LeBron James’ experience enters a new and perhaps final stage: ‘When it’s over, you’ll respect him more’ | ET REALITY


The exterior walls of the Miami Heat locker room are adorned with the name, image and likeness of LeBron James.

When Gabe Vincent was a member of that organization, every day for the previous four seasons, as he walked to the court for home games or climbed the stairs to the practice facility, he had no choice but to look at the dozens of photographs of James in the hallways.

There are also photos of other Heat greats from Miami’s three championships, but none of those players are still in the NBA. James, however, is, and remains great, 10 years after leading Miami to its last title.

Over the summer, Vincent signed a three-year, $33 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, bringing him back to Southern California, where he grew up. But he also put him on the same team as a player who was immortalized in the building Vincent had left behind in Miami.

“It’s hard to talk about the NBA without mentioning his name,” Vincent said recently after a Lakers practice when asked what it was like becoming LeBron’s teammate. “Whether it’s the Heat or you’re in Charlotte, you’re going to mention LeBron’s name.”

Vincent isn’t the only one experiencing this phenomenon: experiencing James’ transformation from a two-dimensional image and household name in the league to flesh, from an NBA shrine to a sweaty, foul-mouthed, living jump-shooting legend.

When D’Angelo Russell was in college at Ohio State during the 2014-15 season, the Buckeyes basketball locker room had a locker for James, even though LeBron was never enrolled there.

The Buckeyes honored James as a major benefactor of the program, and by the time that locker was installed in Columbus in 2013, he was already a two-time NBA champion and four-time MVP. The two, D-Lo and Bron, joined forces when the Lakers acquired Russell in a trade in February.

At the end of this season, James’ illustrious NBA career will be 21 years old, or the legal drinking age. He is by far the oldest player on the Lakers and will turn 39 on December 30. He is also the league’s all-time leading scorer.

It is the most revered individual record in the sport and now belongs to the man who had already been the de facto “face” of the NBA for a decade.

“It was just an adjustment to play with someone of that caliber,” said Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ second-oldest and second-most decorated player at age 30 and with eight All-Star Games to James’ 19.

Davis is entering his fifth year with LeBron in Los Angeles, a spearhead to make time fly by. Davis came to Los Angeles through a trade pushed by his agent (and James’ agent), Rich Paul, with James’ full backing. They won a championship together in their first season. It was Davis’s first title and James’s fourth.

“Obviously, we made it work,” Davis said. “We keep trying to find ways to get back to where it’s working, you know, with me and with him and then also with the guys around us,” he later clarified that he was referring to winning another championship.

As hinted at above, James is still among the best players in the league. He averaged 28.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists for the Lakers at age 38, in the process surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most points in league history. This was followed by a surprising resurgence of the team in which James was at the forefront.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar presents LeBron James with the game ball after LeBron surpassed Kareem as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer in February 2023. (Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)

But his body, while perhaps not failing him as the bodies of aging superstars often do, has certainly gotten in his way. Injuries and wear and tear have cost him 111 games in five years with the Lakers.

The season that begins Tuesday in Denver will be LeBron’s first in which he has openly considered retiring when the previous season ended.

James also never had a preseason like the one that just concluded. He’s completely healthy, which is fantastic, considering the last few years of unfortunate breakdowns, but he barely spoke to the media during training camp. He violated NBA rules by refusing to speak after preseason games in which he played and, beyond that, showed a marked detachment from how he has handled most of the past two decades.

When he spoke to reporters in Los Angeles on Saturday for the first time in more than a week, he said his “motivation to continue to be as good as I can and solidify what I want to do in my career and continue to see Larry O’Brien trophy I have it in my mind every day” is what keeps him going in his third decade in the NBA.

“I also want to be legendary in this game and let my play speak for itself long after I’ve played it,” James added. “But this team has also motivated me. Coming to practice every day, seeing guys go to work every day, challenging each other, trying to get better every day. Implement what we want to do. And that has also been motivating.”

The LeBron experience, while continuing, is entering a new and perhaps final phase. The end date is uncertain, but as he retires as the league’s outside spokesperson, openly reflects on retirement, and moves into his 40s, playing with James, or watching him play, becomes more of an exercise in team appreciation. of work than of living. about any particular game or moment.

