The first time Lakers two-way player Devontae Cacok met his new teammate LeBron James, it’s fair to guess he was probably a little starstruck. The undrafted rookie was speaking with someone that he’d grown up watching on T.V., and been a fan of for a long time.
It made how, well, normal the interaction was just a little unexpected.
“I remember the first time I met him, he introduced himself like I didn’t know who he was,” Cacok told Silver Screen and Roll with a laugh. “A lot of people don’t do that, they go ‘oh, he knows who I am.’ This is LeBron James, one of the most well-known players in the league [and] in the world, and he introduced himself.”
But while how normal James is with his teammates is well-chronicled, he’s also had to exist in a bubble since long before the NBA went to Disney World. No matter how much he sees himself as just one of the guys when he’s with his team, as one of the most famous people in the world — James was ranked by ESPN as the second-most well-known athlete on the planet, and he has more social media followers and engagement than any other basketball player by a significant margin — it’s not easy for him to just walk around freely like you or I would.
Or at least, not on the outside world, it isn’t.
For most NBA players, the bubble has been weird, and for many, that strangeness has been a source of complaints. About the smaller rooms than they’re used to, the fewer amenities, or just the loneliness of being away from friends and family amid such restrictive health guidelines. For James, however, time in the bubble among only his fellow NBA personalities may be the closest thing he’s had to a slice of normalcy since he was put on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old, or maybe even before that.
James said in his first interview after entering Disney World that he’s still evaluating the situation there one day at a time. But on the NBA campus, with no security team or fans seeking autographs and selfies, he’s been able to just hang out wherever he wants. He seems to be relishing the opportunity.
“The other night, me and (Jayson Tatum) were walking to get some food and we saw ‘Bron. We saw ‘Bron, J.R. (Smith), Jared Dudley and (Kyle) Kuz(ma),” Boston Celtics star Kemba Walker told reporter Taylor Rooks during a video interview on Bleacher Report. “It’s very rare to see ‘Bron walking by himself and being comfortable. Like, I was telling somebody that he probably hasn’t done that since he was nine years old: being able to be so comfortable just walking around and not worrying about people coming up to him and being bothered asking for something.
“Now he’s just regular, you know? Not regular, but he’s able to be comfortable and walk around comfortably, so I think that’s pretty cool.”
Look, it’s unlikely that James is being treated exactly like everyone on the campus. The fact that the NBA is trying to hide that it gave Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard a nicer room than his teammates likely means that James has a similar situation.
But in a time where James is still mostly in the proverbial trenches just like the rest of the roster — as much as a resort can be considered trenches, anyway — he’s compared the Disney World campus reunion with his Lakers teammates after the pandemic hiatus to like reuniting with an old AAU team after a year apart, and how easily those friendships and bonds have restrengthened like they were never separated.
And while he wasn’t speaking specifically about the ability to hang out with his teammates anywhere without getting mobbed, it was hard not to think about that reality while he discussed getting back together with them while comparing it to the simpler days of childhood.
“I feel like we’ve been together for years even though this is our first year together,” James said. “I was just happy to see all my brothers and do what we love to do best, and that’s playing the game of basketball and doing that for one another.
“It’s like we never left. We picked up right where we left off.”
Lakers guard Quinn Cook — who has known James since he was just a G Leaguer being mentored by a four-time MVP — says he hasn’t seen a different James in the bubble, per se, but he did notice how much James is interacting with everyone on the campus.
“He’s pretty much been the same ‘Bron here that he’s always been. Very outgoing, speaks to everybody, not just his team. Speaks to everybody in the league. Security guards, everybody,” Cook said.
Head coach Frank Vogel doesn’t think it’s a change for James, necessarily, but that how approachable he is for the NBA family is just even more on display in the bubble.
“I commend him. For someone of his stature to just be one of the guys, hanging out in the little outdoor area that we have at the hotel,” Vogel said. “A lot of players are grabbing dinners and going back up to their rooms, and LeBron is sitting down there with his teammates. I think he really enjoys our group, both his teammates, the support staff, our coaching staff, and I commend him like I said. For someone of that stature to have that mentality of being one of the guys.”
“A guy of that stature, a guy with that type of platform doesn’t have to do that,” adds Cook. “But he makes everyone feel special. Especially in the NBA family. He’s always been the same since I’ve known him. He cares about everyone and is one of the hardest workers you’ll ever see. So he’s setting the tone for us not only on the court, but off the court.”
But surely James misses his family, just like anyone, and even as astoundingly approachable as he’s been, he clearly doesn’t want to spend all of his time hanging out with people. It seems even the most affable of NBA stars get social exhaustion — professional athletes: They’re just like us! — because after nearly a week of hanging out with teammates and everyone in between before and after Lakers’ practices at wildly different times (culminating in one at 9:00 a.m. PST), James was just ready to take a break from it all.
“This nap about to be so AMAZING/SPECIAL! I can feel it brewing. Ha!” James tweeted on Friday morning.
His unrestricted bubble hangouts would have to wait. After a week of practices and talking to seemingly everyone in the NBA after four months in relative isolation, the 35-year-old star just wanted a nap.
Jas Kang contributed to this story. 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.