“I didn’t come here thinking we were going to be blazing storms right out of the gate,” he told reporters at the Staples Center. “It’s a process and I understand that.”
But he also learned just how fickle the process can be in Lakerland. After he missed two free throws that would have put the Lakers up by three points with 12 seconds to go and then missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer, an ancient Tinseltown proverb re-emerged in all corners of the internet: Kobe would never do that.
It harkened back to the post-Decision era, when most of America watched James fail in the 2011 NBA Finals. For the first time since 2016, when he finally won one for Cleveland and fulfilled the promise of his career, you could feel the reverberations of that schadenfreude.
Two straight Finals losses in Cleveland, one of them a sweep, couldn’t touch him. Kyrie Irving’s trade demand barely left a mark. James was dignified, above the fray of criticism. He could have retired on that perch.
But he has always insisted on doing things his way, even when it’s the hard way.
So instead, he joined a franchise where only championship banners and the names of those instrumental to their arrival hang from the rafters, where a 1-4 start once led to a coach being fired, where scrupulous fans have seen so many superstars emerge from the tunnel that they aren’t merely happy to see them. They demand more. The spotlight is harsh, but its appeal is in its understated grace: it can in fact be forgiving.
So it is that at 33 years old, the greatest player in the world is coming up against his greatest curve.
Forget the validity or quantity of the Bryant comparisons for a second and consider the fact that some even happened. It was a testament to the gifts and trappings of the multiplying effect of playing for the Lakers, the franchise’s ability to deify those who have delivered and tar those who don’t, with Bryant on one end and James (for now) on the other.
LA’s myth machine won’t churn for nothing, and it doesn’t care who you were before you landed. Outsiders must ingratiate themselves to the masses by delivering wins or leaving with their head on a platter. Just ask Dwight Howard; free agents have to earn it in Los Angeles.
Despite its reputation as the primary destination for stars with wandering eyes, Lakers fans have always loved their homegrown pillars like none other. Who lives larger in the imagination of fans: Kobe or Shaq? Magic, or Kareem? Jerry West, or Wilt Chamberlain?
And even those guys have gone through it.
The game after Paul Westhead — the Lakers coach whose alterations zapped the pace out of Showtime after a title in 1980 — was fired, Magic Johnson was booed at The Forum every time he touched the ball. That was after he won a championship and a Finals MVP in his rookie year. The Lakers hired Pat Riley to replace Westhead, and they won a championship that year and many more thereafter. We don’t hear much about Westhead and Lakers fans turning on Magic today.
In the midst of his trade demand, Lakers fans even booed Bryant mercilessly at the Lakers home opener in 2007. When the team ended up trading for Pau Gasol and won two more championships, history was rewritten to render Bryant’s request as the impetus for the trade — a version of the story former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak rejects in Ian Thomsen’s book, The Soul of Basketball.
“Kobe. Ownership, [assistant general manager] Ronnie Lester, myself — I think we would take offense to saying we’re not competitive, because we are,” Kupchak told Thomsen. “To compare who’s more competitive, or to assume that Dr. Buss is not competitive and that Kobe did what he did to get Dr. Buss to do something, that’s not true. To believe what you’re saying is to believe that I’m not competitive or Dr. Buss is not competitive. And that’s not the case at all.”
Kobe would never miss those shots? He has. Many times. Details, shmeetails.
The point is this: The process might not be met with patience, but if it works out, the leading man gets all the credit and the unflattering bits die on the cutting room floor. Lakers fans don’t just forgive. They forget.
That has to be appealing to James, whose blemishes have been as memorable as his masterstrokes. If you win enough in Los Angeles, it’ll be like you never lost.
In the final arc of a career that has been defined by redemption more than perfection, what greater reward could LeBron James ask for?