Bill Walsh had accomplished everything he ever needed to accomplish. It was 1992 and Walsh was a year away from being enshrined in Canton as the greatest football mind of his generation, borne out by three Super Bowls, six division titles, and a template for winning offensive football that would last for another full decade after he left the 49ers. When he decided to come back to Stanford, it was clear to everyone, Walsh included, that this would be his final job. At his introductory press conference, he smiled warmly and told the assembled reporters, before he had held a single practice, that “this is my bliss.”
LeBron James has earned his bliss. Like Walsh, he has three titles to his resume. He has spent this entire decade living in the NBA Finals, a feat that will only grow more remarkable the farther we get away from it. He has a couple of gold medals (thank you for that reminder, Klutch Sports). He’s won MVP four times and should have won it many other times. While he doesn’t boast any kind of official playing streak, as Cal Ripken and Brett Favre do in their respective sports, he is the eternal Iron Man of basketball: a cosmic freak who can blitz through 100 games a season and put up his best numbers at the END of those seasons.
James has more than earned the right do whatever he wants to go, for whatever reason he chooses. That was also true long ago, when people like me got him so very wrong, but it’s even truer now that he’s 33 years old and the reigning GOAT of the basketball universe. There isn’t gonna be a fourth decision. LeBron’s new contract with the Lakers allows him to opt out at age 36. But given the commitment, and outright faith, that he’s already shown L.A., I doubt he ever leaves.
Because this was not necessarily a decision made with stockpiling Larry O’Brien trophies in mind. James is going to a tougher conference, and no one is gonna accuse him of coattail-riding when the Lakers won a piddly-shit 35 games last year. The only notable accomplishment of this team last season came when they got LaVar Ball to fuck off to Lithuania. Apart from James, everyone else on the team is young and stupid. No one else can rebound. The point guard can’t shoot. The small forward is Lil Tay. Maybe they can still pull off a trade for Kawhi Leonard, but that’s probably nowhere near enough for them to beat a Golden State team that has also earned its bliss.
There were clearly a lot of other mitigating factors that went into James’s decision making. His owner in Cleveland was a crooked, smothering idiot. His team there was at a dead end. Los Angeles is where he maintains a couple of homes and conducts the majority of his off-the-court business. The weather is better. The politics there are halfway sane. The wine is EXCELLENT. This is where James wants to play but more critically where he wants to BE. He says he wants to play with his kid, and I don’t think he means in Milwaukee. Los Angeles is the endgame, and perhaps it always was. This is where LeBron’s twilight begins.
Obviously, he still wants to win. You don’t play in eight straight NBA Finals without possessing the kind of competitive sociopathy inherent in all the great ones, and every dipshit Lakers fan still rocking a Kobe jersey will now feel ENTITLED to a championship thanks to James’s arrival. He’s gonna play his ass off, and he’s gonna use all of his clout, and all of the Lakers’ resources, to amass the kind of roster that can maybe steal him one more title before he formally retires. The man has vision, after all. He probably already has the 2020 roster in mind. He probably already has a coterie of friends who are already planning to join him.
But that likely won’t be enough. Final acts in sports have a tendency to fall apart. Walsh only lasted two years at Stanford before wearing down (according to this report, a fan shouted “You’re no damn genius” at Walsh after a loss to Cal and it gnawed at him for WEEKS). Michael Jordan’s tenure in Washington was such a disaster that I enjoy pretending it never happened. Tom Brady dropped that pass. It rarely ends the way you think it will.
Like a lot of other sports fans, I felt an urgency this spring to appreciate James as much as I could for as long as he lasted, because I am old enough to know that sports are finite. Even though James is unlike anyone I’ve seen, time will get him at some point. And it’ll probably get him in L.A. I know that’s a downer way of looking at it, but A) Fuck Lakers fans, and B) In the grand scheme of things, it’s fine. He was always the biggest, in both form and presence. He’s bigger than any team. He’s bigger than any title. He’s bigger than the league itself. And here, at the end, he’ll have finally the stage—the life!—to match that grandness. If it doesn’t end quite the way he, or any of us, envisioned, it’ll still be a fitting end all the same. This is LeBron’s bliss; we’re all just hoping to share a little piece of it.