‘He wanted to come to L.A.’: The reaction to LeBron’s move

Two days after LeBron James announced that he was leaving the Cavaliers for a second time, rain poured down in sheets on the intersection of Ontario Street and West Huron Road in downtown Cleveland, halting the team of workers who had been tasked with tearing down an iconic image.

The buckets that fell from the sky, accompanied by thunder and lightning for good measure, left only half of the most recent version of the 10-story-tall Nike banner of James displayed.

The right side was stripped away — the ELAND and No. 3 from the back of James’ jersey and the gold patch along the neckline commemorating the 2016 Cavs championship were removed — while the massive black-and-white left side of the image continued to cover the brick façade of the Sherwin-Williams building.

“We’ve walked past here every day,” said Richard Alachniewicz, who, with his brother, David, ducked under the cover of a parking garage across the street to stare at the sign. “Never once taken a picture with it until today. … It was just one of those things that you never realized you had, and we took it for granted.”

Even though the billboard was initially met with a degree of skepticism — during a city council meeting, one concerned citizen opined that the chalk James was tossing into the air resembled a cloud of marijuana smoke — it became a symbol of civic pride as much as an outsize advertisement. In James’ second stint with the Cavs, Cleveland fans flocked to Quicken Loans Arena to cheer on their prodigal son during his return.

“It was a great four years. Unfortunately, great things can’t last forever,” said Patrick Pavicic, 29, from Euclid, Ohio. “I hate to see him leave with still so much left in his career with what he’s done for the city, and I think the weather today couldn’t sum up the feeling of northeast Ohio and Cleveland Cavaliers fans any better.”

Although the rain suspended the assignment for hours, there was no turning back. By nightfall, James’ entire image was cleared from the scene.

play

0:34

Watch as the 10-story image of LeBron James is removed from the building that serves as the global headquarters for Sherwin-Williams.

The Cavaliers organization responded in a similar tone to James’ decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers as the fans who gathered by the billboard.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert issued a glowing statement of appreciation for the championship James delivered in 2016, a polar opposite reaction to his much-maligned Comic Sans letter from 2010. Cleveland general manager Koby Altman admitted that James’ decision hurt but said he felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for what James did for his career. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue tried to pay it forward, meeting with Lakers coach Luke Walton to pass on tricks of the trade that will aid Walton in the trenches in L.A.

When Quicken Loans Arena reopens in the fall after undergoing a $140 million renovation this summer, James’ likeness will still be included in The Q where the team recognizes its legends and history, according to a Cavs source.

But while there was a unified front — sentimental yet appreciative — between the fans and the Cavs’ key decision-makers when it came to processing James’ plans, the rest of the league had mixed reactions to the news. Those reactions — culled from more than two dozen players, coaches, executives and agents contacted by ESPN — weren’t always as sunny as the Southern California locale James is embarking for.

“He wanted to come to L.A.,” one Western Conference player said. “They just had to not f— it up. Jerry West just said it, and I was like, ‘Finally.’ He’s not coming to the Lakers. He came to L.A.”

West, now an adviser for the LA Clippers, told Sports Illustrated that, “LeBron was not a tough free-agent signing.” While the player’s swipe — like West’s — was aimed more at the Lakers than at James, the four-time MVP also had his motives for the move questioned.

“My thought was, ‘Good luck. You must really want to live in L.A.'” one prominent agent said. “Playing Western Conference teams night in and night out is not going to be the same. You don’t get a ‘night off.’ I would not want to end my career just making the playoffs.”

James’ streak of eight straight NBA Finals appearances would seem to be on life support with his switch from the East to the West. The Lakers’ success, or lack thereof, will largely depend on how quickly L.A.’s young core — some combination of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart — develops around James.

Hart was in his hotel room in Sacramento, where the Lakers were playing in the California Classic Summer League, when his brother from his host family in high school, Matt Hillman, FaceTimed him with the news that James was coming to L.A.

“Uhh, holy s—!” Hart told ESPN while laughing as he recalled what went through his mind at that moment. “I was like, ‘Wow!’ Obviously, there was a lot of speculation [all season], but for that to actually happen, you don’t get the opportunity to play with the best player in the world often. To have something like that happen, it was just crazy.”

While Ball grew up idolizing James, Hart was more of a Dwyane Wade guy. That changed, though, the first time Hart got to see James up close when the Lakers visited Cleveland in December. James logged a triple-double with 25 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists, won the game for the Cavs and won over a new fan.

play

0:56

LeBron James’ triple-double of 25 points, 12 assists and 12 rebounds gives him 59 for his career, tying him with Larry Bird for sixth on the all-time list.

“It was like holy … the things that he does is just crazy,” said Hart, who scored 18 points in a Las Vegas Summer League playoff win July 15 with James watching courtside. “The way he sees plays even before they happen, his ability to get other guys involved and ability to take over games when he has to … he just has so much more to his game [than you think watching him from afar], and to see it firsthand, that is when I was kind of like, ‘Wow, this guy is amazing.'”

play

0:40

Rob Pelinka knows there is still work to be done, but he believes signing LeBron James says a lot about the Lakers’ future.

