The bearded man in a robe who walks with a slight hunch and carries an hourglass always lurks in the shadows, almost out of view. Nobody is paying him much mind or cares what he has to say -- at least not initially.
He’s not on anyone’s radar until he appears and applies a gentle tap on the shoulder (or a violent shove in the back) of the unsuspecting. And that’s when they realize they’ve been paid a visit by someone whom Charles Barkley always says is undefeated.
Yes, it is “Father Time,” the mythical creation of the ancient Greeks whose clock is more pronounced than any made in Switzerland. He is, by every metric, always on time, although that seems to vary, depending on his mood. He is gracious and respectful in some cases, unforgiving in others. Ultimately, he and only he decides when your time in sports is up.
And so, it’s a matter of when, not if, he’ll throw LeBron James in reverse. But where other stars became role players or transformed into shells of their former selves, LeBron is playing at a high level.
“He’s LeBron James. Until he isn’t.”
He’s almost at 57,000 minutes played in the regular season and playoffs combined, which ranks fourth behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant. He should pass Kobe for No. 3 in career scoring (33,643 points) by the All-Star break. The all-time scoring mark and a high ranking on the all-time assists list are in sight, too.
Ask him why and how he’s doing it and LeBron is playfully coy and quick to say “fine wine.” He’ll also often credit the extra motivation he acquired last summer, when he watched the playoffs from his sofa, not far removed from a groin injury and a dreadful first season with the Lakers. Those things caused him grief and fueled his desire to reclaim his place.
"I put in the work and I trust everything that I’ve done, especially this offseason," James said. "I’ve come in with a great mindset, with a healthy mindset and a healthy body."
Considering his middle age, LeBron is putting together a masterful season (25.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg) while excelling as a volume 3-point shooter. His 10.8 apg leads the NBA and his effort defensively -- which was laughable last season -- is laudable now. Nobody at 35 has assembled such numbers in league history.
“He’s LeBron James,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “Until he isn’t.”
What’s age got to do with it? Well, nothing right now. LeBron is still capable of unleashing a facial dunk, as he did with a smirk against the Kings’ Nemanja Bjelica, who perhaps wisely never bothered to challenge it. He also covers all the court rather than, as some aging players are wont to do, play between the free throw lines.
It’s true that soon enough he will wear longer shorts than anyone in the game -- not from faulty tailoring, but from constant pulling and tugging. And while the ball is in play, he will someday hear squeaking on the court and suddenly notice that sound is coming from his joints.
“Nobody knows when it’ll happen to him because he’s still playing in the air,” said Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins. “And even when that goes, his basketball IQ will allow him to stay great on the ground. I mean, who gets triple doubles at his age? Only he knows when his time is up.”
When that day arrives -- and assuming he doesn’t first quit while he’s ahead -- how big of a decline will it be for LeBron (and, by extension, for us) to witness? Will he fall prey to nagging injuries, get torched nightly by previously inferior players, or quit playing defense?
Here’s how “Father Time” diminished six greats who came before LeBron:
1. Michael Jordan: When he retired for the second time, after his last season with the Bulls, Jordan was still very much a physical marvel and the reigning MVP and Finals MVP (he won five MVPs and six Finals MVPs). He was certifiably great for 13 of his 15 seasons and could’ve been longer if not for three years of college ball, an injury-shortened 1985-86 season and 1 ½ missed seasons due to baseball. His body only began to betray him when he un-retired in 2001 to play for the Wizards. At 38, Jordan rarely dunked, wasn’t as sharp defensively and knee issues limited him to 60 games in 2001-02.
2. Jerry West: “The Logo” never had a down year in his 14-year career. He was First-Team All-Defense in 1972-73 as a 34-year-old and was solid in his final season (20.3 ppg, 6.6 apg, 2.6 spg). But he wasn’t at his peak of the late 1960s and opted to quit over pride (and money, when Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke refused to renegotiate his contract).
3. Bill Russell: His career ended mainly because he ran out of psychological fuel. Russell lost his passion to play at 35, even after winning championship No. 11 in his final season (1968-69). That season, he played 46.1 mpg in the playoffs, averaging 10.8 ppg, 20.5 rpg and 5.4 apg. While those numbers are perhaps skewed by the way the game was played back then, they’re still remarkable.
4. Wilt Chamberlain: A man of astonishing stats, Chamberlain averaged a league-leading 18.6 rpg and shot 72.7% overall in his final season (1972-73). Knee issues had long forced Wilt into being a statue in the paint and a third option on offense. After that final NBA season, he jumped from the Lakers to the ABA for money. San Diego offered him $600,000 to be a player-coach, but his Lakers contract prevented him from playing. Wilt coached instead, doing so with disinterest, often not showing up for games or practice. He quit basketball completely after that season.
