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HANDLE THE TRUTH: WINNING IS SERIOUS, LEBRON REMINDS GIANNIS AND MORANT
His fifth NBA title won't happen, but James is proving a point just as important, still performing at a high level and alive in the playoffs as Antetokounmpo rationalizes failure and Ja ponders life
This wasn’t an obligatory greeting, one of those kiss-the-ring, drive-by visits required at courtside in Los Angeles. LeBron James hugged Jack Nicholson like a lost relative, genuinely thrilled to see him in the familiar seat he hadn’t used in 16 months. The actor had stopped attending Lakers games amid troubling reports he was living reclusively in his mansion, his friends concerned about possible dementia at 85.
But dressed in a gray jacket and baggy pants, with white facial scruffle and those same mini-binoculars around his neck, Jack was back in his center-stripe perch for the first time since Crypto.com Arena was Staples Center. He wanted to see another older fellow prove an ongoing point. Nicholson couldn’t watch James lead the Lakers to their 17th NBA championship in 2020, when the postseason was staged in an Orlando bubble. He wasn’t among the few fans allowed inside for the 2021 playoffs. Last season was a washout.
His return is more than symbolic. He was there for the Showtime era. He was there for Kobe and Shaq and Phil Jackson. Now he’s there for LeBron, who might not win his fifth ring but sure as hell is performing like the best player of the postseason. He is 38 1/2. His son, Bronny, is about to sign with USC for his one-and-done college season. His team is one of the last four standing in the Western Conference, the first No. 7 seed to advance in 13 seasons. And if it seemed for years that James never would be loved like Kobe and Magic and Kareem and other franchise legends whose numbers are retired in gold — that he was another Midwest transplant dipping his toe into Hollywood — the fresh roars echoing through downtown, off the skyscrapers and homeless tents, signal that Jack and the rest of southern California are in for a May ride.
“This franchise is known for winning championships and winning big and playing in big games and being a part of the postseason — and the fans coming out tonight and having an opportunity to be part of that,” James said after eliminating the immature, too-yappy Memphis Grizzlies. “It was another moment I always envisioned when I became part of this franchise.’’
Are the locals finally appreciating him? Is he warming hearts of the faithful who still worship Kobe Bryant in memoriam? “The connection, I think you gotta ask the Laker fans. I feel welcome,” he said. “I’m happy to go out there and perform and showcase what I'm still able to do, 20 years in the game. Hopefully, I'll add to more memories they've had for so long with so many great players and great teams. Hopefully, I can be a part of some of those memories.”
The world will have to handle the truth, invoking Nicholson’s immortal movie line. LeBron is very serious about winning, hellbent on teaching lessons. His coach, Darvin Ham, thought he was arriving early at the arena Friday. James already was on the court at 3 p.m., tipoff still more than four hours away. “He's playing with a sense of urgency,” Ham said. “He knows there's only so many more of these (postseasons) he's going to be able to participate in. So he's definitely been in the moment.”
He is advancing with a team rebuilt on the fly — Austin Reaves as the life-loving country boy in la-la land, D’Angelo Russell ignoring that Kyrie Irving was in the house and wants his job, the likes of Rui Hachimura and Dennis Schroder and Jarred Vanderbilt making their names known — all while LeBron’s bubble-title mate, Anthony Davis, remains healthy and dominant. When James and Davis are healthy in a playoff series, the Lakers are 5-0. The trend arrow is pointing up.
For now, that is.
Who knows how long the run will last? Does anyone see this team surviving to the Finals when the Phoenix Suns, health permitting, are emerging as the logical and loaded pick to win the conference? Even Michael Malone, coach of the top-seeded Denver Nuggets, conceded that Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Chris Paul should be favored in a Western semifinal that begins Saturday night. “We know how talented they are,” Malone said. “There’s a reason they are the odds-on favorite to come out of the West right now.”
Yet this is no boondoggle, what LeBron is pulling off here. The Lakers have won 14 of their last 18 after starting 2-10 way back when. James easily could have flushed the season, settling for a new life as Bronny’s Dad. Instead, he chose to embarrass other kids. When Dillon Brooks referred to him as “old” after a Memphis victory in Game 2, James took him aside before the next game and told him to prepare for an impending spanking. Ja Morant, too, knows he must grow up after his nightclub gun-brandishing debacle prompted an eight-game suspension and disrupted his team’s season. “I’ve just got to be better with my decision-making," he acknowledged after shooting blanks — 3 of 16 — in the 125-85 rout. “That's pretty much it. Off-the-court issues affected us as an organization pretty much. Just (need) more discipline.”
He and his teammates should sit back and study James, as long as he lasts this postseason. So should Giannis Antetokounmpo. In one of the startling collapses in recent league history, the Milwaukee Bucks came undone and allowed the warrior spirit of Jimmy Butler to advance with the Miami Heat in the East. The failure should lead to the firing of coach Mike Budenholzer, who didn’t use a timeout as his frazzled team was in free-fall. Thus, the countdown starts on Giannis’ next destination — L.A., Golden State, Miami, Europe, nowhere? — if he eventually departs in free agency or, egads, forces a trade. These are rough times in Wisconsin, where the Cheeseheads could lose Aaron Rodgers and Giannis in the same window.
What no one needed to hear — despite the applause of people who don’t understand the primal mission of sports — was Antetokounmpo’s strained rationale when asked if the season was a failure. Of course, it was a failure, with the Bucks choking away a possible second championship in the Giannis era. He tried to insist otherwise.
“Do you get a promotion every year, in your job? No, right? So every year you work is a failure?” said Antetokounmpo, anguished yet misguided as he spoke directly to a reporter in a post-mortem press conference. “Yes or no. No? Every year you work, you work towards something, towards a goal, which is to get a promotion, to be able to take care of your family, provide a house for them, or take care of your parents. You work towards a goal — it’s not a failure. It’s steps to success.
“There’s always steps to it. Michael Jordan played 15 years, won six championships. The other nine years (were) a failure? That’s what you’re telling me? … Why do you ask me that question? It’s the wrong question. There’s no failure in sports. There’s good days, bad days. Some days you are able to be successful, some days you’re not. Some days it’s your turn, some days it’s not your turn. And that’s what sports is about. You don’t always win. Some other people are going to win. And this year, somebody else is going to win. We’re going to come back next year and try to be better.”
Maybe he’s been watching too many “Ted Lasso” episodes, especially in a Season 3 going off the rails. But sports is not frivolity. This is an $800 billion industry. Fans invest significant money, time and energy. Gamblers go broke, lose jobs and families. Teams that win championships are honored in history. Teams that flop are shamed. Legacies are formed, for better or worse.
The other day, Antetokounmpo revealed that he considered walking away from the league in 2020. That was the year LeBron James not only won his fourth title but flourished as a social crusader in a racially torn, pandemic-dazed America. Think he didn’t want to quit at times in Covid confinement?
He chose to lead, win and inspire.
“He’s not a normal human being,” Reaves said.
Another championship isn’t necessary. Already, he has won something as important. Jordan is the Greatest Of All Time as a champion, a mogul, a global force-field continuum. LeBron’s legacy is that he never stopped trying to one-up him. Let Giannis watch “Ted Lasso.” Let Ja think hard about life.
The old man has another postseason series to play.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.