LeBron Backlash: Why many Laker fans reject the media-driven "King James" narrative
It is the summer of 2018, and just over a month ago, the glamour franchise of professional basketball, the Los Angeles Lakers, signed 15-year NBA veteran and 4-time MVP LeBron James to a 4 year, $154 million dollar contract.
The Lakers sign King James! Suffering fans of the purple and gold, far and wide, it is time to rejoice!
Eh, not so fast.
Unlike his turn in Miami, or his return to Cleveland, this final act of James' career has not been met with universal celebration in Los Angeles. Laker fans have a long, storied and decorated history, as well as perhaps the greatest tradition (rivaled only by Boston) in the entire NBA.
So when it comes to many Lakers fans' resentment of LeBron - completely outside of LeBron the individual - it's some downright complex material that starts with the disparagement that the mainstream media has levied towards Laker greats in the recent past. In the modern era, it has happened twice now; Magic Johnson, along with Larry Bird, were more responsible than any other player or players in quite literally saving the NBA from oblivion in the late 70's. Their rivalry renewed interest in the sport, and Johnson and Bird were clearly operating heads and shoulders above anyone else in the NBA while playing at the peak of their respectful careers.
Magic would go on to nine NBA Finals appearances, and while winning 5 rings in the process, Bird won 3. By winning their head to head duals - on the court - Magic laid legitimate claim to being regarded as the best in the sport. However, it wasn’t long before Michael Jordan, despite having no rivalry equivalent to Johnson/Bird (or vice versa), would go on to 6 NBA Finals appearances. Though he would win all 6, it was 3 appearances fewer than Johnson, and many observers have noted that due to league expansion, the league’s concentration of talent was diluted during Jordan’s runs.
It didn’t seem to matter in the slightest. Johnson was in his final year before retirement when his Lakers met Jordan’s Bulls in the Finals in 1991. Well past the Showtime era, the team was constituted mostly of leftovers at that point, missing former team captain Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1987 defensive player of the year Michael Cooper, and perhaps most significantly, Head Coach Pat Riley, the architect of the Lakers 1980's dynastic run. That Jordan’s Bulls were competing against an overachieving Lakers squad didn’t ever enter the narrative, and even though the Lakers were, in 1991, a far cry from the championship teams of the 80's, the matchup was still sold as a “passing of the torch” between Johnson and Jordan.
Within the next few years, Jordan’s marketing reach was enough for corporate sponsors and mainstream media to decree him as “the best player of all time”. Johnson’s legacy was suddenly and unceremoniously usurped, despite still having legitimate claim to having a more remarkable playing career and impact on the sport.
As Jordan's career wound to a close in the late 90's, the NBA and it's sponsors were desperate to keep the same act going, and seemingly sought to simply recast the part of it's lead performer. Inexplicably, rather than finding something new, the search for "the next Jordan" thrust the spotlight on such names as Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Harold Miner, and many others. Then Kobe came along in 1996. Within 3 years, he had already solidified himself as one of the game's elite, and suddenly the search for the "Air Apparent" had unearthed a talent that would finally live up to the billing.
By 2000, he would win his first NBA title, and along with Shaquille O'Neal would form the greatest tandem in NBA history, equaling Jordan's runs of consecutive titles at 3.
Never shrinking from the spotlight, but instead embracing it, he would become the league's marquee player and was just entering his prime with three rings under his belt.
The future seemed limitless.
Then, in July of 2003, Kobe's career hit a crossroads. The friction began when O'Neal refused to get surgery on his foot in time to be ready for the start of the season, infuriating Bryant, who had undoubtedly identified four straight as a way to eclipse a marquee Jordan achievement. Later, the Colorado accusation that summer would fundamentally alter the rest of Bryant career.
He would no longer be the NBA's "golden child". Though the case never made it to trial, and the accuser was exposed as mentally unstable, the incident unquestionably cast Bryant in a different role. He became the "fallen angel" to sponsors, but used the media and fan contempt as fuel to double down on his already legendary focus and unparalleled work ethic.
