He stepped up when he threw down.
The transformation of LeBron James from disconnected stranger to genuine Laker was completed Friday night at Staples Center when he began his classic pregame speech honoring Kobe Bryant by tossing away a wrinkled piece of paper and speaking from his heart.
The greatest Lakers moments have always occurred when the greatest Lakers have dared to go off script.
Jerry West against New York. Magic Johnson in Philadelphia. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant against Portland. Derek Fisher in San Antonio. Robert Horry against Sacramento.
When the pressure is at its highest, the greatest Lakers have always torn up the map and forged their own path, and so amid the shroud of a tragedy, James cleared a space and followed in the footsteps of legends.
“I would be selling y’all short if I read off this ... ,” James shouted to the roaring crowd, throwing down the scrap, launching into a masterpiece and confirming what many have increasingly believed.
James is no longer selling the Lakers or their fans short. Not now. Not anymore. Not in this vital winter, and not in this pivotal moment. He’s all in. He’s all ours.
After disengaging during an injury-plagued first Lakers season, he is finally becoming a Laker worthy of a mural. He’s played all but two games, played more minutes than anyone on the team, and played at an MVP level. When it came time Friday to comfort the masses that sorrowfully came to a basketball game to grieve a fallen hero, he played the perfect notes with the perfect tone.
“When we’re going through this, the best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family,” James told the crowd.
And as he continued an impassioned four-minute address filled with both sadness and celebration, it became clear that the biggest shoulders in this family now belong to him.
This is truly now LeBron James’ team, just as it was once Kobe Bryant’s team.
This is absolutely now LeBron James’ moment, just as Bryant owned 20 years of such moments.
The burden is overwhelming, but the potential rewards are unimaginable.
If James can lead the Lakers back to glory this season, it will be the greatest accomplishment of his career and the final step toward becoming arguably the greatest player ever.
To lead Laker Nation out of this darkness and up into the Staples Center rafters along with Bryant’s two numbers would be an achievement equally as compelling and perhaps more difficult than even bringing that long-awaited title to Cleveland.
The pressure is on him, but to the cathartically cheering crowd Friday, he embraced it.
“The one thing that we always shared was that determination to just always want to win and just want to be great,” he said of Bryant, adding, “I want to continue along with my teammates, to continue his legacy, not only for this year, but for as long as we can play the game of basketball that we love because that’s what Kobe Bryant would want.”
It was some sort of divine serendipity that, in Bryant’s final interview with me nine days before his death last Sunday, he anointed James as his worthy Lakers successor.
“When LeBron James came to Los Angeles, he is now a Laker,” Bryant said at the time. “He is part of brotherhood, part of our fraternity, and we should embrace him that way.”
Since the helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others, James has solidified his Lakers leadership role in ways both spiritual and tangible.
In the team’s first meeting two days after Bryant’s death, James led the team in sharing memories and mourning. Later in the week he was inked on his left thigh with a snake tattoo above the words, “Mamba 4 Life.” He then took the Staples Center floor Friday wearing Bryant’s trademark oversized jersey, wristbands, finger sleeve, and, of course, his shoes.
“I think he’s been really a tower of strength for all of us,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.
Then during the pregame ceremonies James took the microphone, stepped to the middle of the court, threw down the paper and, for perhaps the first time since joining the team in the summer of 2018, he looked into the stands and connected.
“I decided to let the words just flow right from the heart,” he said afterward. “Whatever comes out there’s all truth to it.”
There was truth in his depiction of the strength of the Lakers family, in his descriptions of the relentless Kobe, in the sharing of memories with thousands who could relate.
At that moment, as a sorrowful silence broke into cheers, the biggest truth was that James finally understood what it is like to be a Laker.
Later, in his postgame news conference, James continued with the theme of family.
“I was just telling my wife a couple of days ago … seeing Kobe play basketball 20 years for the Lakers … I’m, like, you know what’s crazy? … These last three years … of all the success he’s had … I feel like these last three years are the happiest I’ve ever seen him … being able to just be with his daughters,” he said.
They were the right words at the right time. And there were more.
“At the end of the day we all punch our clocks, just make sure you hug the ... out of your family,” he said. “If you got kids, tell your kids you love them. … Don’t feel bad if you happen to go to one of your loved ones’ events … and sacrifice your job.”
That quote immediately reminded everyone of his trip to Springfield, Mass., to watch son Bronny play a high school game for Sierra Canyon a couple of weeks ago. He went even though the Lakers played at the Boston Celtics that night. The Lakers were later blown out 139-107, and James scored just 15 points, and there were murmurs that he may have been tired from the extra trip, yet he apologized for nothing.
“I didn’t feel bad in Boston when I went to see my son two hours away in Springfield and we had a game that night,” he said. “We got our ass kicked. … I didn’t feel bad at all. Yeah, they took it to us, but in the name of Kobe, why not?”
Such sacrifices won’t go over so well with Lakers fans come spring, but for now, the sentiment was right, as was the Staples Center spot from where he delivered it.
Because of the large number of media, the Lakers held that news conference in a warehouse-sized storage room usually used for only special events such as playoff or All-Star games.
Before Friday, the last time any Laker answered a question in that room was four years ago. Yes, after the final game of his career, that Laker was Kobe Bryant.
His torch has now sadly yet officially been passed, to the newest certified Laker, with an unscripted LeBron James doing his damnedest to keep it lit.