LeBron James’ first journey to Brooklyn as Laker reminds us of what might have been if he had introduced his abilities to New York
NEW YORK – It was steaming hot in the visitors’ locker room at the Barclays Center. That’s what happens when you put a bunch of people in a pretty small place. The game wouldn’t start for a couple of hours, but the cameras were already on, and those cameras – more than a dozen of them – were being trained on perhaps the greatest athlete of his generation, and perhaps the greatest NBA player of all time.
But LeBron James didn’t speak to the media. Shootaround was canceled in the morning, and then LeBron usually holds his pre-game media sessions. The Los Angeles Lakers PR department had said LeBron wouldn’t be doing interviews in the half hour before the game when the locker room was open to the press, but that didn’t stop the dozen cameras and three dozen reporters Filling the visitors’ locker room to the gills. The media surrounded LeBron in a semicircle. He stretched. He used a foam roller to loosen up his muscles. The cameras filmed every movement. LeBron was stuck to his phone – in fact, instructions were being shouted on his phone – so the cameras focused on that phone. What could the king observe that made him so emotional? There has been speculation that LeBron saw his high school son play a basketball game across the country.
Kyle Kuzma crouched in his corner compartment. Not a single camera focused on him, a 20-point-per-game NBA player who settled in the shadows.
“It’s actually kind of funny when you stretch it,” said Kuzma.
This is what happens when the king comes to town. The Nets sold out Tuesday night, despite currently having the lowest average home participation in the league. That’s because the Lakers have the highest attendance in the league, even higher than the Golden State Warriors – not because fans come to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
“Let’s face it,” Nets center Jarrett Allen told me before the game in the mostly empty dressing room of the Brooklyn Nets. “It’s LeBron James, so you have half the arena for him. That’s how it is when LeBron James gets anywhere.”
But when it happens in the Big Apple, one has to wonder what if LeBron had done all of this in the home team’s dressing room instead of the visitors’ dressing room. With LeBron at the age of 33 and in the first year of a four-year deal with the Lakers, it’s safe to say that the greatest player of his generation will never be an NBA player based in New York City – even though LeBron called New York his favorite city . Maybe Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving or Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the next famous NBA player to decide to change addresses and call New York home. Maybe it’s in the Barclays Center, maybe it’s Madison Square Garden. But that star won’t be LeBron James.
You can’t help but wonder what could have been if the king had moved his kingdom to the imperial city. Remember: The Nets and the Knicks were the first two teams to meet LeBron at his first free agency in 2010. Reports from that Nets meeting, chaired by Jay-Z, said it was going “tremendously” and that the Nets were a front runner for LeBron (he named Brooklyn his favorite of the five boroughs, which is worth it). Incidentally, LeBron is also wondering about New York. It wasn’t until a week ago, after playing his last game against soon-to-be-retired close friend Dwyane Wade, that Wade and LeBron hugged at the Staples Center. Microphones found their exchange: “I appreciate your letting it end here,” Wade said to his friend. “It was either here or in the garden, that’s it,” LeBron replied. “This is the only place we could end it man.”
Knicks fans around the world shed tears.
New York is the media capital of the world and also one of the basketball capitals of the world. It is the home of street ball in Rucker Park and the glory of the Knicks games in the world’s most famous arena. It is the place where Lew Alcindor was born and Walt Frazier was adopted. A connection between LeBron and the city has always felt natural, but for so many reasons – the attraction of his hometown Cleveland and proximity to Hollywood, the amazing ineptitude of the Knicks and the Nets during LeBron’s career – it never happened.
And so every game he plays in town is a glimpse of what could have been. Jarrett Allen was right: Half of the fans at the Barclays Center on Tuesday night were Lakers fans, maybe more. When LeBron pulled into the lane for what appeared to be a tomahawk dunk a few minutes after the game started, the energy in the building rose to a fever – until Allen blocked the dunk attempt, one of themwhere he was blocked on a dunk. The crowd exhaled, disappointed in the home team for stealing a LeBron moment from them.
When LeBron complained about an undisclosed foul, many Brooklyn fans booed the referees. When LeBron stepped up to the foul limit, a sizeable contingent of fans sang “MVP!” When the Lakers made a fourth quarter comeback after they were 14, the building went electric – it erupted when Lonzo Ball hit a 3-pointer to put the Lakers in a bucket at 1:14, and bananas when LeBron hit a step -back corner 3 with 17.7 seconds left to bring the Lakers within three. To be fair, the Nets fans were noisy too, but it felt like LeBron Lakers jerseys outperformed the Nets gear in the stands.
It was another worldly LeBron masterpiece – 36 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists, and a fourth quarter dunk that gave the crowd what they wanted – but the battered, street-weary Lakers fell to the nets, 115-100. It was the Lakers’ fourth street game in six nights, and they finished the road trip 3-1, with the three losses all against teams under 500.
After that, LeBron sat in the locker room next to the showers in the locker room. About fifty reporters surrounded him. Caldwell-Pope, who was two lockers away, was pissed off at the people in his room and laughed when a New York-based reporter asked LeBron about Carmelo Anthony. LeBron’s phone rang; he silenced it after a ring. LeBron gave the typical locker room aphorisms of the “We just have to get better” type.
“In the wild, wild west, every game counts, every game is important,” said LeBron. “You can’t enter a guy (on the networks). You can do all the plays.”
Then LeBron got dressed and he left. This wasn’t home after all; This was a one night look at what could have been. And so, after a good night’s sleep, LeBron boarded the Lakers’ charter jet the next morning and flew six hours to the opposite side of the country and to the place where he had chosen a new home.