The 2018-19 NBA season has been a very personal one for LeBron James. Signing with the Lakers was his first career decision that didn’t yield the pressure to win a championship right away. It’s a whole different mentality from the “Not 1, Not 2, Not 3” summer signing with the Heat, or the championship promise in his return to Cleveland.
He’s embraced the change so much to the point that he’ll miss the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. You could argue he hasn’t really cared all that much, as he’s continued to post Instagrams of his individual achievements and A&R sessions with 2Chainz. Sure he still wants to win, but he knows his legend is cemented.
“There’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have,” he said in February. “Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake.”
He’s chosen to end his prime playing years on his own terms, free of immediate expectations, and it’s been disastrous. His celebrity, his past accomplishments, and his highlight reel came with him, even if his mentality hasn’t. And that has its consequences.
That’s what James learned on Wednesday night when he passed Michael Jordan as the No. 4 all-time scorer in league history. The STAPLES Center crowd reacted with underwhelming applause given the gravity of the accomplishment.
Here’s the play:
James’ moment came down 18 points in the first half at home — a microcosm of the Lakers season, really — and the crowd clapped while he embraced Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso. It was a fine moment, though it lacked enthusiasm, as many of those in attendance pointed out.
“In the smaller moments we saw Wednesday, I couldn’t help imagining how much more enjoyable that night would have been in Cleveland,” Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Sharp wrote.
“The fans stood and cheered, but it was mostly politely, and somewhat uncertainly, as if they were applauding an impromptu speech given by a distant uncle at an acquaintance’s wedding,” noted longtime Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke.
There’s a reason why: LeBron is a stranger in his own home, still.
Remember: LeBron signed up for this
James passing Jordan on the scoring list wasn’t a surprise. This was forecasted half a decade ago, though few expected it’d happen with James donning purple and gold. The second he signed with the Lakers, James had to know he ran the risk of dethroning his idol/nemesis in front of a sold-out crowd that felt so isolated from him.
Still, he couldn’t have expected the season the Lakers had that led to the anticlimactic moment of him passing Jordan. James is coming off the worst injury of his career, one that took him out for 18 games. He watched the organization make a horrifyingly public failure of a move to trade half of his teammates for Anthony Davis. His team is flat-out bad, and will likely finish below .500. The city of Los Angeles has little reason to connect with him like his hometown of Cleveland, and he hasn’t given much reason for them to really like him the way his play and enthusiasm did in Miami.
Thirty-one thousand and thirty-eight of James’ 32,311 career points came in a Heat or Cavaliers jersey, as did all of his MVPs, championships and All-NBA selections. His accomplishments aren’t shared with the inhabitants of Staples Center.
So how much of an ovation or a parade should we really have expected L.A. to give him?
At least LeBron seemed to appreciate the weight of his accomplishment
LeBron has lived through his mistakes, and mostly corrected them. He came back to Cleveland and brought the championship he promised. He made up with Kyrie Irving over the phone after the point guard bailed on being his No. 2. Everything big and small in his professional life seems in order.
Most significantly, this was as emotional, self-accepting and maybe even comfortable as we’ve ever seen one of the world’s biggest celebrities. He took his own moment after passing MJ:
After the game, James spoke of the influence Jordan had on his life long before he was on his way to becoming one of basketball’s greats. He teared up towards the end of sharing a story about walking into the mall and seeing Jordan’s shoes — which he then couldn’t afford — and his face on Wheaties boxes.
“I thank MJ more than he would’ve ever known.”
“You guys have no idea what MJ did for me and my friends growing up. … I thank MJ more than he would ever know.”
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 7, 2019
James seemed to get everything he wanted out of a night he’d been dreaming of forever. He did appreciate the applause he actually got. He received congratulations messages from everyone around the league on Twitter. He surely enjoyed the goofy video message from Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson calling him a ball-hog.
Maybe that wasn’t the theatrics we expected on television. Maybe this isn’t the moment Lakers fans thought it’d be when LeBron signed in July.
But this wasn’t our moment, it was his moment. And he seemed fine with it.