NEW YORK — It was steaming hot in the visitors’ locker room at the Barclays Center. That’s what happens when you jam a whole bunch of people into a pretty small place. The game wouldn’t start for another couple of hours, but the cameras were already on, and those cameras — more than a dozen of them — were trained on perhaps the greatest athlete of his generation, and perhaps the greatest NBA player of all time.
But LeBron James wasn’t talking to the media. Shootaround had been canceled in the morning, and that’s when LeBron typically does his pregame media sessions. The Los Angeles Lakers public relations department had said that LeBron wasn’t going to be doing any interviews during the half hour before the game that their locker room was open to the press, but that didn’t stop the dozen cameras and three dozen reporters from filling the visitors’ locker room to the gills. The media surrounded LeBron in a semi-circle. He stretched. He used a foam roller to loosen his muscles. The cameras filmed every movement. LeBron was glued to his phone — yelling instructions at his phone, in fact — and so the cameras focused in on that phone. What could The King be watching that caused him such emotion? Speculation settled on LeBron watching his high school son play in a basketball game back on the other side of the country.
“It’s kind of funny, actually, y’all watching him stretch,” Kuzma said.
This is what happens when The King comes to town. The Nets sold out Tuesday night’s game despite the fact that they currently have the lowest average home attendance in the league. That’s because the Lakers have the highest road attendance in the league, higher than even the Golden State Warriors — and it’s not because fans are coming to see Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
“Let’s be honest,” Nets center Jarrett Allen told me in the mostly empty Brooklyn Nets locker room before the game. “It’s LeBron James, so you’ll have half the arena rooting for him. That’s just how it is when LeBron James comes anywhere.”
But when it happens in the Big Apple, you can’t help but wonder what could have been if LeBron were doing all this in the home team’s locker room instead of the visitors’ locker room. With LeBron at age 33 and in the first year of a four-year deal with the Lakers, it feels safe to say that the greatest player of his generation will never be a New York City-based NBA player – even though LeBron has called New York his favorite city. Maybe the next big-name NBA player to decide to change addresses and call New York home will be Kevin Durant, or Anthony Davis, or Kyrie Irving, or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Maybe it’ll be in Barclays Center, maybe in Madison Square Garden. But that star will not be LeBron James.
You can’t help but wonder what could have been if The King had moved his empire to the Empire City. Remember: The Nets and the Knicks were the first two teams to meet with LeBron during his first free agency, back in 2010; reports out of that Nets meeting, which was led by Jay-Z, were that it went “tremendous,” and that the Nets were a front-runner for LeBron (he has referred to Brooklyn as his favorite of the five boroughs, for what it’s worth). LeBron still wonders about New York, too, by the way. Just a week ago, after he played his final game against soon-to-be-retired close friend Dwyane Wade, Wade and LeBron embraced on the Staples Center floor. Microphones caught their exchange: “I appreciate you letting it end here,” Wade told his friend. “It was either here or at the Garden, that’s it,” LeBron replied. “That’s the only place we could end it at, man.”
Knicks fans worldwide shed tears.
New York is the media capital of the world, and one of the basketball capitals of the world as well. It’s home to the grit of streetball at Rucker Park and the glory of Knicks games at The World’s Most Famous Arena. It’s the place that birthed Lew Alcindor and adopted Walt Frazier. A fit between LeBron and the city has always felt natural, but for so many reasons — the pull of his hometown of Cleveland and of the proximity to Hollywood, the stunning ineptitude of the Knicks and the Nets during LeBron’s career — it never happened.
And so every game he plays in the city is a glimpse of what might have been. Jarrett Allen was right: Half the fans at Barclays Center on Tuesday night were Lakers fans, maybe more. When LeBron drove into the lane for what appeared to be a tomahawk dunk a couple of minutes into the game, the energy in the building rose to a fever pitch — until Allen blocked the dunk attempt, one of thewhere he’s been blocked on a dunk. The crowd exhaled, disappointed at the home team for stealing a signature LeBron moment from them.
When LeBron complained about an uncalled foul, plenty of the fans in Brooklyn booed the refs. When LeBron stepped to the foul line, a sizable contingent of the fans chanted, “MVP!” When the Lakers mounted a fourth-quarter comeback after being down 14, the building became electric — erupting when Lonzo Ball hit a 3-pointer to bring the Lakers within a bucket with 1:14 left, and going bananas when LeBron hit a step-back corner 3 with 17.7 seconds left to bring the Lakers within three. To be fair, Nets fans were loud, too, but it sure felt like LeBron Lakers jerseys outnumbered any Nets gear in the stands.
It was another mundane masterpiece by LeBron — 36 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and one fourth-quarter dunk that gave the crowd what they wanted — but the banged-up, road-weary Lakers fell to the Nets, 115-100. It was the Lakers’ fourth road game in six nights, and they ended the road trip 1-3, with the three losses all to sub-.500 teams.
In the locker room afterward, LeBron sat at the locker next to the showers. Fifty or so reporters surrounded him. Caldwell-Pope, who was two lockers down, was pissed at people being in his space, and laughed when a New York-based reporter asked LeBron about Carmelo Anthony. LeBron’s phone rang; he silenced it after one ring. LeBron gave the typical “we just gotta get better”-type locker room aphorisms.
“In the wild, wild West, every game counts, every game matters,” LeBron said. “You can’t key in on one guy (on the Nets). They can all make plays.”
Then LeBron dressed and he left. This was not home, after all; this was a one-night look at what could have been. And so, after a good night’s sleep, LeBron would board the Lakers’ charter jet the next morning and fly six hours to the opposite side of the country, and to the very un-New York place he chose to make his new home.