As LeBron James sat in front of the media after completing the Lakers’ final practice before a potential close-out game against the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, he was asked a lot of questions. About his mindset with a 3-1 lead, about the jerseys the Lakers would be wearing for Game 5, and more.
James clearly didn’t want to say much. He was focused on the next game. On winning. On going home. But one question forced him to reflect a bit extra: When he was asked what he’s learned about what it means to be a Laker during his time in Los Angeles, he was as candid as he’s been during the entire NBA Finals.
“Well, one, what I’ve learned being a Laker is that the Laker faithful don’t give a damn what you’ve done before you become a Laker,” James said. “They don’t care about your resume at all until you become a Laker. Then you’ve got to do it as a Laker, and then they respect you. I’ve learned that.”
Part of how James learned said lesson was probably from the mixed response he received in his first year as a Laker. Yes, he was near-unanimously celebrated as a signing by Lakers fans, but this fanbase is also used to seeing most of their great players come to them earlier in their careers, whether through the NBA Draft (Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant) or through earlier free agency (Shaquille O’Neal). Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (28) was much younger than James (34) when he joined the Lakers. James was still embraced, but it was more like the half hug you’d give a work friend when you see them in public than the full, engulfing clasp you’d smother a long-lost friend with upon a desperately needed reunion. He knew he’d have to win for that to change.
James has done plenty of winning in his second season in Los Angeles, but it’s fair to say he’s also become more universally beloved in part for the way he’s reciprocated Lakers fans’ love of their franchise’s history. He’s put the organization on his back through the death of Bryant and showed deference to his greatness and how much he looked up to the Lakers star who preceded him, even before Bryant passed. It didn’t hurt that Bryant also encouraged fans to embrace James as their own great in some of his final public remarks, and that his last tweet was congratulating James for passing him in scoring, and encouraging him to move the game forward.
Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother #33644— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 26, 2020
But it’s not just Bryant’s legend James has deferred to. James has mentioned the late Dr. Jerry Buss multiple times in postgame interviews throughout this playoff run, and shown deference and respect to the other legends that came before him. He may have signed in 2018, but it’s fair to say that the 2019-20 season is when he really became a Laker.
Part of the reason for that evolution is that James studiously researches every era of basketball in general, but his study of Lakers history specifically may trace back to a dinner he had with Jeanie Buss this year. The two didn’t really get to connect much initially during his first year as a Lakers due to how busy their schedules were, but they decided they wanted to have a sit down that March, just to get to know each other better.
“I didn’t know what to expect, just getting to know somebody, and he’s such a student of the game,” Buss said recently during an appearance on “The Full 48” podcast with Howard Beck. “He’s so smart, and he’s so well-read and articulate, and he picks up things so quickly, he had done a deep dive into Lakers history.
“So when we sit down for dinner, he starts telling me about the things that he learned that he didn’t even know, about what my dad built, and who my dad was,” Bus continued. “Of course he knew who Jerry Buss was, but he really took the time to learn about before he was born, and the history and the kind of stuff he said to me really kind of took me aback, that he really knew who my dad was and the history of the Lakers.”
And it wasn’t just that James had read up on the best team owner in the history of professional sports that made an impression on Jeanie. It was that he understood how much it meant that her father had entrusted her with his empire.
“He just said that ‘your dad really showed a lot of faith in you to put you in charge of what he built,’ and that really touched my heart. Because he’s an outsider seeing and looking in, and for him to see that, and to see that value really meant a lot to me,” Jeanie said. “From there our relationship has grown.”
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Good morning #LakersFamily - one of my favorite IG sites is @leraffejames This incredible artist imagines LeBron James @kingjames as a Giraffe. He used a picture of me and LBJ from JaVale McGee’s ugly holiday sweater party @javalemcgee and now I am part of the LeRaffe world! Swipe right to see the original photo. Also check out his beautiful work on @leraffejames ! : : : To all our Lakers players, coaches, training staff, front office, fans and employees as well at our game day staff @staplescenterla I miss you. When the game starts tonight, I feel close to you all. Someday soon I look forward to hugging all of you in person. Until then the game will hold me over. Thinking of you all ❤️ #lakers #lakersnation #staplescenter #lebronjames
Jeanie, an avid comic book reader, has compared James to being “as close to a real-life superhero as any person I have ever seen,” and says he’s inspired her to be stronger about standing up against things that are wrong in the world today. That impact has been felt around the Lakers, who now have hired Dr. Karida Brown as their new Director of Racial Equity & Action, and committed to being an “anti-racist organization.”
It’s fair to say that James’ presence helped lead Jeanie and the organization in that evolution, and it’s not the only way he’s carried them this year. When the team lost Bryant, it lost someone not just Jeanie, but the entire organization had watched grow from a cocky 17-year-old to a 41-year-old girl dad, and James recognized that the Lakers needed leadership in that moment. He was the first person to speak in an organization-wide meeting the week of Bryant and his daughter Gianna’s passing, he was nearly moved to tears as he spoke directly to Lakers fans at the first game following Bryant’s death. He has continually maintained that he and the team want to embody the mentality Bryant had in the game of basketball, and it all has clearly had an effect on Jeanie as their partnership continues to grow.
“I think the way he has represented the Lakers through the tragedy of losing Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna... His leadership has been so comforting throughout Laker Nation,” Jeanie said. “I just am grateful that he’s here and that he’s a Laker and that he’s enjoying himself, and that he’s led this team to the NBA Finals.
“My relationship is obviously different with him than it was with Magic, than it was with Kobe, with so many players, but he’s somebody who has shown me what a compassionate, empathetic, smart and fearless he is. And he’s inspired me. I’ve been in this business for 40 years, and some days it’s hard to keep going and not get down, but as he’s said many times publicly, he has strong shoulders, and he can carry those who need it sometimes,” Jeanie continued. “He’s been that strength for me. And when he... in his postgame comments, he brought up my dad’s name, and I was so touched by that because he obviously never played for Dr. Buss, but the fact that he holds that in his heart about my dad really touched me, and meant a lot.”
The feeling is mutual, as James’ appreciation for Buss as a team governor has only grown over the time since that dinner.
“My relationship with Jeanie I will say is incredible. I think she’s an unbelievable owner. I think she’s a powerful woman,” James said after practice on Thursday. “What she believes in is an extension of her father, and continuing to build this legacy of this great franchise. I’m just happy to be a part of it. I’m happy to have the relationship that I have with her, and with Linda Rambis as well. It’s very unique. I’m just honored to be a part of it.”
The part both James and Buss have played has the Lakers on the verge of their 17th championship, and on the precipice of becoming the first team with a female team governor to win a championship in NBA history. The significance of all of it is not lost on either of them, and neither is the importance of the strong partnership they’ve been able to build.
“I love the history of the game, and I’ve read so much about Dr. Buss and his teams and his success. To be playing while his daughter is the owner of the team I think is pretty cool. It just adds to the legacy of this franchise,” James said.
Winning a title would only further do so, while fully putting LeBron in the group of great Lakers he’s now studied so much. Buss already seems to know he’s there, and with a championship, any holdouts left over in the fanbase will have no choice but to embrace him as much as she has.
All quotes from Jeanie Buss via “The Full 48” podcast. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.