The telltale clue was easy to miss in the Quicken Loans Arena chaos, as LeBron James waved around his soft cast, setting off endless camera clicks, and the Warriors celebrated their second straight title with champagne in a nearby hallway. James had spent the entire season delicately ducking questions and dropping bread crumbs, careful not to tip his hand while still ensuring that his upcoming free-agency decision never left the headlines.
There he was in December, calling over Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball for a postgame chat, covering his mouth to up the intrigue. There he was in March, swarmed by a pack of jostling reporters in the visiting locker room at Staples Center, refusing to bite when asked about the prospect of moving west. As he smashed NBA records and posted eye-popping numbers throughout a heroic postseason run, James mused about the importance of playing with high-IQ teammates, about the central role his family would play in The Decision III, and about his desire to remain in “championship mode” at age 33.
But by the time he fielded the final question of his final press conference of the season, James revealed that, if he wasn’t yet over his sixth Finals loss in nine tries, he had other things on his mind. He was asked about the prospect of one day owning an NBA team, and his frustration over his bruised right hand and a Finals sweep broke for a minute.
“Well, that top athlete money-per-year thing came out last week and I was sixth,” James said. “So I’m in no way, shape and form putting myself in a position right now to own a team.”
His delivery amounted to a forced attempt at self-deprecation, not exactly a default setting for a man dubbed The King and The Chosen One. Before he retreated to noncommittal platitudes, James cued up his photographic memory, noting that boxer Floyd Mayweather sat atop the annual list of the highest sports earners list with $252 million. The figure clearly impressed a man who is difficult to impress. “I love to compete,” he had said the day before, and now he mentioned Mayweather’s top spot with reverence, almost as if it was a target.
If James’s sole focus this summer had been matching Michael Jordan’s six rings, he would have needed weeks to sort through the possibilities, machinations and sacrifices required to land him in Houston, Boston, Philadelphia or San Antonio. If he was still wholly consumed by the pursuit of “the ghost from Chicago,” James would have needed to opt into the final year to help facilitate a trade, or he would have been forced to consider a discounted deal to help stack a roster that could compete with the Warriors.
But if James instead wanted to take a run at Mayweather, by vaulting himself to an even higher and more profitable level of fame, there was only one choice: the Lakers. On Sunday evening, less than 24 hours into the 2018 free-agency period, James made his decision public in a straightforward press release from his agency, Klutch Sports. This time, he didn’t milk the attention or televise his thought process, he simply let his tectonic choice speak for itself.
“LeBron James, four-time NBA MVP, three-time NBA Finals MVP, fourteen-time NBA All-star, and two-time Olympic gold medalist has agreed to a four-year, $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers,” the press release read, in full.
Later, on Instagram, James posted a photograph of himself surrounded by fans following Cleveland’s 2016 title. “Thank you Northeast Ohio for an incredible four seasons,” the caption read. “This will always be home.”
Ohio is home, the place where he snapped a curse and built a school. As James carried the ramshackle Cavaliers through the 2018 playoffs, though, it became clear that Cleveland had nothing left to offer. He had completed his narrative arc, delivered the signature highlight of his career with The Block, and played in all 82 games during his final run. James had held up his end of the bargain time and again, and yet he was slipping.
The Warriors smashed him in back-to-back Finals. Kyrie Irving deserted him. Stephen Curry surpassed him for the NBA’s best-selling jersey last month. Giannis Antetokounmpo nearly eclipsed him in All-Star votes. And the rising Celtics and Sixers were hot on his tail, threatening to end his streak of eight consecutive trips to the Finals in 2019.
L.A. doesn’t necessarily offer James the best opportunity to claim a fourth ring, but it delivers a platform and a locale that puts Cleveland, and virtually everywhere else, to shame. James, almost certainly, will lead the league in magazine covers, jersey sales and All-Star votes next season. His every move on and off the court will be tracked like never before, not even during the early days of the Heatles, whether or not Lonzo and LaVar Ball are still around to provide grist for the gossip mill. Look no further than Kobe Bryant’s three-ring retirement tour circus for proof that L.A. is a great place for a superstar to age—gracefully or otherwise.
As a student of the game, James will surely bathe in the franchise’s rich history, from Mikan to Chamberlain to Abdul-Jabbar to Johnson to O’Neal to Bryant. As a student of the boardroom, he will partner with president Magic Johnson to relentlessly sell the reborn Lakers to possible co-stars and fans across the globe. As a student of the entertainment industry, he will be free to pursue his television, film and music ventures to his heart and wallet’s content. And as a student of buzz, he will surely relish playing in front of Jack Nicholson, Rihanna and, yes, Mayweather on a nightly basis.
Basketball’s first true reality star will own Hollywood because this script writes itself: generational superstar sweeps into town to restore glory to a once-proud franchise.
It remains to be seen, however, whether this winds up being a satisfying chapter or an empty spectacle. With Paul George and other stars signing elsewhere, James must find a way to build a winner out of a roster filled with unproven pieces and unexpected pick-ups, like Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee. He must be prepared to take his lumps next season, given his move to the more challenging Western Conference, where the Warriors and Rockets loom as favorites. Most importantly, he must avoid Bryant’s late-career pitfalls: injuries, of course, but also the toxic idol worship that made it difficult for the Lakers to attract and nurture supporting talent.
James’s first decision brought him championship validation. His second brought closure. Now, his third will bring him maximum riches and fame. After 15 seasons, a series of short-term contracts and two straight Finals defeats, James decided that it was time to cash out.