-3 run to rout the ironically-named Heat.
And suddenly, LeBron James seemed human. Or at least moreso.
Who among us doesn’t wilt when our air-conditioning fails? Who among us DOESN’T have a wife who goes from charming and sweet and wonderful, to a villain out of a fairy tale when the house turns insufferably hot?
When the air conditioning goes, the world stops. Priorities are rearranged. Nothing else matters except getting the heat-and-air guy out to the house, pronto. If it’s 11 p.m., doesn’t matter. If the service call is double the money, fine. Just fix the air.
We’ve become a little soft. We think we can’t live without iPhones and garage-door openers and GPS’s, although we could, if we had to. But air-conditioning? We can’t live without air-conditioning. Our bodies aren’t built for it. Our houses aren’t built for it. Our world stops when our temperatures go up.
Who knew we’d need LeBron James to remind us of that?
Here’s what else I saw out of Game 1:
* OK, anyone ready to argue that the Heat isn’t weak inside? Tim Duncan: 21 points on 9-of-10 shooting, virtually all of those shots coming from right at the basket. Tiago Splitter: 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Nothing farther than two feet away.
The Spurs’ two big men combined to make 14 of 16 shots and score 35 points. The Spurs kept dumping the ball down low, sometimes to their detriment, because it resulted in a few of their ridiculous 22 turnovers.
But there was a reason the Spurs kept it up. There was gold in them thar hills.
* Miami, meet Manu Ginobili. In the 2013 Finals, Manu averaged 11.6 points a game but shot just 25 percent from 3-point range and committed 3.1 turnovers per game. Thursday night, Ginobili did to the Heat what he did to the Thunder – made life miserable, long before the temperatures rose to 90. Ginobili finished with 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting, with 11 assists, five rebounds and three steals.
* The Heat’s big four of LeBron (25 points), Dwyane Wade (19 points), Chris Bosh (18 points) and Ray Allen (16 points) combined for 78 points. The rest of the squad scored 17. Not exactly the Thunder in Game 6 of the West finals, when four Boomers combined for 102 of 107 points, but in the neighborhood.
* Boris Diaw made just one of five shots. And had a plus-30. In his 33 minutes on the court, the Spurs outscored Miami by 30 points. Diaw had 10 rebounds, six assists and some solid defense on LeBron, who was largely hounded by Kawhi Leonard but not always.
* The Spurs got some fourth quarter spark from Leonard and Danny Green. But until then, both were zeroes offensively. Neither scored until the fourth quarter, other than two Green foul shots. Green finished with 13 points and made three big 3-pointers in the final period. Leonard scored nine points and took just five shots.
* The Spurs got some great play off the bench from Patty Mills (seven points, 3-of-5 shooting) and Marco Belinelli (nine points, 2-of-3 shooting).
* San Antonio made 14 of 16 fourth-quarter shots and finished 40 of 68 for the game, 58.8 percent. That’s the kind of ridiculous numbers the Spurs put up in a variety of ways against OKC. Good to see the Heat get the same treatment.