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MORE THAN A SUCKER PUNCH — A BLOW TO LEBRON’S LEGACY
With a vicious shot to the face of Detroit’s Isaiah Stewart, James not only risked another Malice at the Palace melee but exposed how he’s cracking as the Lakers struggle and he nears 37
The Chosen One, he was anointed as a teenager, and rarely has LeBron James disappointed in two subsequent decades in the public eye. But his 19th NBA season is becoming a smack in the face of his legacy. His career, by current ugly appearances, is more likely to end messily than with a golden crown befitting his nickname and Hollywood mogul-dom.
On a disgraceful night in downtown Detroit, not far from the Malice at the Palace crime scene, James sunk to his lowest professional depths. About a month from his 37th birthday, he should have shrugged off the feisty jostling of an opponent 17 years younger. The Los Angeles Lakers — old, fractured, pieced-together, defense-phobic, already far behind the revived Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference — need his presence for the process of saving their season before it crashes.
Instead, grappling for a rebound just after halftime four nights before Thanksgiving, James slammed his clenched left fist into the side of Isaiah Stewart’s face. The blood is still dripping, and we soon won’t forget how the young center tried to attack James several times, like a wounded animal, and had to be held back by teammates, coaches and security people who wrestled him to the locker room. Usually protected by officials, James was assessed the proper Flagrant 2 foul and tossed from the game after a video review. The fracas is the last black eye the league needs, already embroiled in the bad-behavior investigations of Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver and Portland Trail Blazers executive Neil Olshey, and now commissioner Adam Silver must deal with only the second ejection of James’ career.
He deserves a suspension of at least three games, perhaps more because of LeBron’s status in the association. He’ll plead it wasn’t intentional, but it most certainly was — and worse, he tried to sell his faux innocence to the officials by pointing at Stewart, who needed five stitches for the gash. James is supposed to be the ambassador, the paragon, the coolest head amid any trouble. Rather, he lost his poise against a 4-12 team and a kid project averaging 7.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in his two seasons with the Pistons.
More than the altercation itself, the moment will be remembered as the split-second when LeBron James cracked … and what it means in the gathering twilight of his basketball life. If Silver caves to political privilege and wrist-taps James, whose only Madison Square Garden appearance this season is Tuesday night, it would mock every attempt the league has made to ensure another infamous riot doesn’t happen.
“Fans, stay in your seats. Do not go onto the floor,’’ warned the public-address announcer, cognizant of the melee in nearby Auburn Hills, almost 17 years earlier to the date.
“We're back in Detroit, too. So, flashbacks," Lakers star Anthony Davis said. “Yeah, the NBA security, their security, our security, the coaching staff, even some players did a good job of trying to de-escalate the situation."
But Davis, who joined his teammates in protecting James as Stewart repeatedly tried to bullrush him, also hinted at what his friend might employ as a defense in the NBA courtroom. “Everyone in the league knows LeBron isn’t a dirty guy,’’ he said. “As soon as he did it, he looked back and told him, ‘My bad. I didn’t try to do it.’ I don't know what (Stewart) was trying to do. But I know nobody on our team, 1 through 15, was having it. We're going to protect our brother. I've never, in 10 years, seen a player try to do that. ... It's uncalled for. You got a cut above your eye, accidental-like, it wasn't on purpose. And we weren't going to allow him to keep charging our brother like that.’’
In the bigger picture, the incident revealed how James has unraveled in 2021. In retrospect, it might have been the better play to retire after The King’s fourth championship, in a bubble, when he proudly navigated the gloom and isolation of a pandemic while blazing his latest trail for social justice. But James responded to the misfortune and injuries of a shortened 2020-21 season by deciding to play general manager. He wanted Russell Westbrook. He wanted Carmelo Anthony. He wanted to roll back the clock 10 years, believing time couldn’t stop the Lakers.
But his body barked back. And his front-office skills were exposed as wanting. Once indestructible, with a frame chiseled from granite, James missed 10 games with ankle and abdominal injuries. This after missing significant time with a high ankle sprain last season and a groin strain in 2018-19. Is he finally breaking down after playing more than 61,000 NBA minutes, regular season and playoffs included? Without him, the Lakers looked lost, frayed, listless, a superteam devoid of cohesion and joy. His return alone won’t be enough for a dramatic U-turn. Before James came back Friday, Davis had said, “We suck. We’re not winning a championship the way that we’re playing.’’
