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LEBRON BASKS IN THE ROLE OF PROUD PAPA — OF HIS SOARING TEAM AND HIS SON
Even if the Lakers fall shy of his fifth ring, James has bolstered his legacy by leading the quick renaissance of a reassembled team, as his son declares at USC and keeps his father’s NBA dream alive
He’s neither the talk of America nor the buzz of NBA Twitter. On any list of performers dominating the postseason, LeBron James is several scrolls down, below a rambunctious Nikola Jokic and a limping Jimmy Butler and a revived Joel Embiid and even his teammate, Anthony Davis, whose “AD” nickname sometimes stands for Alternating Days. Monday, James was a supporting cast member for a shocking lead actor, Lonnie Walker IV, who was so brilliant in scoring 15 fourth-quarter points and riddling Klay Thompson into dumb shots that Lakers fans are contemplating statues for the three previous Lonnie Walkers.
“The game ball definitely goes to him,” said the league’s all-time leading scorer and self-proclaimed Greatest Player Ever. “We don’t win without him.”
And this is how James always has wanted it, letting others have the shine and carry a few burdens and make some big shots, so the playoff grind doesn’t revolve around him and become an overly demanding LeBron-a-thon. That way, all the pressure isn’t on him and he proves to his detractors that he can make the players around him better, as Michael Jordan did. Let Davis, when healthy, showcase his defensive eminence and all-around talents. Let Walker emerge from end-of-the-bench oblivion to make as many field goals in the final dozen minutes as the entirety of the discombobulated Golden State Warriors, whose dynasty teeters today thanks to his pull-up jumper over Steph Curry, giving the Lakers the lead for good in downtown Los Angeles.
“Truth be told, it might sound narcissistic or not, but I'm in love with myself, and I want to be my best self," said Walker, in an all-time quote, after a 104-101 win pushed the Lakers to a 3-1 series lead. “So I think that's the real goal. I'm ambitious, and I'm eager to be where LeBron and AD are and become a star.”
No one has fallen in love with Walker and his teammates more than James. The Lakers might not be league championship material, but what they’ve accomplished already is a boon to LeBron’s legacy. A season that looked lost in the opening month has evolved into a blueprint on how to reboot on the fly, a roster-overhaul clinic that may have saved the job of general manager Rob Pelinka and altered James’ reputation as a front-office meddler who makes teams worse. Suddenly, names such as Austin Reaves, Dennis Schroder and Rui Hachimura are bigger celebrities than the Hollywood courtsiders, while the maddening likes of Davis and D’Angelo Russell rise to stardom on a given night. A No. 7 seed is about to make history and advance to the Western Conference finals. LeBron watches a team’s transformation like a proud papa, a patriarch more than a superstar, at times going long opening stretches without taking a shot.
"For me, I'm never a ‘force’ guy,” he said. “I’ve always been a guy to let the game come to me and make my imprint when needed."
It’s the very description of teamwork, the antithesis of a career in which he he has scored 38,652 points in the regular season and 7,857 in the postseason.
Consider his daily preachings about how to handle a postseason’s peaks and valleys. “For the young guys, just stay off the TV and stay off social media,” James said. “You win a game, everybody is the greatest player in the world; you lose a game, they're throwing dirt on you. It's literally that simple. It's all about training your mind for the next challenge. And, ‘What's the next challenge? This game is over with, we played well. OK, cool. But we got another.’ ’’
Oh, LeBron is still LeBron on the court, awaiting a next game Wednesday in San Francisco that could send the Warriors into a summer of discontent and their version of “The Last Dance.” But at 38 1/2, it’s more important than ever that he is lifted by others. When Walker rules a fourth quarter, it allows James to conserve energy on aging legs and initiate thunder drives that lead to critical free throws — which he is making, not missing as he has in the past — while switching defensively onto, say, Curry. For all his playoff struggles in guarding opponents, it was James who helped bottle up the Greatest Shooter Ever in a disastrous, 6-of-17 fourth quarter for the defending champions. Did you see his block of Curry’s would-be layup? As Thompson and Draymond Green were self-destructing and Jordan Poole was vanishing on the bench, Curry was pressing on an otherwise impressive, triple-double evening while dealing with James’ big body and long arms. Down by three points with 5.4 seconds left, a jump ball was tipped in Curry’s direction. He soared to catch the ball but fell to the floor. He didn’t call timeout this time — remember Game 4 of the Sacramento series, when he called a timeout his team didn’t have? — and he desperately tossed the ball over his head in hopes a teammate would retrieve it and make a miracle shot.
