Nine months after the death of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James has carried the grieving Lakers franchise from sorrow to joy. Lakers excellence has lightened the despair. I must say, it’s been a strange, crazy, peculiar, Covid nine months that no one imagined when LeBron James first came here during the summer of 2018.
In the summer of 2018, some fans- you know who you are- couldn’t accept LeBron in purple and gold. It drove them to levels of insantiy, or at the very least, perspective was lost. A LeBron James mural was repeatedly vandalized, forcing the artist to throw in the towel and paint over it. Defacing a piece of art because Kobe mattered more was childlike Disrespect for the artist who spent days creating his masterpiece was focusing on the wrong thing. This is a town of creative people and creation is revered: that was part of the Kobe Bryant aura. And yet, those of us who witnessed the Kobe idolization take a dark turn and grow more manic and paranoid (and much later), become grief-stricken and paralyzed, are not surprised it would get out of hand in the very beginning with LeBron James.
Whenever LeBron James name was mentioned around town during the summer of 2018, eye rolls ensued. He was a diva. He failed gloriously. He didn’t dominate with his willfulness. The Decision was a disaster and he was too immature or narcissistic or passive-aggressive to figure that out beforehand. He wasn’t Kobe and at the same time- and this was the irony- he was Kobe. He couldn’t get along with another superstar either, albeit the Kyrie Irving dissonance was much quieter than the Kobe-Shaq feuds.
When LeBron chose them, Laker fans were giddy but watchful, excited, predictive about championships, but cynical. Many ignored the past and were damned glad the losing drought was in the rearview mirror and that LeBron James chose an incomplete team. But despite all of the euphoric ecstasy from Malibu to Silverlake, there was in 2018, the Kobe problem.
He wasn’t a ghost. Kobe Bryant was a 20-year lifer. He lasted longer than many cars, marriages, jobs, friendships, good credit. He endured year after year after year. He was in our midst a teenager. A young man. An adult. Losing hair. On the freeways. At the mall. Dating. Married. With Kids. Facing trial. Chilling at In-N-Out. At the movies. Parent problems. Back-to-back-to-back champion. Back-to-back champion. Achilles rip.
His basketball beginning and basketball ending dovetailed into a perfect storm that rarely happens in any sport much less professional basketball. Kobe changed the Lakers and the city. And then he tragically died.
3,773 days of mediocrity have passed. The mother of all droughts is over because LeBron James did the unthinkable and the magical when he replaced Kobe Bryant as superstar extraordinaire. He breathed into the Lakers badly needed oxygen. And like Lazarus, LeBron raised the Lakers from the dead. He reintroduced the Lakers to the NBA Finals.
When LeBron entered the league, Bryant’s sexual assault trial was the NBA news and LeBron handled it like a pro even at 18. He said he supported Bryant because he was a member of the league and all members are united. LeBron had a preternatural maturity that would shapeshift his career through its multiple iterations. The media participated in the LeBron romance, viewing him as the anti-Kobe. He was warm. He was likable. He wasn’t arrogant. Teammates wanted to play with him. LeBron had a socialist’s game, everyone was enabled. He wanted to make teammates better while Bryant wanted to just be better.
They both played with Shaq and Luke Walton. They got to know each other on the Olympic team and it was one more LeBron classroom, how Bryant woke up before everyone else, was in the gym sweating and working out before the sun rose, how serious he prepared, how his aggression and ruthlessness was his DNA. And then in China during the Olympics, the way he was fetishized among the Chinese public made his teammates want that very same thing. Global stardom.
While LeBron was trying to figure out NBA excellence, Los Angeles was already a Kobe town. It was a Kobe town because he did what L.A. folk want their athletes to do. Stay. Love the organization. Compete. Don’t make excuses. And deliver titles. Stay. Love the organization. Compete. Don’t make excuses. Deliver titles.
LeBron in L.A. Stay. Love the organization. Compete. Don’t make excuses. Deliver titles. Deliver Titles. Deliver titles.
LeBron is not ours. LeBron is borrowed. He is Akron. He is Cleveland. He is Miami. He is the Olympics. And politics. And movies. And Klutch Sports. LeBron has had a bunch of iterations and changing courses and shifting shapes but always excellence and getting to the Finals is his thing.
It will be 9 NBA Finals appearances in 10 years. As a stat, it doesn’t even seem real but it is true. Dallas. OKC. San Antonio. San Antonio. Golden State. Golden State. Golden State. Golden State.
LeBron came to Los Angeles a proven commodity. He was a regular-season MVP, a Finals MVP, and an Olympian. In Los Angeles, he had his eye on the end game: an NBA title. His dream of being a billionaire was still on course. Multi-talented LeBron is interested in everything, he isn’t a mythic figure. He isn’t a fantasy. We didn’t raise him. He didn’t come here as nothing and become everything. LeBron was everything and here in the land of milk and honey, he wanted to be even more. We are his end. Not his start. Not his middle.
No matter. An NBA title makes you a Laker for life and puts your name in the pantheon. Magic, Shaq, Kobe. LeBron.
But LeBron in lights comes after an NBA title in 2020. Only after. You can’t get there because you dreamed it or willed it. We’re not the Clippers, paper championships are worthless. LeBron has to win here. For real. It’s the only requirement to be included among the Gods.