LeBron, Durant emerge from gridiron unhurt

AKRON, Ohio -- There are plenty of positives coming out of the NBA lockout ending. Here’s another one: it’ll reduce LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s free time.

Spurred by boredom and quite clearly a longing for competition, Durant and James staged perhaps the lockout’s most over-the-top sideshow Wednesday night. It was a flag football game, theoretically. But really it was sort of the super bowl of flag football complete with enough organization, equipment and production to make it an event worth remembering for its logistical complexity as much as the actual contest itself.

There were officials, who naturally announced penalties on a microphone. There were coaches in elevated booths calling down plays via headsets. There was a live internet broadcast complete with a boom camera and a play-by-play crew that attracted more than 70,000 views. There was everything from a chain gang to a play clock. In short, this was no joke.

Foremost, there were no injuries to Durant or James. Less important in the grand scheme but rather important to the participants, Team LeBron beat Team Durant, 70-63, on a touchdown with 30 seconds to play. James clinched the two-and-half hour game a few moments later with his third interception of the night.

This concept started a couple of months ago when James had some time to kill in New York City and drove past Central Park and saw some guys playing flag football. James has been a fan of flag football for years, ever since concerns over injuries convinced him to give up tackle football when he was 17. He’s even had a field lined in his backyard so he and friends could have regular games. He got out and, needless to say, surprised the players by joining the game. Then, as is standard for many pro athletes these days, he tweeted all about it.

A few weeks later, Durant found himself bored on one of the nights he wasn’t traveling around the country playing in charity exhibition games. Using his Twitter feed, he asked followers for an idea on how to spend the evening. One follower asked him to come to Stillwater, Okla., and play flag football with some Oklahoma State students. Durant did, driving up from his Oklahoma City home to play.

Throw in a few weeks of Twitter trash talk and a handful of impasses at the collective bargaining talks and James and Durant were challenging each other to a game. Last month, Durant came to Akron and worked out with James for a week. They finalized the game then, each agreeing to bring in nine other guys for a 7-on-7 game. When the lockout was settled last week the two talked it over and decided to go ahead with the game.

Considering how much had gone into it, that wasn’t a surprise. James’ people had lined up a broadcast team and a sponsor. The game was played at the University of Akron’s indoor football fieldhouse and closed to the public, though it didn’t stop interested people from showing up and trying to get in. Media were not even permitted except to watch the first quarter.

The teams held practices, created playbooks and had several coaches. James’ team played cover-2 zone defense for most of the game. On the first play, Durant’s team ran a bubble screen. This was hardly the backyard. Seeing all of it in the largely empty structure gave it the feel of an incongruous spectacle, but the participants didn’t feel that way at all. They were all business from start to finish, which was hard to take seriously but was true just the same.

James and Durant arrived more than an hour before the game to stretch. Players all wore padded football pants and turf shoes. There were several trainers on site to help players warm up and in case of any injury. There were water boys. Prior to the game, both teams ran drills. As James worked on pass routes, he listened to music through an iPod.

James caught several touchdown passes including a 60-yard bomb. After one touchdown, he mimicked Bills’ wide receiver Stevie Johnson and pretended to shoot himself in the leg as Johnson did last weekend to mock the Jets’ Plaxico Burress. Durant had an 108-yard interception return for a touchdown where he sprinted the last 60 yards with a broad grin knowing he wasn’t getting caught. James promised Durant a rematch next year.

Maybe by then they’ll add replay challenges.