More than 2,000 miles away, Larry Nance Jr. was at the dinner table in his Cleveland home when the James news reached his phone.

“Got the Woj alert,” Nance said. “We knew it was either one or two places [he would go to]. So I wasn’t, like, shocked. I didn’t break down crying. I kind of just got excited to prove myself, get a chance to step up a little bit and prove that this team is capable more than people think it is.”

While Nance thought about life in Cleveland after James, his mind also turned to his former teammates and friends in Los Angeles. Nance keeps in touch with many of the “Baby Lakers,” such as Hart and Kuzma. Those two, along with Ingram and Ball, will have to accelerate their learning curve under James.

Nance and Jordan Clarkson were thrown into the cauldron and had to not only learn how to play alongside James midseason when they were traded to Cleveland before the trading deadline but also deal with the intense pressure and criticism that came with trying to provide James with championship-level support.

“Yeah, I talked to J-Hart about it, Kuz a little bit,” Nance told ESPN about playing with James. “He is demanding. He just demands the same level of professionalism and effort that he gives to his teammates, which [is] respect. But the biggest thing I told them is that, on the court, be ready at all times. Like, if you have your hands down and you are open, you will get hit in the face with the basketball. Seriously.”

He told his good friend Hart to be ready for the scrutiny that comes with being James’ teammate.

“Yeah, you got to have thick skin,” Nance said.

Hart said the Lakers prospects are eager to prove they are ahead of schedule and ready to help James contend this season.

“Let’s rock and compete for a championship,” Hart said of what he and the other young Lakers have said to one another since James’ arrival. “We want to win, and we want to win now.”

All youthful enthusiasm aside, a Lakers championship would be an almost incomprehensible accomplishment in 2018-19 — even for James, who has won three championships, as he joins a franchise that has won 16 titles.

“Any time a player like that comes to the West, particularly him, obviously if you got LeBron, you are an instant contender,” Minnesota Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said.

Thibodeau’s Wolves were the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs this spring, eking out the final playoff spot on the last day of the regular season by beating the Denver Nuggets to finish 47-35. Last year’s Lakers were 35-47.

Can James’ impact lead to 12 extra wins and make L.A. a playoff team for the first time since 2013? It’s very feasible.

But an instant contender? That might be a stretch.

“They will be good, but I would be surprised if they make the top four in the West,” one Western Conference assistant coach told ESPN.

Added a Western Conference front-office executive, “I view the Lakers team next year as a playoff team because LeBron is still the best player in basketball but not a true championship contender for a season. But [they are] set up very well to be one in the coming years.”

As James tries to become the first NBA superstar to lead three franchises to a championship, he’ll be competing in the West against Chris Paul, who is trying to validate his All-Star career with his first title.

Paul played in Los Angeles for the Clippers for six years after nearly being traded to the Lakers in 2011. Coming off the most successful postseason run in his 13-year career, the point guard reupped with the Houston Rockets this summer. There was a time when Houston was among the teams that James was considering, but when it came down to it, the Rockets (A) didn’t clear the cap space to sign James and (B) were never granted a meeting.

Paul was asked how close Houston came to adding his dear friend James to the roster.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” Paul said. “I’m happy for him. It’s a change, adjustment for him and his family. … I’m happy for him.”

There were others around the league who shared in that joy.

“I thought it was great, especially for the league,” one Eastern Conference player told ESPN. “A new layer of excitement. It’s always good when the blue bloods like L.A. and Boston have some buzz around them.”

A former player, who is in the Hall of Fame, praised James’ vision.

“Business move both on and off the court,” the Hall of Famer said. “Smart move.”

Smart even if the Lakers don’t make a deep playoff run right away?

“They are playing chess,” he said. “They have a plan for the future.”

play

0:49

Brad Stevens explains how he sees a challenge in the Eastern Conference, considering LeBron James’ move to the Lakers.

The future of the entire league will be altered by the ramifications of James’ decision.

There are immediate repercussions — “not great for the strength of the Eastern Conference,” one owner of an Eastern Conference team told ESPN — and then there are reverberations that will take time to reveal themselves.

But the most germane question on everybody’s mind is whether James, a core of young players and a few, um, interesting veterans in Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley can challenge in the West in the coming years?

“They’ll be good, but the West is loaded,” another agent told ESPN. “Kawhi [Leonard] would make it more realistic. Good luck.”

Even adding a former Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard next year wouldn’t guarantee anything in today’s NBA — not with the Golden State Warriors having won three of the past four titles with an amazing collection of talent.

Does James’ new home give the Dubs any reason to doubt?

“I am not going to give that any thought because I got my own team to worry about,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

He might be the only person in the league not thinking about James, as the city of Cleveland, legions of Lakers fans and others around the sport continue to reel from the latest career move by the King.

Leave a Response