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UNLIKE JORDAN, LEBRON HAS LOST US WITH HIS WANDERING EYE
Every time James faces NBA adversity, he seeks an escape hatch — he’s floating a father-son finale in Cleveland — and the exercise is starting to feel stale after Jordan always stayed put in Chicago
If we must go there again, down a rabbit hole that should have been sealed and padlocked years ago, then let me say this for LeBron James in his un-winnable eternal debate. Not once, during two-plus decades in the searing public eye, has he slid into the scandal crapper. Michael Jordan did, gambling with degenerates and straying in marriage. LeBron avoided the darkness, far as we know, and we would know in the 21st century.
Which is why it’s beyond aggravating to see him violate what Jordan always held sacred — permanence, perseverance, an entire championship run with the Chicago Bulls. Jordan only was being polite when he shared a quick chat with James during the NBA’s 75th Anniversary celebration Sunday, saying, “You’re gonna do it, you’re gonna do it. Good luck.’’
That could mean anything, but what it doesn’t mean is surpassing Jordan as the Greatest Of All Time. Michael knows the real: LeBron’s wandering eye has turned off the sports world.
For a fourth time, James is plotting an escape to another team instead of facing down a competitive roadblock. First he tore off his jersey and left Cleveland. Then he fled Miami after two NBA titles, realizing he never should have predicted “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven’’ championships. Then he returned to his native northeast Ohio, won the unthinkable title in a cursed city, and inevitably left for Los Angeles, where he muttered something about retiring as a Laker after winning a Disney World Bubble stuffed doll just 16 months ago.
Now, as predicted here recently, he’s fixated on a third and final run in his home region. “The door’s not closed on that,’’ James told The Athletic, knowing full well where his sneakers were laced, in Cleveland at the All-Star Game. He wants to play at least one NBA season with son Bronny, who is eligible to be drafted in 2024, which aligns with the expiration of his Lakers contract. Always thinking in Hollywood terms, LeBron sees a famous final scene where he and Bronny embrace and go their separate ways. The only problem: It’s a convenient copout, a nice way of spinning that he knows the Lakers are finished as serious title contenders.
Their 27-31 stinkbomb is largely his fault, of course. He’s the one who recruited Russell Westbrook, which even basketball novices knew was a bad idea, and he’s the one who thought Anthony Davis would stay healthy despite the lack of evidence. So rather than answer questions from the national media about a losing season, one that might require victories in two play-in games to merely reach the postseason, LeBron the storyteller creates a family yarn to deflect the negatives.
This is how he operates. Some of us see right through him.
“My last year will be played with my son,’’ James said. “Wherever Bronny is at, that's where I'll be. I would do whatever it takes to play with my son for one year. It's not about the money at that point."
He might regret those words if Bronny is drafted by Sacramento or Minnesota. It’s part of his grand design to blame the Lakers’ failures on the front office, though the biggest mistake by owner/president Jeanie Buss and general manager Rob Pelinka was listening to James’ misguided personnel judgments. LeBron has spent recent days taking indirect cheap shots at Pelinka, in particular, praising Los Angeles Rams GM Les Snead for trading high draft picks to build a Super Bowl champion. When Snead modeled a t-shirt with the inscription — “F— them picks’’ — James tweeted, “My kind of guy.’’
He arrived for All-Star Weekend media interviews with another scheme: He went out of his way to praise the acumen of Sam Presti, basketball boss of the Oklahoma City Thunder, after a question about the emerging Josh Giddey. “The MVP over there is Sam Presti. He's the MVP,’’ he said. "I mean, Josh Giddey is great. But Sam Presti, I don't understand this guy's eye for talent. He drafted (Kevin Durant), Russ (Westbrook), Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Josh Giddey and the list goes on and on and on. This guy is pretty damn good."
OK, we get it. James wants everyone to know he’s mad at the front office, with one last bomb dropped when his Klutch Sports agent, Rich Paul, leaked disgust that Pelinka didn’t trade Westbrook and a future first-round pick for another problem child, John Wall, who happens to be a Klutch client. Fine, they’re warning the Lakers to be aggressive in the offseason. But damn it, LeBron, at some point you might stop being a baby and own your blunders. YOU WANTED RUSSELL WESTBROOK. YOU HAD HIM OVER TO YOUR BEVERLY HILLS HOUSE FOR DINNER WITH DAVIS. WHY MUST I TYPE IN ALL CAPS?
