He smiled once.
In LeBron James’ first public appearance in a Lakers uniform Monday afternoon, after a three-month honeymoon celebrating the marriage of basketball’s best player with its most glamorous franchise, he smiled exactly once.
It was when he was asked what constitutes pressure for him.
“Nothing … nothing,” he said, and he grinned, and chuckled, and that was it.
We sort of knew he never felt any pressure. But during a strangely short 12-minute news conference on Lakers media day, one of basketball’s most emotional players oddly didn’t seem to feel anything.
He didn’t emote. He didn’t engage. His tone was flat. His face was stone. His mood was odd.
He talked about the excitement of joining the Lakers with a decided lack of excitement.
“It’s always humbling for me any time I get an opportunity to be a part of something special … I’m happy to be at this point today,” he said without expression.
He talked about adjusting to Los Angeles like it was less an adventure and more of a chore.
“Uncomfortable for me … learning new streets, learning new routes, learning new people, being around a different environment; it’s always a learning experience when you have to change locations,” he said somberly. “It’s an adjustment that myself and my family and my friends will all adjust to, but we’ll be fine because we have each other.”
All around a makeshift stage at the Lakers’ practice gym in El Segundo, a couple of hundred media members buzzed with happy anticipation while awaiting his appearance, then grew silent in reverent expectation as he showed up looking like some fantasy hero in a Lakers uniform that seemed two sizes too small.
Yet once James began answering questions, celebratory quickly turned to dour. It was strange. It was unsettling.
James showed no glimpses of joy, and that’s one thing you could always count on when a new Laker has been introduced over the years. They are always so happy to be a Laker. The franchise’s success has been built on this happiness, this feeling that they are lucky to be playing for the NBA’s greatest franchise in the league’s greatest city.
From Magic Johnson’s smile to Shaquille O’Neal’s jokes to even the serious Kobe Bryant’s grinning shows of gratitude, Lakers stars traditionally turned big news conferences into love affairs.
James wasn’t playing any of that.
Championship or bust? Not quite.
“I don’t believe the only thing of success you mark in a season is winning a championship,” he said, and you know Bryant heard this and wept. “There’s only one champion. But that doesn’t mean you’re not successful.”
Any shot at challenging Golden State any time soon? Not a chance.
“We have got a long way to go to get to Golden State,” he said plainly. “They can pick up right where they left off … we’re picking up from scratch … hopefully some day we can put ourselves in a position where we can compete for a championship.”
James is generally considered one of the most delightful and insightful interviews in sports. He is this country’s leading athlete-statesman, and, this being his first chance to speak to his new Lakers fans after keeping them waiting for three months, one might think he would reach out.
Instead, he held back.
Asked for his specific expectations of the Lakers in this great new adventure, he said he had none.
“I don’t expect nothing. You work for what you want; you can’t expect anything. For me it’s all part of the process,” he said. “We don’t know. It’s the unknown.”
The real unknown was, what does all of this mean? Why the sour looks?
He is being paid $153 million over four years to merge his star talents into the perfect star environment, he is being embraced by most everyone in town except for those creeps who defaced his murals, and he hasn’t yet missed a shot, so what gives?
Maybe he had a bad day in traffic. Maybe he’s a Chargers fan.
Or maybe he was upset at two questions, one asked by me, involving the business motivation in his decision to come to Los Angeles and how he will balance both Hollywood and basketball. They seemed like fair questions, considering his name is attached to 10 entertainment projects, and some of those projects, including an HBO series “The Shop” and the planned movie “Space Jam 2,” have made news since he joined the Lakers.
“My decision was based solely on my family and the Lakers,” he said in answering my question. “I’m a basketball player. I play ball. That’s what I do, that’s what I live by, and when I do it at the level I do it at, everything else takes care of itself.”
He added, “As far as my business, those things have been taken care of themselves way before I came out there to be part of the Lakers franchise.”
He was again asked about juggling responsibilities and he turned the question on the reporter.
“How long have you been following me?” James said.
“Apparently not long enough,” the reporter said.
“Apparently not long enough, there goes your answer right there,” James said.
Maybe it was that. Or maybe, just maybe, James was setting the tone for a season filled with purpose and devoid of nonsense.
Maybe this was his message to those crazy young Lakers that the days of Twitter wars and dis tracks are done. Much like when he endorsed the Lakers’ acquisitions of those tough, crazy veterans, maybe this was his way of telling the city that he is here not on an entertainment vacation, but a basketball mission.
This would not be the first time this has happened in the history of Los Angeles free agents. Remember when Kirk Gibson reset the Dodgers clubhouse culture when he threw his eye-black tantrum in the spring of 1988? Maybe this is that.
Luke Walton agreed that James turned deadly serious Monday and noted, “He knows what time it is. He’s been around a lot of years. He’s setting the tone. It’s time to work.”
Walton added, “It was definitely that look that I’ve seen before in somebody I used to play with that knows the season is coming up soon.”
You know who he was talking about. Walton grinned. The media crowd laughed. LeBron ends his first day at work in a Lakers gym ultimately being compared favorably to Kobe?