There comes a point in the life of a grown man where it’s no longer really appropriate to care deeply about professional sports. I’ve written about this before. I enjoy watching sports as much as anybody, but I realize that it’s entertainment. That’s it. My own personal self-esteem or self-worth is in no way affected by whether or not somebody puts a ball in a hoop or a goal, no more than it would be by Luke Skywalker disappearing at the end of The Last Jedi (spoiler alert). In both cases, I’m watching professional performers execute their craft.
I completely understand that, for many, the enjoyment of watching sports can be enhanced by rooting for a team or an individual to do well. I like rooting for Manchester City in the English Premier League, mostly because they play a beautiful style of football/soccer that is enjoyable to watch and produces a large amount of goals. If they lose a game (which they rarely do as of late), I simply turn off the television and go on with my day. I don’t give it another thought. Some would say that doesn’t make me a “true fan”—and they’d be right. I’m not. I just enjoy their style of play.
But there are a lot of “true fans” of the NBA today who are upset by the fact that LeBron James decided to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Los Angeles Lakers for the upcoming season, signing a rather large contract in the process. When James left the Cavaliers the first time, he departed to play in Miami with fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in pursuit of his first championship. After somewhat mixed results in South Florida, including two titles and two runner-up finishes, James returned to Cleveland and brought that city its first professional sports title in over fifty years. All’s well that ends well, right?
Except that the Cavs showed this year that they can’t compete with the best in the Western Conference, getting flat out smoked in the finals for the second consecutive year. So James, perhaps tired of playing in Cleveland, decided to leave yet again. But this time it’s a bit different, and nobody can or should really be all that mad at him. Because James has finally realized that his end game is not to win more basketball championships—it’s to build a lifelong brand.
Lebron James is 33 years old. To put that in perspective, Magic Johnson retired at 32 (with a couple of short comeback attempts afterward). Charlie Parker died at 34. Mozart kicked it at 35. Even Jesus was nailed to a cross around his 33rd birthday. Greatness doesn’t tend to last on this planet. And perhaps none of those greats have had the same amount of wear and tear on their body that James has had (although Bird’s coroner’s report estimated him to be around 60 years old). He’s played in the NBA for 15 seasons. His teams made the playoffs thirteen of those seasons, adding 239 games to his body. He’s also played in the Olympics three times, played in the World Championships, Pan Am Games, etc. He’s played enough basketball to last multiple lifetimes for most pros.
So when he decided to sign with the Lakers over the weekend, I don’t think that it had much to do with basketball. The Lakers were 35-47 last season with a roster of talent that was the sixth youngest in the league and included future stars like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma. Adding James to that mix is compelling, to be certain, and might improve the team by as much as 10 wins for next season. Unfortunately, that doesn’t even make the playoffs in the West. But let’s say he improves the team by 15 wins, which would be extraordinary and nearly unprecedented for one player to make such an impact. Well, they’re still no better than the third best team in the conference, and the new version of the Lake Show would be approximately even with such squads as Portland, Utah, Oklahoma City, and New Orleans. The chances of James winning a championship in LA seem remote, at best.
The Lakers still have a chance at getting some more pieces to the roster, like Kawhi Leonard, But they’d have to give up much of that young talent, not to mention draft picks, to convince the Spurs to part ways with Leonard. but it speaks volumes that Paul George, a Los Angeles native, opted to remain in Oklahoma City (of all places) rather than join James in La-La Land. DeMarcus Cousins could be an option, but does anybody think that James will tolerate Cousins’ act? I doubt it.
James has won three NBA titles, which is impressive, but it’s certainly not comparable with Michael Jordan’s six. It’s not even comparable to Kobe Bryant’s or Magic Johnson’s five. Or Shaquille O’Neal’s four. Let’s not even talk about Bill Russell, ok? Any discussion of LeBron James as the best player of all time went down the toilet when he was swept out of the NBA Finals this year. Maybe he’s Larry Bird (a player with whom he compares almost shockingly well, statistically speaking). That’s saying quite a bit, but greatest ever? Nah. He’s got a 3-6 record in the Finals. (Bird was 3-2, just as an FYI—and he had to play against Magic.)
If he wanted to fix that record, he should have gone to Houston, a team that was moments away from beating Golden State in the conference finals without its MVP-caliber point guard. Putting James on the Rockets makes them a potentially all-time great team. But he didn’t go there. He chose a young team that is a couple of years away from competing, and if these last two years showed us anything, it’s that James can’t win a title by himself—at least not while the Golden State Warriors are constructed as they currently are.
Therefore, it’s fairly obvious that James didn’t go to LA to win championships. He went there for life after basketball, plain and simple. James wants to build a business empire—some combination of entertainment, athletic wear, maybe restaurants. Who knows? You can’t do that in Cleveland—or, at least, not as easily. But by putting yourself on display 41 nights a year at the Staples Center, you bet you can. And when his contract expires, and James is 37 years old, he’ll be ready to enter that next phase of this life. And who better to teach him how to do that than his new boss, Earvin “Magic” Johnson?
In case you didn’t know, Magic is worth at least half a billion dollars, and his company is worth double that. Very little of that wealth has anything to do with basketball—at least not in the sense that he received a great deal of money during his career. Magic has been involved with everything from movie theaters to Starbucks franchises to being a partner in the record $2B purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers. If James is looking for a mentor, he’s clearly got one now.
Of course, if you’re a “true sports fan,” you probably don’t like any of this. You either wanted James to stay in Cleveland and continue to beat his head against a brick wall in his hometown, or go to a team where he can compete for a championship. He did neither, and he probably couldn’t care less that you’re mad about it. His purple and gold jersey is going to set sales records, the Staples Center is going to be the premier place in LA to see and be seen again, and when it’s time, his jersey will hang in the rafters with Chamberlain, West, Baylor, Magic, Shaq, and Kobe.
But more importantly, he’ll spend the next four years in meetings with entertainment and business luminaries, and when it’s all done, he’ll be more prepared for life after basketball than anybody in the history of the game. Championships be damned when there are billions to be made.
Good choice, Bron-Bron.