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LeBron James realizes it sounds strange, “weird,” to use his word, but he likes the sound of “Lakers forward LeBron James.”
Seated with Rachel Nichols of ESPN during the opening of his foundation’s I Promise School in Akron and in his first interview since he decided to leave Cleveland in his wake for a second time, this time to join the Los Angeles Lakers, James admitted leaving Northeast Ohio — again — was not an easy decision for him.
“It’s kind of a bittersweet moment right now. Sitting here in my school that I’m opening, around these kids, around this community,” he said. “And then at the same time, making the switch to the other coast, being a part of the Lakers now. It’s always a tough decision when you leave home or you leave an organization that you’ve been with for multiple years.
“It was tough to leave the first time I left. When I left Miami, leaving Cleveland once again… definitely tough.
“But you know, it’s a decision that was best for me and my family. I think both sides feel great and appreciative of the moments and the time that we have spent together.
“It was a heckuva run, obviously… it was more than I think we all could have imagined. It was my goal to come back here and win a championship.
“(To) break the 50-plus year drought in this city and throughout the history of sports and then to get two more championship runs to it in four years, I think was more than I think we all could imagine.”
James told Nichols he wanted no part of any kind of dramatic announcement for the The Decision III.
“Absolutely. I’m at a point where I know what I want, what I like, and my family played a huge part in that,” he said. “So no need for the dramatics of the drawn-out conclusion of things. Just get right to it.”
James, who signed a three-year (with a player option for a fourth year), $154 million contract with the Lakers, told Nichols he did consider other options before deciding to take his talents to Hollywood.
“I definitely thought long and hard about the possibilities of lining up alongside Ben [Simmons] and [Joel] Embiid, or lining up alongside [James] Harden and Chris [Paul],” he said. “I just felt like at this point in my career, the ultimate for me — just like when I went to Miami, everyone kind of looks at me joining a superteam, but if people look at it, I think Miami was [47-35] the year before I joined that team and you can look at the Lakers’ record — so I like the challenge of being able to help a team get to some place they haven’t been in quite a while.
“Obviously, the Lakers haven’t made the playoffs in a few years, but the Lakers organization and the historical franchise matches up there with all the greats — you can look at the Cowboys, and you can look at the Patriots, you can look at Manchester United, the Boston Celtics — these are historical franchises and for me to be a part of that, I think it’s a great moment for not only me, but for my family and for the history of basketball in general.”
Public opinion was James would not head elsewhere without that team having another superstar. As the Lakers’ roster stands now, he is the Lone Ranger with no Tonto when it comes to superstar players.
Why the Lakers, then?
“Because I love the young guys that they have, and I’m not trying to force my hand in no way, shape or form,” he said. “I believe Rob [Pelinka] and Magic [Johnson] and Jeanie [Buss] have done an unbelievable job of reshaping what the organization should be, keeping Dr. (Jerry) Buss’ dreams and what he was all about, to keep that going.
“I feel like they know what’s best for the team and I wanted to be a piece to continue that motion of being back to a championship franchise where they should be.”
James said he did not talk with Paul George about joining him in Los Angeles, where most thought he’d wind up. George, a California native, decided to sign an extension to remain in the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I didn’t have many conversations with Paul, and I think Paul did what was best for him,” James said. “And I think that’s what everybody should do as players — they should do what’s best for them and their family.
“You shouldn’t get too pressured by anybody. If there’s somebody they want to play with, and they have the opportunity to do it, then go for it. I think we all see that he made the best decision for himself and his family.”
Nichols asked James about being surrounded by the likes of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley with the Lakers. Why wouldn’t… shouldn’t people be skeptical of the makeup of that roster?
“‘Cause we got guys who love to play basketball. And that’s what they do every single day,” James said. “I love that, and I think Pelinka and Magic love that as well. And that’s why they made the signings.
“Bringing Lance and JaVale and Beasley and Rondo — guys that every day they wake up they’re thinkin’ about the game of basketball. Everything else is secondary. So we look forward to all the challenges and, I mean, eyebrows is always gonna get raised when my name is involved, anyway, so it shouldn’t even be a surprise.”
Many of James’ new teammates will be on one-year contracts, meaning the Lakers will once against have plenty of roster flexibility next season. Nichols asked James how he feels about the idea this could be one of the final seasons of his prime in what could very well be a building year.
James, who will turn 34 on Dec. 30, downplayed that idea.
“I don’t even look at it like that, ’cause I don’t feel like this is one of the last years of my prime. I think that’s another statistic number, and I’ve always been a part of beating the odds in life,” he said. “Being around my kids allow — it gives me even more and more time in my youth. I don’t feel like this is even a rebuilding year for us. We have an opportunity to do something that a lot of people don’t think we can do.
“And we love the notion of, ‘it’s another rebuilding year and we don’t have enough.’ So that will motivate the guys that we have, anyway.”
James admitted he’s thought about what if his 16th NBA season does not go the way he hopes or expects.
“Oh, absolutely. I mean that’s all part of the mindset,” he said. “There’s gonna be times, being a young group playing together, that we’re gonna have times where guys are gonna question what’s goin’ on. And that’s just human nature. I understand that.
“But I’ve always been a part of it. I know a lot about the ups and downs of a season. And one thing we can’t do is lose focus on what the main goal is, and the main goal is to continue to be as great as we can be every day.”
Translation — build good, if not great, work habits.
“Build championship habits — and I’m not even saying that we’re a championship team now — but building championship habits so when we get to that point — we can fall back on something,” James said. “We have a great young core. We have great veterans. We have a great system and a great organization, more importantly. So it should be fine.”
How confident is James the Lakers can win a championship during the span of the contract he signed?
“That’s the goal,” he said.
When Nichols responded by saying, “that’s not the question,” James clarified.
“Listen, I plan and I train and I set my mind every single day to play for championships,” he said. “And Magic and Jeanie and Rob, they believe the same thing. So when you’re around people who have the same goal in mind, you can live with the result.”
As the opening for his I Promise School drew nearer, James — who has earned more than $237 million in salary from his 15 seasons in the league — said several times it’s the most rewarding thing he’s ever accomplished, more so than being a four-time NBA Most Valuable Player or a three-time NBA champion.
Does he mean it?
“I do. I do mean it. I can sit here and be at a loss for words, which I am now,” he said. “This is my first time here, walking these hallways and seeing, when I was driving here, just the streets that I walked, some of the stores are still up when I was growing up.
“It’s a moment I’ll never forget and hopefully, the kids, starting with the 240 kids that we have going in here right now starting today, will never forget it, either.”