WHEN LIFE IMITATES ART: LEBRON IS LOSING TO FATHER TIME FOR REAL
If he’s struggling with aging in the Nike ads, a Lakers season from hell is forcing a hobbling James to confront his NBA future beyond Los Angeles — he can’t possibly stay around for a lengthy rebuild
It was intended as a gag, a comedic self-tribute. Moonlighting in his side acting career, LeBron James taped a series of Nike commercials in which he challenges Father Time. At first, he rolls his eyes at the absurdity that he could succumb to basketball mortality … until Jason Momoa appears in a long, silver beard and purple robe and engages him in various athletic tests.
“CAN THE KING BEAT THE CLOCK?” a headline blasts across the screen as Father Time dribbles and backs down a nervous, soon-to-be-38-year-old while plotting his path to the basket.
Funny? Actually, at this rate, I’m half expecting Father Time to throw down a jam and posterize his feeble victim, who limps away with a tender groin and sore foot and looks very much his age.
If 2022 is the year of reckoning for all-time sports legends who thought they could dominate forever, with lovelorn Tom Brady atop the list, LeBron is looking at an abysmal, 60-loss season filled with health issues and a fate never thought possible: personal irrelevance. It’s largely his fault, as a malpracticing de facto executive, that the 2-9 Lakers are abominably and irreversibly constructed as one of the NBA’s worst teams. They can’t shoot the ball into the Pacific Ocean from the sand, a problem when a regulation cylinder is a smaller target. And they’re chasing away despondent celebrity fans to happier pursuits, such as Scientology.
“Our record,” James said glumly, “is our record.”
Soon enough, LeBron may be joining the cult himself. Anyone who has studied his insatiable appetite to win for two decades, and vomit-inducing aversion to losing, knows he’ll need a straitjacket amid failure’s settling stench. This is new and horrid territory for him, with six months of misery threatening to douse the thrill of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s career points leader. Needless to say, James would prefer 71 sedation-free colonoscopies over 71 more games with a last-place team.
Welcome to his dark reality. If the grand plan was to play out his career and help the Lakers contend for championships — this season and the next two, per the terms of his contract extension — well, that’s not happening. The franchise is doomed to a lengthy rebuild, a concept James can’t spell much less accept, and the emerging question is mind-boggling but very real.
Must he leave Los Angeles to avoid an ugly career twilight?
Yes, he must.
He can’t ask out this season, bound to the Lakers until the summer. James is ineligible for a trade because the second year of his extension includes a raise greater than five percent — a collective bargaining quirk. But already, as owner Jeanie Buss and general manager Rob Pelinka seek Hazmat suits and prepare to blow up their mess, LeBron knows the futility has just begun if a hopelessly brittle Anthony Davis is traded this season. Pelinka will have to overhaul what ails the roster — he’ll need to reboot with shooters, depth pieces, talent at every position — and he’ll be forced to do so with only two certain upcoming first-round picks, in 2027 and 2029. If Davis is gone and Russell Westbrook mercifully falls off the bone, here’s the wicked truth about the Lakers, franchise of 17 championships and a dozen retired numbers:
They won’t want LeBron James anymore.
They’ll have to trade him for a bundle of assets and start over.
Meaning, James already is pondering his next destination in a career defined by getaways when championships no longer are winnable. He responded to his first Cleveland dead-end by taking his talents to South Beach. When Miami was finished after two titles, he returned to northeast Ohio and won the impossible Cleveland sporting conquest. His mission accomplished, he signed in L.A. and won a bubble title that still doesn’t seem authentic. Do you really think he’d suffer through three gruesome, transitional seasons at Crypto.com Arena — fittingly in this case, The Crypt — when he won’t be around to experience eventual success?
Unless we’re misreading his competitive inferno, James won’t finish his career without having a chance for a title run or two. He won’t have as many options as you’d think next summer. Maybe Pat Riley brings him back to Miami. Mark Cuban surely would have him in Dallas for a collaboration with Luka Doncic. If Kevin Durant is stuck in Brooklyn, might LeBron join him? But Cleveland, which seems natural for a farewell journey with James and son Bronny, is no certainty. Since his 2018 departure, the Cavaliers have built an impressive Eastern Conference contender. Why break up a great group, led by early MVP candidate Donovan Mitchell, for Old Man LeBron and a son who might not be NBA-worthy?
But James will be elsewhere, for certain. And while the Lakers try to accommodate his preference, they also want the biggest return haul possible. In southern California, where every team is expected to contend every season, no one has time to wait for Buss and Pelinka. They have to strike quickly.
And they cannot, in good conscience, consider bringing in an antisemite. Was that LeBron’s long game Thursday when he tweeted support for the indefinitely suspended Kyrie Irving? Just days earlier, he had condemned Irving for supporting a film with anti-Jewish tropes. Now, James is breaking NBA rank and demanding that Irving be allowed to play, while referring to a list of reinstatement requirements by the Nets as “excessive.” Nike founder Phil Knight is among those severing ties with Irving, but LeBron doesn’t agree with the man who approves his commercials.
Tweeted James, still active on Elon Musk’s toy: “I told you guys that I don’t believe in sharing hurtful information. And I’ll continue to be that way but Kyrie apologized and he should be able to play. That’s what I think. It’s that simple. Help him learn — but he should be playing. What he’s asked to do to get back on the floor I think is excessive IMO. He’s not the person that’s being portrayed of him.
“Anyways back to my rehab session.”
Poor LeBron — ever think we’d describe him that way? — can’t even dream about 7-foot-3 Euro-monstar Victor Wembanyama. Because Pelinka agreed to a 2023 pick swap with New Orleans in the 2019 trade for Davis, a total tank job wouldn’t help the Lakers. The Pelicans get the higher of the two first-round picks between the teams land the uber-unicorn atop the draft. The only way the Lakers have a crack at Wembanyama is if a Davis deal nets them a first-round pick that falls into high-lottery territory — and even then, daily prayer would be required.
Oh, how James gushed over him. “We’re labeling like this unicorn thing, everybody’s been a unicorn over the last few years. But he’s more like an alien,” LeBron said. “I’ve never seen … No one has ever seen anyone as tall as he is but as fluid and graceful as he is out on the floor.”
Geez, the Lakers can’t even “Brick for Vic,” though they clank shots with the worst of them.
Last we heard from him Wednesday night, before he was diagnosed with a left abductor strain that will sideline him for days, LeBron was lamenting how the game officials no longer cut him slack. “I would like for the whistle to be blown when I get hit," he said. “I looked at a lot of guys tonight shoot a lot of jump shots and they're going nine, 13 times to the free throw line. I’ve got to learn how to flop or something. Seriously, I need to learn how to do that. Swipe my head back or do something to get to the free-throw line because the 'I missed it’ (explanation) is getting too repetitive. It's three games straight of ‘I missed it.’ ’’
This is what happens when a player loses leverage on a lowly team, even a player who belongs among the sculptures on Mt. Hoopsmore. As for how he injured his abductor muscle — his latest malady after weeks of left foot soreness and a virus that spread through the locker room — James isn’t sure what happened while routinely posting up the Clippers’ Paul George. “I didn't do anything extraneous on the play,” he said. “Just when I landed, I felt a little spasm or strain in my groin. So immediately I had to come out after that.”
It’s called getting old. It’s called losing to Father Time. Now, can he beat the clock and catch the next escape hatch out of hell?
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.