Grinding Gears: LeBron to LA is about more than sports

Eric He | Daily Trojan

It only took a 36-word statement for LeBron James to shock the sports world. Last month, the NBA star announced his decision to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers — the biggest name in basketball moving his star to Hollywood and his talents to Staples Center, just blocks away from USC.  

On the court, LeBron is a boon for the young Lakers, a gift from the heavens for a team that has not made the playoffs in five years and is looking for a superstar in the post-Kobe Bryant era. In James, they get everything: a recognizable name that will re-instill confidence in a demanding fanbase, a leader who makes his teammates better and the greatest player of all time.

Even at 33 years old, James is very much in his prime, both in terms of skill set and brand. He is still capable of earth-shattering dunks, ridiculous shots and clutch performances. Last season, he dragged a Cavaliers team that featured Jeff Green as its third-best player to the NBA Finals. Despite today’s basketball shifting more and more toward perimeter shooting and away from the bully-ball where he thrived early in his career, James has adapted to become an all-around talent who is somehow even better now than he was eight years ago.

But his on-court contributions belie his true value to the Lakers, to Los Angeles and to the sports world. In a region chock full of some of the world’s greatest athletes, James immediately rises above them all. Mike Trout plays for the Angels; Clayton Kershaw for the Dodgers; Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the Galaxy ­— all of them pale in comparison to LeBron. Southern California possesses a pair of professional teams in all four major American sports plus soccer — in addition to two of the most recognizable collegiate programs in the country — and yet, by adding LeBron, the Lakers are the No. 1 show in town.

It’s not hard to discern why. James has built a personal brand and reputation that is universally respected. Early in his career, he was criticized for being egotistical, for choking in the clutch, for being a traitor after he left his hometown Cleveland in 2010 to build a superteam in Miami. But he won some titles in South Beach, came back to Cleveland and brought a championship home, and the narrative shifted. He was a leader, a hero, a legend.

Today, James is one of those athletes who is more than just an athlete — he transcends sports. His sponsorships and endorsements make him one of the highest-paid celebrities in the world. He is very active in charities and the community. Earlier this month, he opened his “I Promise” school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio for at-risk students, a school that guarantees college tuition at the University of Akron to all graduates. James is also invested in politics. Last week, it was announced that he would produce a Showtime documentary series titled “Shut Up and Dribble”; James will also host an  HBO unscripted series called “The Shop,” which features him having barbershop conversations with celebrities in sports and entertainment.

Being the best basketball player on the planet is the fifth or sixth most important thing James has ever done, and that is more impressive than any feat he’s accomplished on the court. When President Donald Trump went on his favorite app — because he had nothing better to do on a Friday night — and childishly attacked James, athletes, celebrities and politicians alike leapt to his defense. When Fox News host Laura Ingraham criticized James for wading into politics, the backlash against her comments was fierce. This is the kind of respect James garners: He is a respected public figure first, and a basketball player second.

Even with James, the Lakers face a tough road to championship glory. With the Western Conference loaded with elite teams including the Warriors and Rockets, the Lakers may not even make it to the Finals. But at this point in his career, James is likely looking beyond basketball. If the recent headlines are any indication, he is seeking a place where he can grow his brand, use his platform for good and become known not only as a basketball legend, but also as a celebrity who made the world a better place.

As the second largest media market in the country, Los Angeles is a prime location for exactly that. After establishing his stardom, L.A. is where James has decided to settle, and Angelenos should prepare for King James to take over not just the sports page, but also the front page.

Eric He is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism.  He is also the managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column “Grinding Gears” typically runs Thursdays.