LOS ANGELES – Prior to Tuesday’s tipoff extravaganza, LeBron James last appeared in a meaningful NBA game on March 29, 2019. That’s a full 207 days, marking the longest stretch between regular season (or playoff) games for James since he entered the league in 2003. He’s been a constant, playing in at least 60 or more contests every season until 2018-19. He had a streak of eight straight NBA Finals appearances, and prior to this spring’s Lakers squad, had made the playoffs every year since the end of the 2005-06 campaign. That year, Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” became the song of the summer (and every summer, really).
James was forced to do something he hasn’t actually done all the frequently in his career: rest. The career playoff minutes leader — almost 700 more than the guy in second, Time Duncan — is steadily climbing the career regular season minutes list, and with a semi-healthy season will be firmly in the top-10. Heading into Media Day and the preseason, he arrived with that all-too-buzzy “perspective,” emboldened by his first true break since before Bronny turned two. He seemed to relish the quiet, “didn’t miss a single game” of the NBA Playoffs from the couch, and got in some valuable dad time.
Perspective was probably easy to find now that Anthony Davis is in tow, and the pair bonded at Taco Tuesdays and around town. Davis gave James a new type of running mate at this point in his career. He operated at a killer level with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland, but as the league has moved to duos, it’s hard to argue any duo has as much pure punch and creativity as James and Davis. It’s not quite the Fountain of Youth for the 34 year old, but it’s a start.
“I’m very motivated,” James said during Media Day at the end of September, “but right now I’m in not talking about it mode. I’ve been very quiet this summer for a reason, but there’s some motivation for me. There’s a lot of conversations going on this summer and I’m just very quiet, very quiet. And I’m just going to maintain quiet. My mother always taught me, ‘Don’t talk about it, be about it.’ So that’s where I’m at.”
Tuesday’s game against the Clippers was the first chance to roll out this new “be about it” mindset, even if the end result wasn’t what James had hoped for. The team clearly has a lot to work through, and integrating/building a rapport with Davis will be critical over these first 20 games. LeBron’s teams have often started slow, especially with new personnel, and there’ll be no hurry to wear either of the stars down while Frank Vogel seeks out his best rotation. The Clippers have a lot of that to do, too, as they wait on Paul George and find the best fit for Kawhi Leonard, but they’re way ahead at least when it comes to their revered Bench Mob.
And yet, there was nostalgia factor at play with James back on the court. Not quite so far as a reboot, but the comfort of knowing this was familiar.
The headband was back. The chalk toss was back.
LeBron's chalk toss is back 🔥 pic.twitter.com/JGjzPvwmWC
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 23, 2019
The fast break jam was back.
The turnaround jumper was back.
Phantom Cam: LeBron over Kawhi
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 23, 2019
The chasedown block was back.
That is just an incredible defensive possession by LeBron James. Wow. pic.twitter.com/DraLcbY49w
— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) October 23, 2019
These are things LeBron has done over and over throughout his career, moments of brilliance that have become so frequent that, for him, they’re the expectation. It’s when he’s not doing these things that the voices get louder, and as the 200-day gap between the highlights showed, there’s still something special about James on a basketball court, even if a layoff means he has to work off some obvious rust — James scored 18 points on 7-for-19 shooting with a team-high five turnovers. Still, until that day when he can’t do this anymore, there will always be something special about LeBron James on a basketball court.
“I was so excited to get back on the floor,” James said after the 112-102 loss. “Obviously a little rusty as far as my perimeter shooting and not being in a game situation in a while. Not having played that many minutes in quite a while, since I sat the last nine games off from last season. Just to be able to go out there and fly around once again and jump high and be at 100 percent, that’s something I worked my tail off after I had the groin injury in December, just trying to get back to who I am. It was great to get back out there.”
The league is better when LeBron is playing basketball. It’s just different when he’s out there hitting turnarounds, popping threes nonchalantly, hurling impossible passes to his teammates, and dunking ferociously. There’s this habit of NBA fans spending LeBron’s entire career wanting him to be something that it’s easy to forget who he is or how special the something he actually is can be.
And yet, that gap — along with last season’s brush with mortality — has forced the basketball world to come to grips with something that’s been put off as long as it can be: someday there will be an NBA without LeBron James. The League will be okay, as there are plenty of players ready to usher in whatever the next era looks like, and this year’s Lakers squad could symbolically be that torch passing from James to the 26-year-old Davis.
Until then, James is going to fight on as he always has, and Tuesday’s game hit enough of those notes to bring back those memories. The rust was there, sure, and that mortality he’s valiantly staved off is still there lurking like a shadow. But filtering out the noise, removing the infinite scroll of social media, muting the commentary, and simply watching LeBron in action is still witnessing the NBA’s most unique player operating in his own orbit.
It’s a joy, and it’s possible no one will realize how much they’ll miss it until he’s not on the floor anymore.