The ball went out of bounds, ending the game and probably the Warriors as we’ve known them. Kim Kardashian, Flea, Dave Chappelle and Dustin Hoffman rejoiced in unison. “I didn’t realize how long or how much time had run off and how long I was on the ground,” Curry said. “It felt like someone was behind me and I just let it go. It was a bang-bang play. I wish I had a little more awareness to maybe call a timeout knowing we had enough time. It just didn’t go our way.”
Who was that “someone” behind him?
Seconds later, he was on TNT with a reporter he knows, Chris Haynes. “Man, it’s time to get rest now,” he said. “I’m tired as hell, man, get out of my face.”
He played 43 minutes. Don’t be surprised if the Warriors, in front of an emotional Chase Center crowd, blow out the Lakers and prompt coach Darvin Ham to sit James and Davis in anticipation of a Game 6 clincher at Crypto.com Arena. James knows all about 1-3 deficits, having overcome one against the Warriors in 2016 to win his third ring. He also knows Golden State overcame a 1-3 deficit to beat Oklahoma City in that year’s Western Conference finals. “We made history before,” Thompson said. “The goal is to win one at home. We know we are capable of taking care of home court. It's about staying present and not looking ahead. It's fun to reflect on the past and learn from it and take that same competitive energy that brought us back in the past to today.”
Said coach Steve Kerr: “It feels like what it is: 3-1. You go home, take care of business, get a win, and the momentum is right back in your favor. That’s all it is. … The Lakers did a great job of holding serve here, so now we’ve got to go back and get a win at home and flip the momentum.”
Yet it’s hard to believe LeBron James would lose Game 6 at home, in a town that finally embraces him after experiencing the shock of Kobe Bryant’s death, when he’s so close to a late-career breakthrough. As a show-business mogul, he knows the story he’s writing for the actors and producers in the crowd.
“I think we’ll be ready,” he said of Game 5. “One thing about when you play Golden State, you don’t have an opportunity to relax. You just don’t. So I’m not worried about going in there comfortable. It’s not possible.”
He is approaching the West finals, three years after winning the franchise’s 17th NBA banner in the Orlando Bubble, knowing southern California is ready to erupt in a purple-and-gold orgy. He is about to expunge Curry, re-establishing that he has had the more accomplished career. His son just committed to play at USC, which keeps alive LeBron’s dream of playing with Bronny in the NBA, if only for a season or a few games.
“I was serious, and I’m still serious about it,” he said, even as scouts doubt Bronny’s NBA worthiness.
It’s what keeps him going, more than the championship chase, as 40 nears. “If my mind goes, then my body will be just like, ‘OK, what are we doing?’ ’’ he said, a roundabout way of suggesting eventual retirement.
For now, the proud papa can bask in the success of his team and his son’s future. “I’ve done what I've had to do in this league," James said. “My son is going to take his journey. And whatever his journey, however his journey lays out, he's going to do what's best for him. And as his dad — and his mom, Savannah, and his brother and sister — we're going to support him in whatever he decides to do. So, just because (an NBA tandem) is my aspiration or my goal, doesn't mean it's his. And I'm absolutely OK with that.”
For now, he tends to his other kids. They are one victory from a gift no one saw coming, including LeBron James.
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.