On a memorable NBA All-Star night, LeBron James still looms above the rest
Winning titles in Miami was about self-fulfillment. Winning one in Cleveland was for all the people back home. But winning one in Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant’s Lakers? That would be a gift to the basketball universe.
Well, that didn’t take long at all.
Two minutes into the NBA All-Star Game, LeBron James dribbled alone into the frontcourt, chose his angle to the basket, took off like an Airbus, rocked the cradle and threw down a reverse, two-handed jam.
Just like that, everyone at the United Center got their money’s worth.
There’s still no one else in the game quite like James, a 16-time All-Star. For one thing, no one else on a one-man fast break elicits such sounds of breathless anticipation.
Michael Jordan did that, and then some.
Kobe Bryant did it, too.
It’s those two and James, in this small way and in a hundred others. They are joined, three distinct pieces of a whole, icons of icons, the sport’s greatest superstars and showmen.
Kawhi Leonard can hit all the three-pointers he wants, as he did Sunday. Trae Young can beat the buzzer from halfcourt. Giannis Antetokounmpo can have an All-Star team named after him, just as James did.
But as rapper Common said while announcing the rosters, “We continue to witness his reign.”
He meant James, of course, the last player introduced, the star of stars, the best baller on the planet.
But with that comes a whole lot of responsibility. More specifically, for James it means needing to win like never before.
Forget the All-Star Game. We’re talking championship rings. James won two of those in Miami and another one — the most meaningful of the three — in Cleveland.
Winning in Miami was about self-fulfillment. Winning in Cleveland was for all the people back home. But winning in Los Angeles with Bryant’s Lakers, whom James, 35, joined two summers ago?
That would be for Kobe. That would be for all the young players, those in the NBA and those striving to get there, who were gutted by Bryant’s late-January death in a horrible helicopter crash. That would be for sweet Gianna Bryant and the seven others who perished that day.
It would be — is this too much? — a gift to the basketball universe.
James has all that on his shoulders now. He might not agree with that out loud, but how could he not feel it?
“I don’t believe in pressure,” he said. “If you work at your craft and you dedicate yourself to your craft, then whatever happens, happens.”
But the truth is “whatever” isn’t good enough. Not in terms of James’ legacy relative to those of Jordan and Bryant, anyway.
The Lakers are the betting favorites to win the Finals. They’ll surely be one of the favorites, if not the favorite, for as long as James and Anthony Davis are in purple and gold together.
Jordan was 6-0 in Finals series. Bryant was 5-2. James is 3-6 — a marvel that he played for it all nine times, including eight seasons in a row, but still a cruddy-looking record that separates him a bit from the other two men.
It’s worth acknowledging that Jordan’s Bulls were the betting favorites heading into all six Finals, and that James’ teams were Vegas underdogs heading into seven of nine Finals. So, there you go — acknowledged.
In L.A., the land of “Showtime” and the “Mamba Mentality,” that excuse won’t ever cut it again.
“We know that [Bryant] is watching over us,” James said, “and that it’s our responsibility to just represent the purple and gold not only for him but for all the greats, everybody that’s ever come through the ‘Lake Show.’ ”
James by now is beyond used to being compared with Jordan and Bryant, both individually and as a twosome. Jordan was the ultimate winner and retired a champion. Bryant was driven like no one else, scored 60 points in his last NBA game and now is, for so many, a hero mourned.
James appears to be as deserving of admiration — on and also off the court — as anyone. He’s a family man, a willing mentor, a gentleman with the media and public. Still, for whatever it’s worth, it’s probably both fair and accurate to say James has never really been revered in quite the same way Jordan was and has never really been loved in quite the same way Bryant was.
If he is in any way the weak link of the three, James can end that forever by winning a fourth ring. Or even — just imagine it — one for the thumb.
Otherwise, he fails. Kind of hard to say it. But he fails.
“I’m just at a point where I want to win,” said Davis, whose next ring will be his first.
Davis is one of the very best players in the game, but no one will be hanging an “L” on him if the Lakers don’t win it all. The “L” will be for LeBron. That, you can bet on.