Erik Spoelstra borrowed one of LeBron James’ favorite speeches, and Heat gave it life

The Lakers' LeBron James drives to the basket during Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Friday.
The Lakers’ LeBron James drives to the basket during Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Friday. James scored 40 points, but Miami won 111-108.
(Associated Press)

There is a piece of a speech by Theodore Roosevelt that really resonates with LeBron James. In it, Roosevelt, the 26th U.S. president, spoke of the “man who is actually in the arena,” the one who does the work, who risks failure and is more worthy than the “critic.”

On Thursday afternoon, a day before the Lakers faced Miami in what many thought would be the clinching NBA Finals game for their 17th championship, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra referenced the speech.

“I know the character of our group, and we are still very much committed to what our purpose is and look forward to the competition tomorrow,” Spoelstra said. “Whatever the story lines that are out there, we don’t care. Our guys are the ones who are out there in the arena marred by dust, blood, sweat and tears. Our guys are the ones out there. Twenty-eight other teams aren’t out there. Everybody else is basically on their comfortable couches spectating on this one. Our guys are the ones that are in the arena, and that’s right where they are meant to be.”


On Friday night, Miami took Game 5 of the NBA Finals to stave off elimination for at least one more day. The Heat will face another elimination game Sunday as the Lakers take their second shot at winning their first championship since 2010. With a 3-2 lead in the series, and a track record of bouncing back from losses, the Lakers feel confident in their ability to recover from Friday’s setback.

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James is playing in his 10th Finals. Roosevelt‘s “man in the arena” speech has been with him since at least the season of his second Finals appearance. That came as a member of the Heat, and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that James had the quote in his locker for the entire 2010-11 season.

The speech, “Citizenship in a Republic”, was delivered by Roosevelt at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910. Much of it touted American imperialism and French accomplishments. It was thousands of words long, but a 140-word excerpt near the beginning has caught the interest of politicians and athletes around the world. The idea that to fail means having risked something that those who simply observe have not.

The idea has been part of James’ ethos since his departure from Cleveland to Miami in 2010. He faced intense criticism after the move, by people who disagreed with the free-agency move.

James has written the phrase “man in the arena” on his shoes and also has a version of his signature shoe whose design includes phrases from the speech.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra looks on during Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers on Oct. 2, 2020.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra looks on during Game 2 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

James brought up the quote when the Lakers were in Miami in December, after he was asked what he’d tell kids about handling doubters.

“Any kid that’s going through anything where they feel like there’s adversity or somebody is putting them down, just have them read the quote from Theodore Roosevelt, ‘man in the arena,’ and you’ll get a good sense of where I come from,” James said.

Spoelstra referred to the excerpt twice Thursday as the Heat faced elimination. The words “face is marred by dust and sweat and blood” appear in Roosevelt’s speech, and were repeated almost exactly by Spoelstra.

Later in the same news conference, Spoelstra said it again.

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“We are here for a purpose,” he said, as he answered his last question. “We are trying to compete for a title. That has not changed. And our players, our guys are the ones in this arena, marred by sweat, tears, blood. And that’s right where they are meant to be.”

The purpose of Spoelstra’s reference — and whether it had anything to do with James — was unclear. But a day later the Heat pushed themselves to a Game 5 victory that left star Jimmy Butler on the brink of exhaustion.

James, meanwhile, tried to understand the loss and spoke with appreciation for the battle. The effort wasn’t the only thing, but for years he has appreciated its value.