On July 1, 2018, word broke that the Los Angeles Lakers had landed LeBron James, the biggest free agent of them all. The move sent shockwaves across the Lakers’ massive fan base, and while most were thrilled at a new star landing in Los Angeles, not all of the reactions were positive.
Over the course of the last year, the LeBron-to-LA chatter has been a divisive topic among the passionate legion of Lakers supporters. Some object to James’ on-court antics, others worry that he will assume a de facto general manager role and bring in players on bloated contracts, which partially led to the downfall of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
However, for many, the disdain for James ultimately stems from their unwavering support of Kobe Bryant. It makes sense.
After all, Bryant is something of a demigod in Los Angeles after spending two decades in purple and gold. An entire generation of fans grew up alongside Bryant, agonizing over his failures and celebrating his victories.
These fans watched as a rookie Bryant airballed 3-pointers in the playoffs against the Utah Jazz and then, in what felt like the blink of an eye, he was dropping 60 in the final performance of his career.
Everything in between; the championships, 81 points, MVP award, buzzer beaters, ferocious dunks, indomitable will — all of it — is priceless to the purple and gold faithful. Bryant has irrevocably become part of the culture of Lakers fandom.
As such, it’s no surprise that James, the King now ready to sit upon Bryant’s vacated throne, is met with mistrust from some and outright contempt from others. To some, the notion of replacing Bryant is blasphemy, especially when the details are considered.
Bryant grew before our eyes but James is seen as someone else’s star. He’s Cleveland’s son, coming to Los Angeles as an outsider after the Cavs declined partly due to the massive contracts given to players like J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson to appease James.
He’s a hired gun rolling through town, and while his talents may be impressive, at 33 years old he won’t be able to build the kind of Los Angeles legacy that Bryant did.
All of that matters, and for Bryant fans, years of defending their hero in the James vs. Bryant debate doesn’t make it easy to flip the switch and get behind James, even if he is in purple and gold. Bryant has been retired for two years now, but old habits die hard.
This has caused some Lakers fans to keep James at a distance, unsure of whether or not they can fully embrace him. A vile few have even turned their mistrust into hate, destroying murals painted for James in Los Angeles.
Co-Owner Jeanie Buss had a message to those fans when she appeared on “The Rich Eisen Show” recently, stating “they’re not Laker fans if they’re not happy about LeBron joining the team.”
Buss’ comments draw a line in the sand, and one that certainly won’t sit well with longtime Lakers fans that can’t get on board with James. Still, the bottom line is that Buss is correct, long-held rivalries aside, James in Los Angeles is a very good thing for the Lakers organization both now and in the future.
James’ arrival signals that the team’s rebuild, which has gone on far longer than anyone was comfortable with, is finally over. With young talent in place and a motley crew of grizzled veterans surrounding James, the Lakers are once again back in the business of winning basketball games.
Speaking of business, James also brings a huge windfall for the team in terms of merchandise, ticket sales, and everything else that comes along with the best player in the game making the jump to the league’s most glamorous franchise.
But what of Bryant, the greatest Laker, whose throne is being usurped?
Fear not. James isn’t unseating Bryant any more than Pepsi has dethroned Coke. James is an immense talent and undeniably one of the greatest to ever play the game, but Bryant’s impact on basketball in Los Angeles simply can’t be topped.
Additionally, while James didn’t grow up before the eyes of Lakers fans, a peek at the rafters of the Staples Center reveals a host of players who came in after their careers were already established, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, and Shaquille O’Neal (who eventually retired with the Boston Celtics of all teams).
Moving to Los Angeles after establishing a career elsewhere is nothing new, and James certainly won’t be the last to trade midwest gloom for Hollywood glam. In fact, given their history, attracting established talent via trade or free agency is much more in line with the Lakers modus operandi than developing them from prom to pinnacle the way Bryant was.
Being a Lakers superstar, playing for this town, these fans, doesn’t require duplicating Bryant’s epic run. That’s a high bar to clear now and it isn’t unreasonable to think that no one will ever match what Bryant did.
And that’s more than OK.
There’s a scene near the end of action classic “Lethal Weapon 4” that’s applicable here. Leo (Joe Pesci), offers surprisingly insightful advice to Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), who is an unhinged cop who still struggles with the death of his wife, which occurred before the first “Lethal Weapon.”
Riggs, who is expecting a child with new love Lorna (Rene Russo), wants to get marry her but is struggling to get past the guilt of moving on from his departed wife. Leo recounts the story of his childhood pet, Froggy, who was his only friend. Now he has Riggs and his partner Murtaugh as his friends, but that doesn’t mean he loved Froggy any less. It’s just different.
James sits on the throne now in Los Angeles as the star the Lakers will build around for at least the next three years. It’s OK to accept him, his arrival does nothing to dull Bryant’s brilliance.
James isn’t a better star for Los Angeles nor are Lakers fans betraying Bryant by supporting the new top dog. He’s just different and that’s just fine.
It doesn’t have to be one or the other; we can enjoy the new era while still celebrating the previous one.