Appreciated or not, LeBron James comes to the Los Angeles Lakers as an outsider

Jay Asser 20:33 22/07/2018
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Mural by Jonas Never in Venice which was vandalised and later painted entirely white by the local artist.

The reason it felt so weird to imagine LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers – at least prior to this year, before his arrival felt inevitable – was the history he was following.

In Cleveland, LeBron was the Cavaliers. With all due respect to Bill Fitch, Lenny Wilkens, Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, ‘The Shot’ and the entire history of the franchise leading up to 2003, the Cavaliers didn’t truly feel relevant until James entered the league and became their saviour.

LeBron’s four years spent in Miami – his study abroad years – exposed him to life on a team that wasn’t his to begin with. But even though Dwyane Wade was already established as the face of the franchise and a championship banner was already hanging in the rafters, the Heat – a team that only came into existence in 1988 – didn’t have the kind of history that feels inescapable.

The Lakers, a franchise that is as blue blood as it gets, do. LeBron isn’t just joining any team, he’s coming into an organisation that has prestige coming out of its ears thanks to their accomplishments of yesteryear – 16 titles (second only to Boston’s 17) and a list of Hall of Famers that features some of the best players who’ve ever touched a basketball.

Who knows how much that factored into LeBron’s decision. Maybe he’s drawn to the Lakers lore and wants to write his own chapter. Maybe he just likes Los Angeles as a home for himself and his family, as well as his outside business ventures.

Regardless, James is going to feel the weight of that history to some extent. By no means will it cripple him, but even the best player in the world – and arguably of all-time – will experience what it’s like to be an outsider.

The Lakers are his team now, but the franchise doesn’t belong to James like the Cavaliers did. He isn’t instantly their most beloved figure. And unlike in Miami, Lakers fans have enough to be nostalgic about to rationalise their arrogance.

They’ll come to love LeBron, if they haven’t already, but he may never fill the space in their hearts that’s already occupied by Kobe Bryant. And that’s okay. Kobe spent his entire career with the team and helped bring them five titles. He’s a Laker through and through. He should be revered in LA.

But in a delicious twist of irony, the Kobe Bryant acolytes who swear he’s the rightful comparison to Michael Jordan as a GOAT (greatest of all-time) and not LeBron, will now have to root for a player they’ve gone out of their way to criticise. Not all Kobe fans, of course, but they’re out there.

That brings us to what’s happened in LA with murals of James.

The ink hasn’t even dried on LeBron’s contract, yet two murals have been vandalised this month.

The first featured James in a Lakers jersey with the message “King of LA” on a restaurant wall in Venice. It was defaced when someone spray-painted “we don’t want you” and “no king”, along with “3-6”, a reference to LeBron’s Finals record.

The second was an illustration of James in a Lakers jersey looking up at legends Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain on a wall near Melrose and Fairfax. That mural was defiled when someone poured white paint on James.

It’s useless to draw any conclusions from the actions of unknown perpetrators. It’s possible they’re not one of the aforementioned Kobe acolytes, or even Lakers fans. It’s unfair to look at what happened to these two murals and then characterise an entire fan base by saying baseless statements like ‘Lakers fans don’t want LeBron’, or ‘Lakers fans don’t deserve LeBron’.

However, these murals only add to the feeling that LeBron is starting his time in LA as an outsider. Lakers fans can say these vandals don’t represent them all they want, but it’s a lot like your fiancée promising that the rest of her family don’t dislike you as much as her unwelcoming brother.

As small as the group may be, there are definitely Lakers fans who would have preferred to never see James in purple and gold. Even though he revives their exceptionalism and instantly makes them relevant again in a way they haven’t been in years, in their mind, he’s a mercenary for hire who has no prior ties to the area and the franchise.

There’s a kernel of truth in that. LeBron probably won’t ever be a Laker in the same vein as Bryant or Johnson.

But if he returns the franchise to glory, it won’t make a bit of difference to Los Angeles.

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