Shaquille O’Neal called it a “dream” when he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent in the summer of 1996.
He was 24, entering the physical prime of his eventual Hall of Fame career while also poised to chase championships for perhaps the most glamorous NBA franchise at that time.
Shaq was following in the footsteps of the giants, literally, that came before him. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was 28 when he first pulled a Lakers jersey over his head, arriving via trade from the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Lakers luring a big star to the NBA’s brightest and most electric media market is nothing new. Said star showing up at the ripe old age of 33 (as LeBron James did this summer) is a different type of Hollywood story.
His decision to tackle this challenge 16 seasons into his career comes with a physical risk that his past free-agent moves (from Cleveland to Miami in 2010 and back to Cleveland in 2014) did not. Does he have enough left in his tank to lead the Lakers to the sort of heights he did the Heat and Cavaliers?
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James’ early energy -- albeit in brief glimpses -- has been off the charts. The player who dominated the Eastern Conference for so long, leading his teams to eight straight trips to The Finals in the process, seems to be the same one who showed up in Los Angeles.
He’s still a physical marvel, remaining the best and, according to the NBA.com GM survey, most difficult player in the league to deal with. In that respect, LeBron’s situation with the Lakers is more akin to Wilt Chamberlain’s than Shaq’s or Kareem’s.
Chamberlain was headed into the twilight of his career when the Lakers acquired him in a trade with Philadelphia for Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark and Darrall Imhoff in July of 1968. He was 32 and no longer the behemoth capable of averaging 50 points and 25 rebounds in a season, which he did at 25 in his third season.
Chamberlain was still a force, averaging 20.5 points and 21.1 rebounds per game in his first season in purple and gold. But he was the missing piece on a roster already boasting future Hall of Famers Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Elgin Baylor. Chamberlain was Finals MVP for the Lakers’ 1972 title team and finished his career a year later at 36.
LeBron joined a team devoid of the superstar talent that he brings to the Lakers. But he’s traveled this path before, taking a reconfigured team from the lottery to The Finals in 2014-15, his first season back in Cleveland. He’s built for the transition in ways that no other player in the league is or could be, given the trail he’s blazed in free agency during his career.
"It always feels different for me any time you change uniforms," James told reporters after his Lakers’ debut in a preseason game in San Diego. "It felt different when I changed from a Vincent-St. Mary jersey to a Cavs jersey, from a Cavs jersey to a Heat jersey back to a Cavs jersey, and now being a Laker, so … it definitely feels different and it'll take a little bit of time getting used to.”
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