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THERE IS NO ESCAPE HATCH, LEBRON — ACCEPT IT WITH DIGNITY
James always has sought a new team when his journey goes sideways, but this time, thanks to his own failures in forming an old and unlikable Lakers roster, there is nowhere to go but Beverly Hills
Happy birthday, LeBron James. The Big Four-Oh is starting to give you the stink eye, isn't it? Whose idea was it to have Russell Westbrook clog the salary cap and throw away the ball seven or nine times a game? And let Carmelo Anthony smile in his sunglasses after losses? And assemble a G League team — G for geriatric — that can't score or stop anyone?
Oh, yeah, it was your idea, as the power broker who has the ears of the owner and general manager and the puppet strings of an agent who does the backroom dirty work. The Goon Squad in your "Space Jam: A New Legacy'' debacle was more likable than the Lakers, who pout and slouch and dodder and plead for patience — "How can we really fully assess what we have when we haven’t been whole?'' you say — when every other NBA team has dealt with similar absences and challenges amid the ongoing COVID-19 slaughter.
That includes the Warriors and Suns, old man, who are established as the league's premier teams and will control the Western Conference for years to come. Which means — seeing how you're 37 and your team is struggling to reach .500 while routinely losing to wannabes — you have won your last championship in basketball life. That's right. You're done with champagne showers. The grand design, I know, was to team with Anthony Davis and win two more titles, giving you six, the same number as Michael Jordan, pumping fuel into the LeBron-trumps-MJ idiocy. Then you'd have a glorious father-son romp in 2023-24, the first season Bronny is eligible for the NBA, and turn it into a personal famous final scene before yelling "That's a wrap!'' on your astounding career.
Sorry to say, the storybook ending isn't happening for the Hollywood mogul. Davis has an MCL sprain, injured as always, and Westbrook is a nightly eyesore and fan pariah getting little help from a disastrous cut-and-paste roster. So, LeBron James, what are you thinking now? Every time you reach a dead end in your journey, you run. You tore off your jersey in Cleveland after quitting a playoff series and took your talents to South Beach. When it was clear the Heat couldn't win more than twice, you returned to Cleveland, where you won an elusive trophy for a sports-cursed home region. Inevitably, Los Angeles beckoned, and you turned the Disney World Bubble into your own bedtime story, winning a fourth title, crusading for social justice and lobbying enough voters to topple a U.S. president. You could have retired on top then, 14 1/2 months ago.
But you wanted more. You decided to run the front office and take a wayback machine deep into the last decade, painfully refusing to acknowledge that the sport belongs to Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and a treasure trove of twentysomethings: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, Devin Booker and Ja Morant, who lit you up the other night in Memphis, scoring 16 points down the stretch to erase a 13-point deficit, while you were committing a backbreaking turnover — your fifth — with 6.7 seconds left. "We understand that we have a lot of attackers, but the careless turnovers where literally you just turn the ball over, there's no pressure or reason for it, those are the ones that get us in trouble," you say. It's not that you are diminishing, LeBron. You're still playing out of your freakin' mind some nights, delivering out-of-body experiences, performing like the greatest player of your generation.
The problem is that your efforts, no matter how stupendous, won't be leading to a happy ending. You are in danger of missing the playoffs and not seeing the postseason again — and you made the mess. "To watch it and to be a part of it even though those games are turning into 'L's, I’ve never seen anything like this guy,'' says your interim head coach, David Fizdale, "and we better sure as hell be thanking our lucky stars for this guy. He has given us the most beautiful basketball for the last however many years.'' And that part won’t stop, nor will you broach retirement. “I’m still playing at such a high level. I haven’t given it much thought,” you say. “I’m on the other side of the hill, so we’ll see where the game takes me. We’ll see where my body takes me and my mind. As long as my mind stays fresh and my body stays with that, I can play the game.”
You claim not to care about legacy. That is b.s. This is killing you. You want to be Tom Brady, winning championships in your twilight years, not fading into springtime irrelevance. What now, LeBron? Do you just accept the Lakers are in cap hell, thanks to your push for Westbrook and his empty triple-doubles and your foolish goodbye wave to important cogs such as Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma? Trading Davis would free up money, but that would be counterproductive to the original master plan and not yield a return that would threaten the Warriors or Suns. Antetokounmpo has talked about leaving Milwaukee someday, but not anytime soon. Doncic might not be long-term in Dallas, but his departure is years away. Zion Williamson might never reach his potential because of injuries and weight problems. James Harden will be a free agent, but that's just another bad chemistry experiment and untenable massive contract. Maybe Zach LaVine wants to flee Chicago for warm weather — Davis, remember, has said he'd like to play for his hometown Bulls.
