The Bulls are not planning a video tribute Tuesday for LeBron James when he makes what will now become an annual appearance in Chicago with the Los Angeles Lakers. Perhaps in James’ final appearance for a player who never seems to age it will be voodoo doll night.
Because like Michael Jordan in the 90s when Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone among others were denied opportunities for titles because of Jordan’s greatness, James more than anyone in the last decade has stood between the Bulls and their dreams, with Cleveland in 2010 and Miami in 2011 and 2013. Most of the most memorable games of the Bulls last decade involved James, and mostly unhappy memories.
Which is also why like it was for Jordan, especially in the last championship run in 1997-98 and his two seasons in Washington, LeBron’s denouement deserves an ongoing celebration.
I’ve said and written that There is No Next regarding Jordan, a player infinitely skilled and dominant, but equally impactful in society. Jordan’s emergence at the intersection of his basketball brilliance and society’s acceptance and desire for such a commercial spokesman and model likely cannot be duplicated. James has been influential off the basketball court, though not to Jordan’s extent. And it long will be debated how his play compares with Jordan’s.
And though there’s always someone to come along who does something so unexpected, we likely will never see anyone again like the sinewy 6-8, 275-pound James with that alchemy of potent body and probing mind that helped produce a golden era for the game.
James’ presence as he starts a four-year contract with the Lakers at 34 years old is just beginning to eclipse the great achievements of the game. James last week passed Jordan on the all-time scoring list and probably will get to No. 1 some day. Ahead of Wilt and Kareem, to go where no one has gone before, or generally dared consider.
It seems inconceivable in this developing era of the sport with moderation of the body and not so much in payroll that anyone again will even try to play that much and that long at this level.
“He’s the best still, in my opinion,” Zach LaVine, who remains questionable for Tuesday with knee soreness, said after Bulls practice Monday. “He’s just a stat breaker. He’s having a career year almost right now, just in the way he’s scoring the ball and his rebounds and assists. His percentages are still the same. Dude is a freak. He dunks on the same amount of people still. He’s shooting the three-ball way better. He pulls up from like 35 feet every other game. He’s a freak of nature.”
James’ Lakers are something of a freak show as well, though with not such a kindly connotation.
The Lakers are 30-36, about seven games out of the last Western Conference playoff spot and in 11th place. They have almost no chance to make the playoffs with now an abundance of injuries. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, their main young core from last season, are out for the season injured. Kyle Kuzma may return Tuesday. But the Lakers already are talking about cutting James’ playing time as a result.
Even as James averages 27.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.1 assists. Somewhat dismissed because of the Lakers’ record, though not in media conversation, James is tied for his best season rebounding, his fourth best in assists and second best scoring season in the last nine years.
The Lakers were in reasonable playoff position in late December when James was injured. He didn’t return until early February, and then with the team slipping he apparently decided to gamble by trying to persuade Anthony Davis to force a trade. It didn’t work, his teammates apparently disconnected, and the Lakers have lost their last five games and seven of eight.
Remember, Jordan didn’t come close to the playoffs in two seasons with the Wizards.
It did little to dim his legacy or inhibit the jubilation fans felt both in giving thanks for past excitement and being able one more time to experience being in his presence. To be able to say years from then that you were there.
That’s often what sports and much human experience is about.
I once went to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and it looked OK. But it was really small and lots of people were milling around it and hardly any of the other paintings because, well, it was something to say we saw. Like being at that playoff football game in four degrees sitting in the upper deck end zone. “Yeah, I was there!” This is that time with LeBron because he’s not coming back too many more times.
I remember when he was a rookie after ESPN had devoted most of its programing the previous year to his high school games. It became a big deal, so The Chicago Tribune sent me to Sacramento to see his first game (I’m taking a moment while I dab my eyes in remembrance of the newspaper industry.)
OK, it was the Kings — and I don’t think he was calling himself the king quite yet — but that high school team of his was some minor class team so he could play with his buddies. You’re playing against Olmsted Falls and Beavercreek and then you’re in the NBA. So let’s see. Talk about pressure and everyone waiting (and wanting?) for you to fail. And he supposedly couldn’t shoot. And this still was a pretty good Kings team with Peja, Vlade, Doug Christie and Mike Bibby.
So LeBron leads his team with 25 points and nine assists, and they had Carlos Boozer and Ilgauskas, makes 12 of 20 shots, mostly jumpers. Then goes to Phoenix the next night and almost gets a triple with 21 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
I remember doing an interview show not long after that with Sonny Vaccaro, the sneaker/huckster legend. He’d had a split with Nike, so I assumed he was upset. He said James would be better than Jordan and certainly score more than Jordan ever did. I did some big time pooh poohing.
I was there when James scored those 25 consecutive points against a champion Pistons team in the conference finals and that playoff buzzer beater against the Bulls in 2015 that was the Derrick Rose team’s last act.
He didn’t make the playoffs his first two seasons, but when he got there he never left. James had a triple double in his first playoff game with 32 points and though everyone points to the remarkable eight consecutive Finals appearances, in 239 playoff games he averaged 42 minutes per game, almost 45 per game his first seven years. And for a guy who was not supposed to be a scorer but a Magic Johnson/Scottie Pippen type facilitator, James has averaged just under 30 points his playoff career.
James perhaps most reflected the icon of the era in a similarly polarizing manner. He was castigated for leaving Cleveland, and then for returning; well, at least by Pat Riley. His peccadilloes were held up to a magnifying glass, and sometimes he missed the reflection in the mirror. Yet, he’s been one of the more gracious and accommodating athletes to media in his era, seemingly a devoted friend and family man and a model of competitive aspiration.
It’s likely he won’t win a championship again. It’s hard and it takes a long time. You never doubt it with the all-time elite, and the plan remains open, supported by the equally optimistic Magic Johnson, that the Lakers can attract a top star free agent, make a big trade, and LeBron leads them back there for one more as Wilt did at the end, Kareem and Kobe, too. You never say never with the best.
But this is starting to feel like a last long red carpet, still in the spotlight but with that final act starting to come into focus. It’s a good time to still enjoy it while we can.