Because it’s the only way to blast through his truth cancellation earbuds. He thinks only what he wants to think.
As he made abundantly clear through the years, most recently on “The Last Dance’’ documentary series, Jordan encountered his own issues with Bulls management. He could have fled to New York, where the Knicks were offering him the Garden and Statue of Liberty, but he stayed and added three more championships to his first three-pack. His decision to remain in Chicago wasn’t about loyalty; he couldn’t stand GM Jerry Krause and only tolerated owner Jerry Reinsdorf. No, he was stubborn, driven to pile-drive through the b.s. and prove he could win despite the in-house obstacles and controversies. He beat the Sonics, the Jazz twice AND the Jerrys. He never ran, leaving only after management sabotaged coach Phil Jackson and dismantled the dynasty.
LeBron? At the first sign of harsh reality, he runs. By planting the Cleveland seed now, he wants the surging Cavaliers to look ahead and make the James & Son scenario happen. His warfare with owner Dan Gilbert long has been buried. And Gilbert, out of the NBA spotlight since James’ 2018 departure, knows a love-and-kisses farewell story when he sees one. All LeBron had to do was acknowledge the good work of Koby Altman, who has constructed one of the league’s best young rosters, including All-Stars Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, gifted big man Evan Mobley and scorer Caris LeVert.
“I think Koby and those guys have done an unbelievable job drafting and making trades,” said James, schmoozing all the way. “I think big fella (Allen), that acquisition was amazing for them. Obviously, Darius Garland is a big-time player. And I think the role that Kevin (Love) is playing right now has kind of uplifted those young guys, seeing a veteran that could sacrifice, a champion that’s won a championship, all the things he’s done, to come off the bench and play this role. I am not surprised by anything that they’re doing right now.”
Other than dance naked on the shores of Lake Erie and shout at Altman — “Sign us! I’m cheap! We’re coming home!’’ — there’s nothing more for James to convey. It’s possible his wish won’t happen because, well, unless the draft is rigged — which is always possible — there’s no guarantee Bronny is positioned to be the pick when the Cavs are up in 28 months. Garland was asked if he has pondered a future with James. He said no, laughing.
“Our guys want to make our own legacy,” he said. “It’s a new look, a new feel. It’s a rebirth in Cleveland.”
It would serve LeBron James right, as he nears 40 in the summer of 2024, that he couldn’t maneuver the father-son package to a place where he could win one last ring. Brilliant as he is playing now, extending his precious prime beyond that of Jordan and nearly every player who has walked the hardwood, teams can’t just tear up rosters to accommodate the old man and a lad who might not be NBA-worthy. Not that he didn’t keep advancing the idea as he played to the home crowd during pre-game introductions, standing on the stage and screaming while motioning with his fingers for the crowd to get louder.
“When they said, ‘From Akron, Ohio, the kid from Akron, Ohio,’ that was pretty cool,’’ James said. “And then just hearing the ovation that I got from these fans here, they’ve seen 11 years of my NBA career. … I mean, these guys have followed my journey. For me to be back here … and for them to give me that warm welcome, didn’t only mean something to me, but it meant something to my family and friends that are here, and my kids from my school (for at-risk children in Akron) are all over this place. It’s just super dope. Super, super, super dope, and I was very humbled and appreciative of that.”
The most dignified path would be staying where he is, in L.A., realizing he created his own Lakers mess and letting Bronny start his pro career — NBA G League, anyone? — in the city where he’s finishing his high school years at Sierra Canyon School. But Daddy is obstinate, difficult.
“Life just changes,” he said. “You have a mission and you have more goals that you want to set out, you know? When I won a championship (in Cleveland), I didn’t think that I would go anywhere, because I felt like I was complete. And then I realized that I still wanted to, I wanted to reach another level. I wanted to reach another level, so it wasn’t done. My life goal wasn’t complete.”
Might he feel whole as he begins to accept, in the world’s entertainment capital, the entirety of what he has accomplished in Hollywood and beyond? You know: luxuriate in his mansion, stare at the sunsets and count his life blessings? Isn’t it enough to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar atop the list and know you’ve scored more points, by shooting a ball through a hoop, than anyone else who lived? Aren’t four championships plenty?
Nah. “I don’t play midlevel basketball,” James said. “I don’t come back for anything below the top.”
Maybe it’s time for a scandal. Otherwise, his story is starting to grow stale. As they say in the movie biz, LeBron is jumping the shark.
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.