LOS ANGELES — Three days after he lost the NBA Finals for the sixth time, LeBron James underwent a root canal. For 72 hours he sat alone inside his Ohio mansion, wife and three children away at an out-of-town AAU tournament, flanked only by a chef preparing meals he wasn’t able to eat. As he recovered from one root canal, he pondered another, more painful and stubborn. The Warriors, as usual, gave him something to chew on.
In the two weeks following the Finals, James held three meetings at home with his closest advisors, in which they attempted to peg free-agent destinations where he might be able to satisfy his family and eventually vault his nemesis. Their talks focused on the Rockets, 76ers, Lakers and Cavaliers. James instructed his agent, Rich Paul, to research those organizations and present him with feedback when he returned from a vacation in Anguilla.
James has slow-pedaled his last two free-agent decisions, but from the moment his private plane landed at Van Nuys Airport in L.A. on Saturday, he was proceeding with unusual urgency. He met with Paul extensively Saturday and planned communication with the Cavs, Sixers and Lakers. But he was clearly focused on the new home team. He talked with Kobe Bryant over the phone and invited Magic Johnson to his house in Brentwood. Late Saturday night, Johnson walked through the door.
Much was made of the Lakers quest to acquire Kawhi Leonard from the Spurs or sign Paul George from the Thunder as a precursor to landing James. Johnson, already jilted by George, didn’t have either in hand. James explained that he was in no rush, even at 33, and did not have a problem being the first headliner through the door. He wants to build a contender that lasts and believes the Lakers possess the recruiters, the assets and the salary cap space to do it.
In Cleveland, James played for Dan Gilbert and in Miami for Pat Riley. He relates to Johnson, the Lakers president, on an entirely different level. In terms of personality, playing style, community involvement and business aspiration, there may be only one figure in sports quite like James, and it’s Johnson. James’s associates could sense that the idea of a partnership with Johnson enthralled him.
On Sunday morning, James ate breakfast with his wife on the patio at A Votre Sante in Brentwood. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic candidate for governor of California, stopped at their table and asked where he was headed. James kept quiet. Maria Shriver, the former First Lady of California, also swung by and delivered her case for the Lakers. There is little doubt the club’s cachet played as much a part in James’s thinking as Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. James grew up a Cowboys and a Yankees fan, but he has never suited up for an iconic institution. Even though the Rockets and Sixers are loaded in comparison to the Lakers, they did not capture the imagination in the same way.
On Sunday afternoon, James and his wife went back to Van Nuys Airport. They were flying east again, this time to Europe, for a couple’s trip. His advisors didn’t know if he’d pick a team before he left for Europe or after he landed, or even after he returned. They prepared an old-fashioned press release under the letterhead of Paul’s agency, Klutch Sports Group, but they weren’t sure if or when they’d distribute it. James phoned Paul as he was boarding the private plane. “Call the Lakers,” he said.
In 1968, Wilt Chamberlain came to Los Angeles from Philadelphia. In 1975, it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, from Milwaukee. In 1996, it was Shaquille O’Neal, from Orlando. In 2018, it is LeBron James, and the stakes are no different. In a personal sense, James is taking a staggering risk, moving at a relatively advanced age to a place with astronomic expectations and peculiar pressures. If all goes well, and the Lakers rediscover glory, he joins the pantheon with Shaq and Kareem. If it doesn’t, and they remain stuck behind Golden State and Houston, what does that look like? Subtweets from Kobe? Jabs from LaVar? Diss tracks from 21-year-old sidekicks? In Cleveland, James was lionized for reasons beyond basketball. The L.A. experience may remind him more of Miami, where it was win or else.
Then again, for the best player in the world, perhaps that’s always the bargain: destiny fulfilled or another June root canal. Someday, in the next several years, James will not be the best player in the world or the biggest draw in the sport. To win, he will need a lure besides himself, and here is where Magic and the Lakers come in. Despite all of L.A.’s recent free-agent whiffs, NBA players almost universally acknowledge that the Lakers are the league’s most attractive destination, as long as they meet a baseline for talent and competence. With Johnson and Rob Pelinka, with Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, they’ve crossed the threshold.
By Sunday night, James was in Europe, leaving the party behind. Expect no interviews, no videos, no elaborate explanations for at least a month. Changing teams for a third time, and leaving Cleveland for a second, is not a cause for celebration. He is no closer to the Warriors than he was three weeks ago, except geographically. He embarks on a new road north, following the footsteps of legends.