'It Had to Be About Something Bigger': Why LeBron James Chose the LA Lakers

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IJuly 2, 2018

FILE - In this June 3, 2018, file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James watches during the first half of Game 2 of basketball's NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif. Two people familiar with the decision say James has told the Cavaliers he is declining his $35.6 million contract option for next season and is a free agent. James' representatives told the Cavs on Friday, June 29, 2018, said the people who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team is not publicly commenting on moves ahead of free agency opening Sunday. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The first time, LeBron James sat clumsily with Jim Gray on national TV, announcing that he was taking his talents to South Beach.

That didn't go over too well.

Upon returning to Cleveland, the announcement came in the form of an elaborately written essay in Sports Illustrated. Lots and lots of words.

This time? There was only an old-school press release sent out into the world by his representation agency, Klutch Sports. It contained exactly one sentence, which stated simply that James had agreed to a four-year, $154 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Then came the customary three pound signs (###) at the end of the release, which in public relations lingo is an indication to the news media that there is no more copy to come.

That couldn't be further from the truth, because LeBron James' latest chapterthe Hollywood chapter, the Showtime chapter—might just be the most fascinating yet.

"If I'm going to leave Cleveland again," James told a confidant leading up to this decision, according to a person familiar with their conversation, "it needs to be like what I dreamt of as a kid."

Remember, this is a man who grew up in Northeast Ohio rooting for the Cowboys and the Yankees. It's the go-big-or-go-home sports fan mentality.

In 2014, James went home. Now, he's going big.

Hollywood big. Showtime big. Magic Johnson big.

"If he was going to leave Cleveland," the person familiar with James' thinking told B/R, "it had to be about something bigger. It couldn't be about chasing a ring."

After listening to James during the NBA Finals explain why he left Cleveland the first time"I just didn't have the level of talent to compete," he saidit should have surprised no one that he decided to move on again. In the course of getting swept by the Warriors, James had told us that, whatever happens, he'll "continue to be in championship mode."

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 20: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat, sitting with the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) trophy, is interviewed by NBA legend Magic Johnson following the Heat's victory against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Seven of the
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

It was easy to see that championship mode had run its course in Cleveland.

"We will always remember the evening of June 19, 2016 as the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, ended the 52-year drought, delivering the long-elusive championship that many thought they would never see," owner Dan Gilbert said in a much more carefully worded statement than he made the last time LeBron left town.

But many of usmyself includedhad misread the situation and how James would calculate his next move. Frankly, I'm surprised he went to L.A. without a superstar sidekick in tow…with Paul George locked up in Oklahoma City and Kawhi Leonard still in San Antonio for the foreseeable future.

But I was focused on the wrong things. James was focused on playing for an institution, an organization that has its own basketball Mount Rushmore: Wilt, the Logo, Kareem, Magic, Shaq, Kobe…and now, LeBron.

With 16 championship banners waving in the air above the Staples Center court, in some ways James will feel pressure to win like he's never experienced before. Leave Cleveland for L.A. and still fall short against the Warriors? How does that look in the history books?

Not to mention Kobe Bryant lurking in the background, smirking with his five rings.

It takes a legend, one who is fully comfortable in his own skin and with his own legacy, to make a move like this.

"That franchise, with the pieces they have and the position they can be in, he absolutely believes they can be in a position to win over the next few years," the person familiar with James' thinking said. "He spent a lot of time talking to Magic Johnson about that."

The motivation to leave the first time was to team up with other superstars in their prime and tip the competitive scales in his favor so he could get that first championship. The second time, bringing someone else with him had little to do with the equation.

"Leonard and George were never an issue for him," the person familiar with James' thinking said. "It became more about his belief that he can build a team in the Lakers that can win."

But as he enters his 16th season, how much time does James have left for team building? The simple answer is that James believes he has plenty left to offer, and his rivals around the league are inclined to believe him.

"I think he has a lot left in the tank," an Eastern Conference head coach told B/R. "He doesn't need a whole lot, as he's shown over the years; just get a couple other smart players. The only problem is, he's got Houston and Golden State to go against."

Which is why Phase 3 of James' career isn't about just one thing.

His family more than approves of L.A., where they have kept an offseason home in recent years. And James certainly approves of wearing purple and gold.

"The romanticism of playing in a Laker uniform had an appeal to him," the person familiar with his thinking said.

It was a coup for the Lakers' management team of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, and for Jeanie Buss, who cleaned out a dysfunctional front office and put them in charge with a clear mandate: Bring us a star worthy of Hollywood…a legend worthy of the Lakers.

And it was a coup for James, whose departure from Cleveland didn't spark a nasty diatribe from Gilbert this time.

"He got them their championship," the rival head coach said. "That's what he promised he would do."

But James also never forgot how rudely Gilbert had thrown him under the bus when he left in 2010and that played a part in Decision 3.0 as well.

"I think the egos of LeBron and the owner got them to this point," the rival coach said.

But this time, most reasonable people seem to recognize that James has earned the right to decide where he's going to playand, if not finish his career there, at least write the most fascinating chapter of it yet.

"He's getting closer to retirement, and he's putting a lot of capital into the entertainment world, Hollywood, L.A.," the rival head coach said. "He's got a few more years he can capitalize on all those things, plus the quality of life and the weather."

James' deal is for three years with a player option, a league source told B/R. But with this decision, James is clearly taking the long view.

A legendary view, if you will, in a city and franchise fit for a King.

       

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.

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