LeBron James will make his 10th NBA Finals appearance Wednesday night and try to make the Lakers the third franchise he’s led to a title while going against a Heat franchise he previously led to two titles. So, making history has become part of his job description.
But never in his storied career has the 35-year-old James faced a challenge to compare to this star-crossed season. In January, the Lakers were shattered by the tragic death of Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant in a plane crash. Then the NBA season was interrupted in March by the COVID-19 pandemic. James later became caught up in social protests regarding racial justice and police brutality. And now he’s focused on making history at the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando.
When Game 1 begins, the Lakers and Heat will be marking their 85th day inside the NBA "bubble," and it’s been an adjustment. "It’s probably been the most shocking thing I’ve ever done as a professional as far as committing to something and actually making it through," James told reporters Tuesday on a Zoom conference call.
"I would be lying if I sat up here and said I knew about everything inside the bubble and the toll that it would take on your mind and your body and everything else. It’s been extremely tough."
James and the Lakers missed the playoffs last season before re-making the roster in the summer of 2019 when they added free-agent All-Star Anthony Davis. Now, he can lead the franchise to its 17th NBA title, which would tie the Celtics’ all-time record.
Describing his mindset in the bubble, James said, "The main thing was for us to finish the season and compete for a championship. That’s been my mindset throughout these…I don’t know how many days it is. However many days it is, it feels like five years. But I’ve been as locked in as I’ve ever been in my career."
He praised Heat president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra for their contributions to his growth during four seasons in Miami, but James said his only motivation is to earn his fourth ring. Under the difficult circumstances in Orlando, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said James’ leadership has been "infectious" to his teammates.
"He’s the best leader I’ve ever been around," Vogel said. "We’ve dealt with a lot of heavy emotional types of adversity. He sets a great tone with his example but has also been a great leader from a communicative standpoint, talking to the group about the right mindset to have through certain situations."
That includes political and social issues. James is working with More Than a Vote, a group of athletes formed to address poll worker shortages in predominantly Black electoral districts and to get out the vote in the November presidential election.
"I’m [trying] to make change…to the youth to let them understand how important their voice is and their vote is to our society," James said. "It’s hard as hell because they don’t believe their vote or their message or their minds or their voices matter…If they get involved, there will be change."
In the past, James would have shut down his social media during the playoffs, but not now. "Everything about 2020 is different, and to make the most of it, you have to be able to adjust," James said. "I’ve adjusted in the sense of understanding there’s also a bigger opportunity coming up in November while I’m still keeping the main thing in focus on leaving a legacy here [with the Lakers] and playing the game that I love to play and compete for a championship.
"Sometimes, you do things that even you don’t believe you can do. You’re able to tackle a few things at once."
LeBron James’ NBA Finals resume:
Points per game: 28.2