It Feels Weird That I Can’t Fully Root For LeBron Anymore
With every big event on the NBA offseason calendar — Summer League, media day, the start of pre-season games, and now his debut in the purple and gold — it’s become more and more real that LeBron James is, as has been inevitable for over a year, a Los Angeles Laker. Seeing him in the jersey, and even seeing him play in a pre-season game, drove the point home, but until tip-offlast night, it all had a had a slight air of the theoretical, a fascinating dark timeline that will surely turn out to be a joke because surely we don’t deserve to live in that world world. Not dissimilar from the period between Donald Trump’s election and his inauguration, really, though the crowd for LeBron’s inaugural official appearance in his new hometown will certainly have a more robust crowd than Trump’s as president.
As someone who has been a fan of LeBron for well over half my life (notwithstanding the first year in Miami when, like a lot of people, I got swept up the “traitor” narrative that he was in fact beginning to destroy), and a fan of the Sixers and hater of the Lakers for the whole of it, it was a tough moment. My heart rejects the idea of rooting for LeBron to fail, but that is superseded by the desire for the Lakers to never ever succeed. The Lakers, after all, ran a parallel version of the Sixers’ Process that was marked not by planning and The Longest View In The Room but by incompetence and hubris, accidentally grabbing high picks because of a huge golden parachute contract given to a self-aggrandizing rapist, delaying handing over the draft pick they owed the Sixers until its value mostly eroded for the same reason, becoming a laughingstock for blowing or not getting meetings with huge free agents, then getting rewarded for all that with the greatest player of all time and fawning revisionist histories by respected writers where the Kobe contract somehow became a masterstroke.
Of course, whether the Lakers deserve LeBron or not has nothing to do with his decision: and the Lakers are the Lakers, and they used to be really good at a bunch of times in the past, and the city has good weather and people who make movies, all of which dictates that they have the advantage toward being good at all times in the future. Compound that with LeBron’s overt awareness of the narrative arc of his own career and of his place in history. That’s America: no matter how many stories we tell ourselves, what’s fair or deserved has little to know correlation with what actually happens, nor, in cases like where a player wants to play, out his career, should it. Plus, When you sign with the Lakers, you also get plenty of good press from lazy media members who say “The NBA is more fun when the Lakers are good” as a euphemism for “it’s easier to construct good narratives as a writer when the Lakers are good and I enjoy the opportunity to be lazy.” That paragraph, for better and worse, is a summation of how things work and are presented to the average person in America.
Bitterness over the second most entitled team and fanbase in sports once again receiving proof that that sense of entitlement is completely deserved aside (kind of), the Lakers have managed, in their own unique a-broken-clock-is-right-like-half-the-time way, to position themselves well to win in the coming years, with LeBron’s unprecedented (for him) four-year commitment allowing for developmental time for their promising young core and a level of comfort for free agency or trade targets (Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, etc.) for whom the Lakers, due to the above America thing, already had a disproportionate advantage in acquiring.
Regarding that young core: I’m probably higher on it than most. Lonzo is a good fit with LeBron as a visionary passer who doesn’t need to hold the ball long to be effective and an above-average defender already, and his dad, an atrocious shooting start to last season, and schadenfreude have the average non-Lakers fan more down on him than his actual play warrants. A lot of basketball writers who are much smarter than me still think that Brandon Ingram has it in him to be a star. The Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma picks late in the first round of the 2017 draft belie the franchises ineptitude. The Lakers have a chance to be *gulp* a lot of fun this year, and they frenetic pace at which they played their season opener (113.5, significantly above the pace of last year’s league-leading New Orleans Pelicans), while certainly not a statistically significant sample, point in that direction. Frankly, it’s a shame that what should be a supremely likable roster has to belong to the Lakers.
Luckily, while the Lakers bright future is a bummer to anyone with a soul, we do have a road map for enjoying the LABron era in a way that previous generations subject to the malignant tumor of Lakers exceptionalism did not: fantasy sports. Because of the proliferation and eventual omnipresence of fantasy football over the past two decades, sports fans are used to the seemingly contradictory position of rooting for a player to succeed while his team fails. I’ve pulled for Tony Romo to throw for 350 yards and five touchdowns while the Cowboys lose 36–35 for seasons on end; in this case, I’ll just have to hope LeBron puts up a 30–8–8 stat line while the Lakers lose every game for the next four years. His first game (26–12–6 in a fast-paced loss marred by miscommunication but with some of the exact highlights we’ve come to expect from the King) was a pretty good start.
Basketball is perhaps more championship-obsessed than any other team sport when it comes to individual player legacies (the only competition being football, but that’s a quarterback-specific focus), and so in doing so I’ll be hoping for LeBron’s place in history to take an enormous hit. A run of winless seasons (or more realistically, a run of pre-Finals playoff exits) would fuel the fire of those who would claim that Michael Jordan and even Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and, from the truly diseased husks masquerading as brains, Kobe Bryant, are capital-G Greater than LeBron. That’s what happens when you take a big legacy swing like signing with the league’s most stories franchise, though. While the media salivate over clickable stories and histories that write themselves, it’s only fair that the average fan should get to revel in some good old-fashioned hate, wherever they can direct it, even if it has to snake around some ingrained fandom.