LeBron James has swayed the NBA for better or worse. What happens when he's gone?
CLEVELAND — He bathed in the applause, yelled to the heavens, earning the biggest cheers among all the current players in the All-Star Game.
Later, when LeBron James stood among so many of the NBA’s greatest players in its 75 years, only a few could relate to being the face of the game.
One by one, they all played a part in molding the game into what it is: the texture, the depth and even its warts. But being an ambassador is something different.
Carrying the torch of what the NBA is currently and aims to be in the future is almost as tough a task as saving a franchise, or resurrecting one, or assimilating into one — and James has done all three while being “That Guy.”
“I’ve held that title of ambassador,” James said. “Nobody told me to do it, but I felt like if I wasn’t gonna do it, who was gonna do it? So I took that responsibility, and I’ll continue to do it till I’m done playing the game.”
He’s the game’s biggest name, even if he’s no longer the game’s best player — being usurped by those one could say were influenced by his style. He still commands any room he’s in, he drives all the conversation and even through his missteps, the NBA world is so irresistibly drawn to him.
It won’t last forever, even though it seems his greatness is indefatigable. He’ll walk away or the game will usher him away.
James opened the door to yet another return to Cleveland over the weekend, ensuring the requisite reaction — equal parts eye rolls and intrigue. Like that gorgeous ex whose call you’ll always take no matter how many times you’ve been loved and left, talking about him is so alluring even when it’s exhausting.
“It’s a responsibility for sure,” James said. “Somebody did it before me. And putting it in a position to [keep] it where it was and make it better than it was. Represent the league with the utmost respect.
“There’s so many generations that look for inspiration. And it’s always cool to see guys who come into our league, and he said, favorite player growing up is LeBron James. That means something to me, because I feel like [it] has so much more to do than just playing the game of basketball.”
He plays the hits, but he gives the league what it needs at times, too.
He knows exactly what he’s doing, steering conversation because he can and whether the NBA wants to admit it or not, it has fueled this recent era, for better and perhaps worse.
Hardly anyone carries that sway in today’s NBA, and the argument can be made that his presence overshadows the league pushing its energy toward someone else.
When he’s engaged, he can capture and make a moment all his own — or put considerable energy toward a movement.
Julius Erving was a classy statesman when the NBA needed it, stable and almost regal in his presence. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were charismatic, more the former than latter, but in concert they helped make the league credible during the burgeoning 1980s, leading to the expansion and riding a growing television popularity.
Then, of course, came Michael Jordan, who embraced James following the halftime ceremony in a moment that was captured for the world and will be captioned for days and weeks to come.
Jordan’s stature still captivates, and his presence still makes grown people stop in their tracks and gasp. There seemed to be smooth transitions from one ambassador to the next, but even James is still chasing that high, that feeling Jordan produces just by showing his face.
The league wobbled for a while after Jordan’s Last Dance retirement, unable to find its own traction let alone wrapping its arms around a universal figure. It wasn’t about basketball excellence, because plenty of talented players took up that real estate.
But it took someone special with a blend of artistry, background and desire to shape a narrative to give the NBA its “next.”
And while the league has probably learned from its mistakes of trying to manufacture the next Michael Jordan and won’t go down that path with a James replacement, it needs to start thinking of a life without him.
“I want to be absolutely clear. I am not prepared to talk about the post-LeBron era,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told Yahoo Sports recently. “And I don't think it's because I'm in denial. He won a championship less than a year and a half ago. From my standpoint, LeBron is still playing at the very highest level in the league.
“At some point, a new player or players will emerge, I think, [to] take that leadership mantle in the league. It seems they always do. I'm just not prepared, even in the slightest, to start thinking about the league without LeBron, because he continues to be as committed as ever to the competition, to the league overall.”
Kevin Durant is too inconsistent a personality to be part of the conversation, even when he has his moments.
Stephen Curry seems as fit as anyone, as stable as any star in this wayward era, to continue on if he chooses to. He draws a distinction between being a face of the league and ambassador, but appears to understand it’s a heavy weight to carry — with additional weight added that one can’t bargain for.
He was booed mercilessly for obvious reasons, even though he was sharing a stage with Ohio’s favored son. Curry carried the evening with those sky-touching triples and James’ fadeaway finished it, producing an appropriate film, but one that wasn’t quite a passing of the torch.
“The way I approach it, it’s a tremendous honor to know, like if you say something, do something that moves the needle because of the way that you played a game,” Curry said. “And doors open and the impact that you have, and I want to respect that with everything that I do. And understand that there's an amazing opportunity with amazing responsibility.”
He’s careful about wanting the responsibility but uses it judiciously, like putting his influence behind the NBA’s involvement with HBCUs and his personal commitment to growing the game of golf with those colleges.
It’s understandable to not want that level of scrutiny, to be in that fishbowl every day. You have to almost crave that attention in ways the most obvious candidate, Giannis Antetokounmpo, seems to shy away from in this new era of microwaved attention, criticism and reward.
But James has lived his life in that bowl, and doesn’t mind stirring it.
The playoffs begin in less than two months, and by the time some casuals are ready to join the party, the Los Angeles Lakers — and James — won’t be around to watch.
The league hasn’t broken its addiction to Jordan, and if the NBA isn’t careful, its codependency on James will end abruptly without a plan for what comes next.
And that day is coming sooner than we think.