New Los Angeles Laker LeBron James and his team are the talk of the town
They’re already over the chitchat, though — LBJ is more than an athlete, but he’s still an athlete
Welcome to Hollywood, don’t let this town ruin you …
— Drake, “Light Up” (2010)
LOS ANGELES — One-thousand, nine hundred and ninety-two days. That’s how long it’s been since Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles in April 2013. The catastrophic injury left the Los Angeles Lakers icon teary-eyed in the Staples Center locker room, ended Bryant’s season and ended Bryant’s overall reign. It also plunged the Lakers into a five-year spiral of mediocrity and, at times, even irrelevance.
The franchise’s darkest days appear to be in the rearview. LeBron James is in the building.
The moment the Los Angeles skyline appears from the plane’s window — you feel it. Walking through Los Angeles International Airport, you feel it even more. There’s a buzz. Los Angeles has long been a Lakers town, and now that feeling is back. “I’ve been going to Lakers games since Magic [Johnson],” said a middle-aged season-ticket holder named Rob. He’s seated in a Mercedes-Benz truck outside of El Segundo’s UCLA Health Training Center, beaming with pride. It’s the same kind of pride parents have when one of their children graduates from college. And maybe the Lakers have graduated from yesteryear’s pain — or at least begun the process toward it. “I’ve seen Magic, Kareem, Shaq, Kobe and now LeBron,” said Rob. “I’m spoiled!”
Inside the lobby of the Lakers’ massive training facility, throngs of reporters, camera operators, radio hosts and television personalities position themselves for a Lakers media day the likes of which the city hasn’t seen since Bryant’s scowl kept the City of Angels in the palm of his hand. Media day annually tips off the new season. Think of it as media speed dating: Each player sits and answers questions — How do you feel about the season? How was your summer? — for hours on end.
The Lakers run a tight ship. Shortly after noon, a sea of reporters crowd by a particular door. Everyone knows what’s about to happen. IPhones get switched to video settings. The odd elevator music being pumped into the facility — no one understands why it’s being played in the first place — comes to a stop. There’s a collective adrenaline rush as, without much notice, James, in his gold and purple No. 23, walks in. If it didn’t seem real before, it’s realer than a mid-’90s Death Row album now.
James is the first to take the mic. Reporters vie for just a moment of the new King of L.A.’s time. And the theme of most questions has to do with the Lakers as James & the Gang. James says that the opposite is true. But even as James weaves through the expected questions about new surroundings and new expectations, there is a moment of serenity.
He understands the magnitude of the moment. It’s Los Angeles. And it’s the Lakers. It’s like being signed to Motown in the ’60s. It’s an American status symbol. “I believe the conversation I had with Magic that night was a special night,” the three-time Finals MVP said of the conversation he and Magic Johnson, the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, had the night free agency began in July. “I’m happy to be in this point today.”
In June, James sat despondent in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ locker room after a four-game sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. The smell of champagne down the hall was a cruel reminder of what had eluded him for the sixth time in his career. He said all the right things in the postgame news conference. And in true LeBron fashion, a cast on his left hand proved a small theater of debate, a comical reprieve — and kept the conversation centered squarely on him. As James exited Quicken Loans, everyone in the building knew he was leaving. But to where? Los Angeles, then, was just a rumor.
“It’s always challenging when you move, no matter if you do it as a professional or in your … adolescent days, which I did a lot,” James said at media day. “Moving from place to place is something I’ve been accustomed [to], especially growing up where I come from.”
Monday of course comes after a summer that transformed James’ life beyond the basketball court and elevated him toward the footsteps of Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. From the school he opened in Akron, Ohio, to the films, the documentaries, the unofficial international diplomacy tour with Nike and another spat with the “bum,” James and basketball weren’t always attached at the hip this summer. Playtime’s over now, though. He’s more than an athlete, but he’s still an athlete.
“I’m a basketball player,” he said in El Segundo. “I play ball, that’s what I do. That’s what I live by, and when I do it the way I do it, everything takes care of itself. As far as my business, that took care of itself way before I became part of the Lakers franchise.”
Media day is part of the job. It’s not the most fun part of the gig, but it’s part of the gig. And this is James’ 16th media circle — 15 years since his first rodeo. The vibe at media day from James, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Kuzma, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and everyone else from the Lakers organization was that the time for talking is over. Beasley, in particular, was over it. He showed up early for his sit-down. And left quickly. They’re ready to get active.
The Lakers’ young core players — Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and 2018 summer league MVP Josh Hart — have made considerable improvements in their games this summer. There’s a shared excitement and respect factor emanating from all four. There are also the combined four league MVPs, three Finals MVPs and six NBA Finals victories among just James, Rondo and McGee. “You have veteran guys who’ve been through everything. So it’s good we can learn from them,” Hart said. “We’re gonna hold each other accountable to make sure we talk as young guys. Not challenging the vets … but also trying to grow into that leadership role.”
Ball, in particular, has grown mentally and emotionally thanks in part to the birth of his daughter, Zoey Christina. “Not even on basketball, [but she’s changed my thought process] on life. When she was born, that changed my view on everything,” Ball said. “When she finally got here, that’s when it really hit me. Ever since that day, I’ve looked at life a lot different.”
And it was James who called Lance Stephenson and asked him to come to L.A. As for the infamous ear-blowing incident? They haven’t talked about that yet, but Stephenson laughed, knowing he’d have to address the elephant in the room at some point.
“I feel like LeBron picked the right guys to have his back,” said Stephenson. James as a Laker? Stephenson going to war for James instead of with? If not much makes sense about this Lakers team just yet, then that’s the whole point.
If the energy in L.A. is of excitement, then the energy within the Lakers’ locker room is almost annoyance. Not with themselves. Definitely not with the fans who have been clamoring for the season to start since James officially took his talents to Hollywood two months ago. But with all the talk.
That’s Hollywood, though. And the only thing this city loves more than drama is a revival story. All-time great franchise relegated to NBA purgatory. The suspense about whether Johnson could deliver on his word and bring a superstar to the town that appreciates superstars like none other. Now it boils down to putting the ball through the hoop and creating the hysteria this city lathered itself in during the days of Showtime, O’Neal and Bryant, and Bryant’s second run.
The vibe is different. The practice games are intense. Doors are opening before the sun rises. A team with surplus of personalities and quirks gives the 2018-19 Lakers an appeal unlike any other team in the league. They’re not a carbon copy of the Golden State Warriors, and James says these Lakers “have a long way to go” before they can overtake the champs. There will be the inevitable growing pains any team with this many new parts is bound to stumble through. It’s all part of the journey. Every step will be overanalyzed. That’s the nature of the beast in this city of angels and devils. And, love it or leave it, that’s the nature of the beast when LeBron James is your teammate.