LeBron's New Normal
By Martin Rogers
The NBA is so connected, its players so involved in the off-court stories of bragging rights and beef and reputation, that the league sometimes feels like one big campus — even during typical times.
Now, there really is a campus, giving the return to basketball its most peculiar twist ever, as the best players in the world battle for a championship while sequestered in an Orlando bubble.
And when there is such a setting, in sporting terms, there is always a big man on campus who emerges as a figurehead, as a voice of authority who can find some quiet time to himself if he so chooses and, without question, as a giant target for the others to try to take down.
Welcome to your new normal, LeBron James.
James is one of the best players to have ever lived, perhaps the only one who can enter into a conversation of greatness that usually has MIchael Jordan as its only inhabitant. Yet he is also finely aware of the NBA’s pecking order, and how little changes in setting can have far-reaching consequences.
In Florida, teams and players are going to get sight of each other far more often, even with the social restrictions put in place. He knows that for all the smiles of acknowledgment and friendly banter, every team is gunning for the Lakers’ status as title favorites. He knows that if he doesn’t win an NBA title over the coming months, he will have a ready-made excuse due to the drastic upheaval of recent times.
James doesn’t plan on using that get-out clause.
“He doesn't need any excuses,” FOX’s Skip Bayless said on Undisputed. “He is the best point guard in basketball and he just got five months off to refresh and reinvigorate for a big playoff run in a bubble. He is all in for basketball.
“He got the greatest break of his career. The basketball gods intervened and said let there be a five month break at the end of your 17th season. They were on a roll and then they got to rest. He needed that.”
Truly, every player is gunning for James’ position as king of the bubble. Yet it is possible that being in a basketball-only environment is a welcome tonic for James, given his level of public recognition and other interests away from the game.
“It’s very rare to see (him) walking by himself and being comfortable,” Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker told Bleacher Report. “I was telling somebody that he probably hasn’t done that since he was nine years old, being able to be so comfortable just walking around and not worrying about people coming up to him and being bothered asking for something.
“Now he’s just regular, you know? Not regular, but he’s able to be comfortable and walk around comfortably, so I think that’s pretty cool.”
That calm within the bubble seems to be having a positive effect on LeBron's team, too. According to Lakers head coach Frank Vogel, James has been deeply involved with his teammates, putting effort into fostering team spirit, while simply enjoying his time among fellow athletes.
“I’ve got to commend him,” Vogel told reporters. “For someone of his stature to just be one of the guys, hanging out in the little outdoor area that we have at the hotel.
“A lot of players are grabbing dinners and going back up to their rooms, and LeBron is sitting down there with his teammates. I think he really enjoys our group, both his teammates, the support staff, our coaching staff, and I commend him, like I said. For someone of that stature to have that mentality of being one of the guys.”
In truth, he’ll never be just one of the guys. James is never kept out of the spotlight for long. Those three titles, all those accolades, and a decade and a half of excellence dictate that he’ll always be looked at with a certain reverence by his peers.
During a quiet weekend as the final stages of restart preparation continued apace, his name was in the news when a signed rookie card of his became the most expensive basketball card ever, selling for a whopping $1.8 million — and when LeBron let it be known he has a few of the limited-edition cards in his own collection.
It's just a card, but it shows his position of value, to the league, to the sport, and as a social campaigner, no matter how relaxed he might be.
He’s now seeking to add value to his career resume, with the chalice of a fourth title that would surely be right up there with the most satisfying of his career. This one will take place in a different way, though, in a different time.
Maybe that's who LeBron is now, both in this moment and in his career. Seventeen seasons in the NBA have resulted in the perspective that only comes with having seen it all; a month in the bubble to himself has led to a similar serenity and a renewed focus that he'll very much need.
LeBron James might like being on campus, and it is hard to begrudge that sense of peace — but it's a campus filled with an army of challengers trying to block his path to a championship.