But this roster, as you know, LeBron, needs a total overhaul. And the NBA is in coronavirus hell, making rebuilds even more difficult. There is no purple-and-gold solution. This is how it ends for you — bad losses, the continuing demise of Westbrook and Anthony. Even the weather has been sucking in L.A., cold and rainy, not much better than it is in …
I'm sure it has crossed your mind. You are LeBron James, the all-time sports mercenary, and why stay stagnant and dismal when an uplifting narrative can be pushed? You've gone home before. Why not again? Yep, you've thought about it. Unlike the Lakers, the Cavaliers are on the rise, having reconstructed their script behind three 7-footers, including rookie prize Evan Mobley. A young scorer is in the house, guard Darius Garland, and even familiar hand Kevin Love is happy. That team is young, spirited, hopeful and plays defense for coach J.B. Bickerstaff. Your team is old, crotchety, slow, living in the past and has the body language of a garbage-truck crew. You wouldn't win a title there, but you'd make more playoff noise in the East. And that way, you and Bronny could hang in your former stomping grounds, eat at Swensons, the famed burger joint in Akron. Northeast Ohio would welcome you back, obviously.
But forget it. Why would the Cavs want you? The owner you never have trusted, Dan Gilbert, already has extracted what he wanted from you all along: the Larry O'Brien Trophy. They are building something for the distant future, which doesn't mesh with a LeBron farewell tour.
Anywhere else? Oh, Pat Riley would invite you back to Miami, but with the Heat already among the East's best teams, why tear apart a roster for a year or two of LeBron? A New York career finale works for the history books, but the Knicks are as hopeless as the Lakers.
No, you wanted Hollywood, and like so many California dreamers, you've hit a skid after initial success. You have your film projects, your TV show with childhood chum Maverick Carter, your agency with Rich Paul, your NIL deals with college and high-school athletes. Eventually, the sun will come out, and Beverly Hills will be Beverly Hills. But this joyride is not going to conclude as you envisioned, as recently as last year. The boos are painful, from Lakers fans who always will view Kobe Bryant as their beloved icon, regardless of your Bubble title. Your frustration is showing — the night in Detroit when you clocked Isaiah Stewart with a cheap shot and left him dripping blood down Woodward Avenue, the night you had two fans ejected in Indianapolis and, most recently, the foolish tweet in which you mocked the deadly magnitude of COVID-19 by sharing a "Spider-Man'' meme to illustrate that "COVID'' was similar to a "cold'' and the "flu.''
It caught the attention of another esteemed member of the Lakers family, social commentator Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who described the post "a blow to (your) worthy legacy.'' He continued: "The implication is that LeBron doesn’t understand the difference among these three illnesses, even after all the information that’s been presented in the press. … While LeBron is a necessary and dynamic voice critical of police brutality against the Black community, he needs to be the same necessary and dynamic advocate with vaccines, which could save thousands of Black lives right now.''
You saw it. You were hurt. The backlash hurts.
"No, I don't have a response to Kareem at all,'' you said. ''And if you saw the post and you read the tag, you know (I'm) honestly asking 'help me out.' I think people forgot about the flu. People like literally forgot about the flu during these times like that's still going around, it's flu season. People have forgot about common colds. That happens, especially with a lot of our kids that's in school.''
Whatever you say anymore, however you perform on the court, you cannot win. One of the greatest winners known to basketball has become a loser. In words from a famous Hollywood script, you will continue to be "mad as hell!'' and "not going to take it anymore!'' Some night soon, I'm guessing you will crack and suggest you would welcome a change of scenery.
But with 2022 upon us, there is nowhere else to go. There is no easy escape hatch. You could be in worse places than L.A., playing out your final years. Just grasp the harsh reality: This is how it ends, with no more Finals appearances, only a continuing climb up the all-time leader lists — you are third in scoring, closing in on Karl Malone, with a scant chance of passing Kareem at the top. You will suffer more injuries, and there will be days you think about retiring. Geez, the arena in downtown L.A. isn't even called Staples Center anymore. We just know it is as the House That Kobe (and Shaq) Built.
You are not Tom Brady. You are not Chris Paul, for that matter. By your own making, you find yourself on a bad team with no future. And this time, as sands sift through the hourglass, make damned sure you play out the chapters with dignity. Allow for a southern California sunset, would you?
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.