“That guy has given every ounce of his being to the game,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “He deserved the opportunity to be with his family, think about it, have some solace, meditation time and personal time to figure out what you want to do and how you want to move forward. It is up to us to be prepared to turn in whatever direction he decides to take. And, fortunately for us, he decided to return.”

Ham said James is noticeably lighter, not in terms of body weight but in mood, from this fall to last. The casual observer would agree that the usual pressures and dramas that often follow James are non-existent.

The Lakers renewed their entire roster at the trade deadline, going from Russell Westbrook, among others, to the approval of James. The Lakers’ trip to the Western Conference Finals and a strong summer with the addition of Vincent, Cam Reddish, Taurean Prince and Christian Wood as role players, as well as the re-signing of rising star Austin Reaves, placed James in a better place. with Lakers executives than perhaps ever has been.

If he declines a $51 million player option, James could become a free agent next summer. The serious health issue his son Bronny suffered over the summer that potentially delayed his entry into the NBA Draft could be the biggest factor affecting James’ free agency. He would like to be able to play on the same team as his son, if possible, but even if Bronny is in the draft (he intends to play at some point this season as a rookie at USC), most observers believe the Lakers We will find a way to make sure that happens in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, James’ already untouchable status as one of the greatest to ever play the game continues to rise, among his peers if not the general public.

“Some guys might say he’s No. 2, but others like me, I say he’s No. 1, and he still is,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said, making it clear that he believes James is the best NBA player of all. times ahead. by Michael Jordan.

Jordan is usually the favorite in that barbershop argument: He beat LeBron as the best, according to a panel of NBA experts in The Athletic two years ago. Last year, in The AthleticIn the annual player poll, Jordan again won the vote, but more players than ever chose James over Jordan.

“I think people will remember that 20-plus years of work or however long it’s been, and when it’s done, I think they’ll have more respect (for James),” said Damian Lillard, Giannis’ star teammate on the Milwaukee Bucks. “For the guys who are in this like me, and the rest of us who do this job, we have to put our bodies through this and deal with the pressure and having to perform and all these things to go along with our personal lives, I think the people like us respect him.

“But when it’s over, I think you, the fans who just watched it, will respect it more later.”

Lillard’s first year in the NBA was in 2012, following James’ first NBA title. Lillard said he was in eighth grade when LeBron made his NBA debut and to this day he marvels at how James exceeded the expectations placed on his career while under unprecedented scrutiny.

“I was watching it on ESPN back then, so to have that kind of hype and live up to it and then some,” Lillard said, “to come out as your all-time leading scorer in this league, to win like he does.” cattle, to be as scrutinized as he is and has been. … I can respect how he (has handled the pressure).”

Antetokounmpo’s first season was James’ last in Miami. Since then, LeBron returned to Cleveland for the second time, reaching four NBA Finals and winning the 2016 title. James then went to Los Angeles, where he became the first player in NBA history to be the NBA’s greatest player. on champion teams in three cities.

Giannis now has two MVPs and a championship to his name. He said James has provided the “blueprint” for any star seeking longevity at the top of the sport.

“For 21 years, you never got in trouble, being able to take in your family, protect this family, raise your kids the right way, you know, being happily married, all those things, it’s perfect,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s like it sets the template for the rest of us to follow. That is what I want. I want to be able to do what I do on the court consistently, be good, be healthy, be available for my team, be able to, you know, raise my family in a bubble away from what I do on the court for them. Have a normal life as much as you can. Don’t get into trouble.

“And hopefully, one day, you know, when the basketball game is over… maybe you’ll mention me?” I don’t know. But he sets the model that all athletes entering the NBA must follow.”

So here’s to another LeBron season. Enjoy it, as his presence as a basketball star remains more than just pictures on a wall.

Related listening

The Athletic: A podcast series about King’s Reign

Related reading

Amick: LeBron’s future in the NBA and beyond, and his lasting legacy
Vardon: LeBron and a ‘Beautiful Day’ for Cleveland’s first title since 1964

(Top photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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