Bryant would go on to win 2 more titles, having reached 7 NBA Finals, and when it was all said and done, concluded his career having advanced in the playoffs further more frequently than Jordan, as well as outscoring Jordan's career points total, and eclipsed the number of times he was selected for the NBA's All-Defensive Teams, 12 to 9. His 81 points in a single game, 62 points in 3 quarters, and 60 point performance in his final game were all record breaking achievements.
The Laker fan push back to accepting LeBron has a lot to do with the mainstream media force-feeding the idea that LeBron is unarguably "the best player on the planet" and is exacerbated when talking about his place among the all time greats, in recent years suddenly (and inexorably) in the discussion of perhaps being THE "greatest player of all time."
All of this, despite having a 3-6 record in the Finals and having played his entire career in what has categorically been the weaker conference in the NBA. It is not - as many media pundits have claimed - stemming from an idea that Laker fans, Kobe fans, or a combination of both believe or feel that Kobe's legacy will be "threatened" by LeBron. It's that once again, and in consecutive eras, the career of a Laker great who has done more to earn the mantle is being undermined by a player who has had - to this point - a career of lesser basketball accomplishment and distinction, by the most genuine of measurements.
LeBron's individual playoff disappearances and critical collapses have been well chronicled, yet even those instances notwithstanding, it remains clear that that James has never - ever - enjoyed consistent playoff success against great competition. Eight consecutive Finals appearances seems by most metrics to be an amazing accomplishment, but the feat is deceiving. Playing in a consistently weak conference without any truly great team to oppose him allowed for the path to be considerably easier than having to go up against the all time great teams that many of the other greatest-of-their-eras have had to.
If a legend's greatness is measured by their success against great competition, then James has historically failed. Not with absolute consistency, but with an overwhelmingly frequent degree of occurrence opposed to the counterargument.
Though a key Draymond Green suspension may have helped, particularly in a series that went the full 7 games, the Cavaliers win against Golden State in 2016 nevertheless represents the high point of LeBron's career. Still, against that particular great team - Golden State - overall, LeBron went 1-3 in the Finals against, losing 16 times out of 22 games.
If a legend's greatness is measured by their success against great competition, then James has historically failed.
Kobe, on the other hand, just in his own conference, had to first overcome a 15-point 4th quarter deficit in a Western Conference Finals Game 7 against a a loaded Portland team, the Duncan/Popovich Spurs dynasty repeatedly (both early and later in his career), as well as a offensively dominant Sacramento Kings squad. To be sure, Kobe prevented all of these teams from winning championships. The winner of the West was assuredly winning the title in almost all of those years. It is with must less certainty, that James can claim the same about the eastern conference victims that he ran through for the better part of the last decade.
Conference convenience aside, Bryant also made his mark on the team and the city by sticking with Los Angeles and the Lakers through difficult times. After a championship appearance drought following 2004 ended in 2008, Kobe and the Lakers won back to back championships, the second of which (and fifth title of Bryant's career) coming against the hated Boston Celtics and their Big 3 Hall of Famers. Those same Celtics were responsible for eliminating James from title contention on a near annual basis until Boston broke the team up.
Conversely, rather than regrouping with teammates in defeat - first in Cleveland, then Miami, then again in Cleveland - and seeking to overcome an obstacle together, James has instead often moved from city to city in search of something else.
Laker fans are not as easily swayed by statistics (which, without context, lose impact) or regular season success. Despite the media packaging "King James" as something he wasn't, they were witness to LeBron's career failures while Kobe simultaneously earned their respect, year after year, playing with different groups of teammates. It should not come as a surprise that many Laker fans are not embracing LeBron wearing the purple and gold. To have the label of "greatest player ever" or "greatest player to wear a Laker jersey" is insulting to fans that so recently celebrated the close of a truly remarkable 20 year career - a career that to this point is unequivocally greater than that of LeBron James.
The more frequently that this idea is trumpeted - that the James/Bryant debate is "over", in favor of James - the greater the pushback (and lack of any LeBron embrace) will be from Laker fans. James calling himself the best player in the world doesn't help in this regard, and with LeBron now donning a Laker jersey, the debates and comparisons surrounding the two is renewed in a different light.
To many Laker fans, James' past success (and to perhaps a lesser extent, his failures) are irrelevant to embracing him now. What matters is what he does as a Laker. To be sure, the respect that he gets from these fans will have to be earned, not simply issued.