5. Kobe Bryant: Those roundtrip flights to Germany to get oil for his knees managed to delay the obvious for a few years, but a torn Achilles in 2013 at 35 was the killer. Kobe, much like Jordan and LeBron, was elite into his 30s. And he’ll always have that 60-point send-off.
6. Karl Malone: He won his final MVP at 35 and was built for durability, never suffering a serious injury. He averaged 20.6 ppg in his final season with Utah (2002-03) as he approached 40. By then, he had morphed into a jump shooter and lost his instincts for offensive rebounding. He bowed out as a ring-chasing role player with the Lakers in ‘03-04.
Larry Bird was ruined by debilitating back issues at 32. Abdul-Jabbar often only jogged downcourt his last six seasons. Tim Duncan became a secondary option in his last four seasons while Dirk Nowitzki averaged more than 20 ppg once over his final five seasons. Vince Carter is 42 and proudly still playing, but clearly is 10 years beyond his prime. Allen Iverson was the last to know his quickness was gone.
“For me, it was Year 12 when it hit me,” said Lakers great James Worthy, who had knee issues. “My patented move was taking off from somewhere inside the free throw line. I found myself halfway there once and I started to descend before I got close to the rim. I had to do a George Gervin flip instead of a dunk.
“It’s different now, with this generation of players. I was eating Burger King before games and working out on Nautilus machines. I went to college with Lawrence Taylor and I remember him telling me, ‘I don’t wanna get hit anymore.’ And he’s a reckless guy. LeBron will wake up one day and he won’t have that drive. He’ll be tired and while physically he’s in such great shape, something will go away, either a move or speed.”
LeBron seems determined to be the outlier. He spends, by various estimations, more than $1 million on his body for round the clock therapy and a personal trainer. Last summer, he refused to allow the shooting schedule for the movie “Space Jam 2” to interfere with his schedule, rising at 3:30 a.m. to train before heading to the set. He has more than once fantasized about staying in the league long enough to possibly play against or alongside his son, Bronny (now a high school freshman).
“LeBron is not only a great player but a physical marvel,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “Probably the best athlete to ever walk this planet. I’ve never seen anybody in my lifetime in any sport whom I would consider a better athlete. It’s one of his best attributes and the one that goes the least noticed. You just take it for granted that he’s out there every night and still doing his things.”
LeBron exchanged playful tweets with Tom Brady last month, with LeBron saying the two are “one in the same.”
LeBron will wake up one day and he won’t have that drive. He’ll be tired and while physically he’s in such great shape, something will go away, either a move or speed.”
Brady is a tame comparison to LeBron. Brady doesn’t run 94 feet and back for nine months (playoffs included) and when tired can simply hand off to the running back. Same for NFL legend Joe Montana, who made the Pro Bowl at 37. MLB legend Nolan Ryan threw once every four or five days. Maybe tennis star Roger Federer, who won Wimbledon at 36 and still reaches finals at 38, comes closest.
“It wouldn’t shock me if LeBron played until he was 40,” West said. “He’s such a great athlete and knows enough about his body that he’ll probably leave before he declines.”
After watching Robert Parish waste away on the Bulls’ bench, Jordan said he’d never allow himself to stay in the game that long. His pride and unwillingness to be seen as hanging on meant he’d walk away first. LeBron doesn’t think of the twilight and given how he’s playing now, that doesn’t appear to be in the future, anyway.
“I was with the Nuggets late in my career and the funny thing is I was leading the league in assists,” said Mark Jackson, fourth on the all-time assists list. “There was a loose ball, a deflection, and it’s right here, and I can go get it. I made the move to go get it, and before I could get anywhere near it, a kid out of nowhere, and in a blur, snatched it. Gets the ball, by the time I get to the spot where the ball is, he’d already dunked it. Young kid by the name of Allen Iverson. I knew it would never be the same.”
Jackson says LeBron is so multi-gifted that he can endure decline in one area and still flourish in another.
“He also has the knowledge, pace and understanding that he’ll still be able to be effective even when he slows down,” Jackson said. “I don’t think it’ll be drastic. He can average a triple-double for the next five years.”
LeBron is taking great satisfaction in fighting age while tweaking skeptics, both real and imagined, who wondered if decline was imminent. He cites that “Washed King” nickname -- did somebody actually call him that? -- as motivation.
“It’s the personal pressure I put on myself,” LeBron said.
Eventually, like everyone, he’ll take the L from “Father Time.” Until then, LeBron is making us wonder if that mythical man exists.
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