Imagine the last few days of LeBron James, the ecstasy and agony. Reaching an elite pinnacle in a sport that has only two men above him on the scoring least was a heady moment. Witnessed on national television on a Saturday night, the veneration of the James career was richly deserved and the night ended, as it should have, with a congratulatory phone call from Kobe Bryant, whom James had just passed on the leader board. Not twelve hours later, the lowest of lows, Bryant’s death sucking all the oxygen out the room. Suddenly, where James landed on the scoring list was inconsequential and temporarily irrelevant.
Trying to makes sense of the Bryant helicopter tragedy and mining his painful emotions, LeBron James posted a tender reflection on Instagram. He used the word responsibility but contextually it wasn’t really true. Kobe’s legacy isn’t the responsibility of LeBron James. Kobe took care of that on his own. The legacy that is in front of LeBron James is that of the Lakers in this preciously sad time. Life changes in an instant and James has to negotiate a way to feel Bryant’s presence but not carry grief’s freight. Where exactly will he place his fingertips?
In his seventeenth year, James has been asked questions about Bryant, as expected. But here is the symmetry. In his first year, James was questioned about Bryant as well. It was 2003 and Bryant was accused of sexual assault. Preternaturally mature, James deflected any kind of criticism and said he supported Kobe because the NBA is a brotherhood. That brotherhood is being tested with a level of trauma that was considered unthinkable before Sunday morning’s foggy Calabasas fugue.
Trying to find meaning in something that is so obviously abnormal is the challenge of LeBron James, and for that matter, the rest of the NBA tribe. But James particularly is the center point of all things normal. How he handles this very sensitive and painful moment will determine not just how the rest of the players in the NBA fall in line but how the Lakers march towards a NBA title.
It is so fragile within the Lakers ecosystem right now, the likelihood of everything falling apart isn’t far fetched. LeBron James leadership skills will be tested like they have never been before. He has to have the inner fortitude to set aside whatever personal feelings of sorrow he is carrying and be a tower of light that the team and organization can rest upon in their weariness.
Jeanie Buss and Rob Pelinka won’t get over their trauma anytime soon. You can’t be friends with someone that long and not carry the pain day after day. They are not okay and won’t be for a long time. LeBron has to be the symbol they can trust, a bridge from the past and into the future. He has to lead just about everyone. Work now. Cry later. Trust me.
If he manages to navigate the Lakers from under this tsunami, dragging bodies from emotional paralysis to breathing and competent, and if this 2019-20 season ends with a title, then LeBron James is the undisputed greatest of all time. He will have 4 rings. He will have participated in 8 NBA Finals in a row. He may have 4 Finals MVP’s to accompany his possible 5 regular season MVP’s. He will have led the league in scoring and assists in different years. He will have won a title for every team he has played for and also, he will have made history, the first title for Cleveland. He will be second all time in PER. 3rd in points. 4th in points per game. 2nd in Offensive Win Shares. 1st in Box Plus/Minus and Offensive Box Plus/Minus.
He will have guided a historic franchise through an emotional abyss.
Michael Jordan was dramatic, spectacular, unstoppable, brilliant in the moment, clutch, competitive. But Michael Jordan never had to compete or lead with the kind of traumatic stress that is facing King James. This is a pivotal moment in James career. A circumstance no one asked for, aided probably by mother nature, has James in the position of true north. He is being asked to stand tall in his Gettysburg moment. In this moment, he has to be General George G. Meade and make the enemy retreat.
It was Lincoln who said in the Gettysburg Address “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Lincoln was eulogizing dead soldiers and LeBron has to eulogize a dead friend. In that, LeBron and Lincoln have more in common than it may seem on the surface. Simply, leaders lead.
Show and not tell LeBron James. Because. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.