The year was 2018 when a reporter in a scrum asked the NBA’s biggest star on Sept. 28 how he would gain the respect of fans in Los Angeles.
“Who, me?” LeBron James said, bemused. “Me?”
“Yes, you,” the reporter replied.
“Huh?” James said, to laughter. Then he smiled. “I signed a four-year deal. How much more — what do you want me to do?”
Over the next two years, James began to understand the answer to the question he posed. Lakers fans wanted him to win a championship.
“What I’ve learned being a Laker is that the Laker faithful don’t give a damn what you’ve done before,” James said on Thursday. “… They don’t care about your résumé at all until you become a Laker. Then you’ve got to do it as a Laker, and then they respect you. I’ve learned that.”
James will have a chance on Friday to accomplish the only goal that matters to many L.A. fans when the Lakers play the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the NBA Finals with a 3-1 series lead. With one more win, they will secure the franchise’s 17th championship, and the first since Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol led the Lakers to a title over the Boston Celtics in 2010.
The chances he does it Friday are high — James has played in 17 closeout games in the playoffs in his career, and his teams have won 16.
“Just having that desperation coming to a closeout game,” James said. “I’ve been victorious after having that mind-set.”
When James signed with the Lakers, his résumé was strong. He had just come off eight consecutive Finals appearances, four each with the Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers. He won three championships, three Finals MVP awards and had been named the league’s MVP four times. He’d gone to 14 All-Star games and been named the Associated Press athlete of the year on three occasions.
He joined a franchise that had missed the playoffs for six years in a row and was in need of a savior. James picked them and picked that role.
But the adoration didn’t come immediately. It didn’t help that the Lakers started the season 2-5, that James suffered the first major injury of his career, and that he was asked if he liked to study the history of new franchises he joined — the implication clearly about Lakers history.
“Nah, this is my job which is fun for me,” James said back then. “I don’t go out of my way to do anything besides put my commitment and my time into my craft and this is what I am here to do, to play ball and help lead these guys. That is what I am here to do.”
The reaction was tepid when he passed Michael Jordan on the league’s all-time scoring list.
Two years later he speaks eloquently about Lakers’ lore and the impact of late owner Jerry Buss. The franchise clung to James in times of challenge and tragedy. He showed Lakers fans his appreciation for their icons never more than in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s sudden death.
The main thing, though, was winning. This season James stayed healthy. He was not playing alongside a group of young players who hadn’t fully developed their games yet. He was playing with Anthony Davis — a superstar in his own right, though one who didn’t have James’ résumé
coming into the season.
“People can talk about winning MVPs and things like that, but I think you get remembered most by winning a championship, being a champion,” said Davis, a seven-time All-Star who is playing in his first NBA Finals. “I think that if we’re able to close this thing out, then that’s what people will remember. I don’t think people are going to remember individual awards as much as they remember championships, and that’s our mind-set, just go out there and win.”
The players aren’t the only ones saddled with the weight of Lakers expectations.
“I think this is the coolest franchise in the whole NBA,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “The fan base, the history, Southern California. There’s nothing like the L.A. Lakers. It’s been an honor to be a part of it. I hope to add to its history with one more win.”
That has always been James’ plan. Despite chatter that he only came to Los Angeles to make movies and expand his business empire, James has consistently maintained that he came to restore the Lakers’ luster. He took pride in winning the Western Conference in the regular season, and he also took pride in taking the Lakers back to the NBA Finals.
But he knows his task is more than that.