Column: LeBron James no longer acting like a stranger to the Lakers and their fans
Lakers players speak during media day for the 2019-20 season.
The man who once seemed blithely detached now sounds deeply engaged.
“I’m very motivated, but I’m right now not in the talking-about-it mode,” James said with a steely stare. “I’ve been very quiet this summer for a reason. My mother always told me, don’t talk about it, be about it, so that’s where I’m at.”
The man who once scoffed at a question about proving himself to Lakers fans answered a similar query with a pledge.
“I think as a team and myself, we need to get the Lakers back to where they’re accustomed to over the years, so I’m excited about that,” he said.
Five months after quietly fleeing the Lakers’ locker room at the end of a tattered season, his commitment questioned, his durability in doubt, James appeared at Lakers media day Friday as a changed man.
He looked different, his giant body toned, his once-wandering expression filled with focus.
“You can see in his demeanor a seriousness and a focus, you definitely can,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said. “Just in his presence … physically he looks like he really leaned up and locked in even more if that’s possible. … He just really seems locked in and serious, that’s the aura we’ve gotten so far.”
James also sounded different, not as defensive, not as disengaged, even openly embracing an organization that last season he treated like a stranger.
“I’m happy to be a Laker,” he said at the end of his 14-minute media session, and think about that.
He didn’t say he was happy to be in Los Angeles. He didn’t say he was happy to be part of Hollywood. He dropped the mic by saying he was happy to be a Laker, and when is the last time he ever said exactly that?
Maybe the early buzz is right. Maybe, at age 34 and faced with his last best chance at a championship, James really is approaching this season on a mission.
The thought here is, he was really hurt by the talk of his deteriorating body, his absent defense, his lack of leadership, and all that passive-aggressive meddling.
The observation here is, he has been newly inspired by his new BFF Anthony Davis, a roster with better shooters, a coaching staff that includes his buddy Jason Kidd, and his longest summer break in 14 years.
All I know is, for one of the first times since he showed up last summer, he is actually acting like he loves L.A.
“Everyone talking about the big winners of the summertime, the Nets, the Clippers and the Lakers … It’s actually Staples Center,” James said. “Staples Center is the biggest winner of the summer.”
He continued, “If you’re a fan of the game of basketball, you’ve got an opportunity to see the Clippers one night, then you get an opportunity to see the Lakers ... great shows, great performers, artists, everybody who comes through Staples Center throughout the year. Staples Center is the place to be.”
Weren’t there times last season it appeared James didn’t even know he played at Staples Center? The night he passed Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list, he didn’t even bother to wave to the mildly cheering fans.
But there he was Friday, bragging about his home gym, even wondering if they would let his son Bronny play there with his high school team.
“Maybe even Sierra Canyon can go there and play a game, just throwing that out there, there’s a freshman on their team making a name for himself as well,” he said laughing. “Seriously, I think it’s great, the city of Los Angeles should be very proud of what’s going on, not only with the Lakers and Clippers, but also with the Rams, Dodgers, Kings, USC, UCLA, so on, so on, if I missed you, I apologize, but it’s a great time to be a sports fan.”
A year ago he began his connection to the city with a misguided pizza parlor prank, and now he’s giving a shout-out that covers most of this town’s major fan bases? That, Los Angeles, is known as an olive branch, and James has extended it with an attitude that showed up all over his packed news conference.
Getting off to a quick start in the 2019-20 campaign is almost a necessity for the Lakers, who play 11 home games and 11 teams with sub-.500 records last season.
For one, the energy gained for his first long summer in forever seems real.
“I would think, it’s going to have him come into a season as fresh as he’s come into a season in many, many years,” coach Frank Vogel said. “That’s good news for us, and bad news for the rest of the league.”
James said he had a “great” summer, and for more reasons than the shooting of “Space Jam 2.”
“Also got an opportunity to put a lot of work in on my game … take care of my body … be able to refresh my body, reset my body,” he said.
Not only did he regret not being in the postseason for the first time since 2005, but he offered proof.
“I didn’t miss one game, by the way, throughout the whole postseason, not one,” he said. “I watched every single basketball game.”
He also plainly has regrets about how last season evolved, with the injuries and dissension and all of his lousy body language that accompanied seemingly every lousy Lakers play.
“For me, I’m just trying to refocus myself, refocus my mind and my body,” he said. “Me, individually, how I can be a better player, a better leader this year, be as great as I can be, help this franchise to ultimately go where it wants to go, and that’s to be a better franchise on the floor. ... We want to be able to compete every single night.”
I like this LeBron. He’s actually admitting he can be a better leader? Maybe the greatest player ever says he’s trying to be better?
This was not last season’s LeBron, his issues surfacing at a similar media day filled with vastly different perceptions. This time last year, James formally introduced himself to Los Angeles with all the charm of an entitled new neighbor with a chip on his shoulder.
During that first news conference, he smiled exactly once. He used the word “uncomfortable” to describe his adjustment to Los Angeles. He challenged a reporter who asked him about juggling business and basketball responsibilities.
This LeBron seems so much more embraceable. This LeBron seems bought in. From the moment he held a private players-only camp in Las Vegas last week, it seems he is intent on creating the sort of teamwork culture he once helped sabotage.
“It’s going to be a process for us,” he said. “Learn from each other, get to know each other … chemistry, camaraderie, togetherness, how fast we can become a team, not shortcutting the process, that’s what it’s going to be all about.”
Nope. I never heard him talk like that either.
Last season he sat on the end of the bench ignoring his teammates. On Friday he couldn’t say enough about his most famous teammate, referring to Davis as, “Such a beautiful young mind, a beautiful player.”
Last season he did not do interviews during the front-office upheaval, leaving them hanging. On Friday he called the critical narrative surrounding Rob Pelinka as “bull’’ -- a shot at not just the media, but at the departed Magic Johnson? -- and referred to the front office as “the beautiful people that we have upstairs.”
Finally, perfectly, he capped his comeback news conference performance with a bit of patriotism, saying he would “love to” play for Team USA in next year’s Olympics if the circumstances were right, noting, “I will always bleed red, white and blue, that’s for sure.”
Lakers fans would be thrilled if LeBron James simply bled purple and gold. After watching him Friday, one wonders if maybe this is the season he will.
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