Those chances don’t improve because of James’ sucker punch, which the Lakers are crediting, pathetically enough, as inspiring them to a 17-point comeback victory that evened their record at 9-9. “To me, it's one of those things that can change the momentum of your season," said coach Frank Vogel, whose job soon might be in jeopardy only 13 months after winning a championship. “To see guys rally around a teammate who got ejected like that in a strange circumstance … they played with incredible guts."
“The altercation, it could have done two things: It could have made us unravel or it could have brought us together and I think it did just that. It brought us together," said DeAndre Jordan, yet another aging veteran. “We were down, we could have easily folded and let go of the rope, but we didn’t.’’
“It’s unfortunate what happened, but we needed something to spark our fire,’’ Anthony said.
There’s a reason Westbrook and Anthony are looking for their first championships in lengthy careers. They aren’t champions. As Stewart charged toward the Lakers, Westbrook was ready to fight, squaring up his fists before he was pulled away by a Lakers security man. Impressing no one thus far in his southern California homecoming, he reacted to the technical foul whistled against him with his usual persecution complex. “Why'd I get a tech? I didn't know I had a tech. Wow. That's interesting,’’ he said. “Well, you know, that's just being Russell, I guess. When you're Russell Westbrook, they just try to do anything, apparently. Well, whatever. ... They had to put it on somebody. I'm the easiest person to throw s— on. Why not me?’’
“An escalator and not a peacemaker,’’ crew chief Scott Foster said of Westbrook and the technical.
Vogel wasn’t much better with his selective memory of the episode. “(James) had an elbow (from Stewart) to the rib cage, which was a foul and he was trying to shed the contact," he said, “and had incidental contact that was obviously enough for a Flagrant 2.’’
LeBron’s only smart move was not speaking to the media afterward. Who knows what he would have said? Two nights earlier, after the NBA’s second-worst defense allowed 130 points in a loss in Boston, he waxed passive-aggressively in defining the team’s challenge. “We damn sure need to play better, no matter who is in the lineup,” he said. “We have our system, and we need to obviously fast-track it and get better with it so we can play, no matter who is out on the floor, we can play at a high level. So, it’s never that we got 65 games and we’ll figure it out then. But there’s no level of panic. But there should be some sense of urgency anytime we take the floor.’’
If his message was a subtle, coded way of blaming Vogel, know this: In Cleveland, James engineered the midseason ouster of coach David Blatt, who was replaced by Ty Lue months after the Cavaliers reached the NBA Finals. That move led to a championship. With David Fizdale on the Lakers bench as an assistant, would James initiate another coaching execution?
At this point, with contenders defining themselves — and the Lakers on the distant periphery — desperation and age might make anything possible. The life of LeBron James finally is catching up to LeBron James. His activism and business affairs are colliding in a burning heap of hypocrisy. He decries social injustices in the U.S., including the acquittal of Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse, yet he leaves himself vulnerable to criticism with his sneaker and movie interests in China. Which explains the shoe choice of Celtics center Enes Kanter, whose custom sneakers worn in the Lakers game included an image of James being crowned by Chinese president Xi Jinping. Kanter posted photos on Twitter and wrote, referring to Nike sweatshops in China: “Money over Morals for the ‘King’ ... Sad & disgusting how these athletes pretend they care about social justice ... They really do ‘shut up and dribble’ when Big Boss (China) says so ... Did you educate yourself about the slave labor that made your shoes or is that not part of your research?" When James is busy answering questions about human rights issues, it’s harder to focus on team healing.
“I think if you know me, you know I don't give too many people my energy," James said of Kanter’s messages. “He's definitely not someone I would give my energy to. He's trying to use my name to create an opportunity for himself. I definitely won't comment too much on that. He always has had a word or two to say in my direction, and as a man, if you've got an issue with somebody, you really should come up to him. He had his opportunity tonight. I seen him in the hallway, and he walked right by me."
Not 48 hours later, he was an angry man, shaming a proud franchise and a league that needs perpetual leadership from him, not a slip into thuggery. “It was a tough play with Isaiah. His eye got cracked all the way open, and he was upset for a reason,’’ Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “I don’t think James is a dirty player.’’
But LeBron James was guilty of a dirty play. And as we rewound the viral clip, it was easy to leap toward a harsh projection. One of the epic careers known to basketball, and sport, might not be ending well.
Jay Mariotti, called “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.