This past weekend Lebron James came face to face with the future, and did so with open arms. When the future stars of the league matched up with the elder statesmen of the past, the young guys were often met with cold shoulders and dismissed until they proved themselves. LeBron knows what it is like coming into the league as a teenager, hyped up as the next coming and the weight of a franchise on your shoulder. He remembers what it was like idolizing the likes of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, who were let’s say ultra competitive and were not in the business of helping the up and comers as they were coming for their throne. James having zero elder role models to show him the ropes of the league, who understood that it meant to be the elite of the elites. That mentorship was lacking in James’ early years.
Fast forward to year year 17, as age 35, James while still at the top of the league with the end nowhere in sight, he sees the next generation in his rearview mirror and closing in quickly. Rather than taking the “get off my lawn” approach, James has made a clear and conscious effort to be present, available and willing to help guide the young guys coming up. In many ways James is becoming everything for this next generation that he himself never had.
Beyond the on the court mentorship, it’s the off the court advice and guidance where James comes in clutch for these rising stars. Though James will never reveal the words of wisdom he passes down, just watching the faces of the younger talent during post game talks, you can tell it is meaningful and gracefully accepted.
What is more clear is that the future stars of this game bring the very best out of James. While it is all smiles and hugs off the court, James is protecting his throne on the court. At this point of his career, James gets up for very few regular season games, but last night’s game verse Zion and the Pelicans was indeed one of them. Forget the fact that James went for a 34 point triple double while Zion led all scorers with 35 on 12-16 shooting, it was the in game moments that epitomize LeBron’s relationship with the next generation.
There was a sequence at the end of the 1st half where Zion blew past Kyle Kuzma and threw down a powerful one handed dunk. It was as if James wanted to remind Zion that “hey its not quite your league yet,” as he dribbled just beyond half court and casually drained one of the deepest 3 point shots of his career. Look ahead to the closing minutes of the game where James actually took the challenge of defending Williamson after Kuzma get clobbered for the first three quarters. James dared Wiliamson to attempt anything other than a dunk or layup, and Wiliamson some what accepted the challenge by knocking down a fall away shot from 8 feet.
The embrace after the game, with the classic towel covering his lips, just further proof that James is doing this because it is something he wished he had when he was younger, not for the attention. And for the crusty, old generation that are stuck in their ways that prefer players to hate each, James has a message for you.
“Anybody that says that, ‘LeBron, why would he do that while he’s playing? It’s a sign of weakness,’” James told reporters. “’He’s buddy-buddy with the guys he’s going against.’ Tell them to kiss my ass.”
The support doesn’t just stop at Wiliamson, as James was very vocal about Ja Morant after the young point guard handed the Lakers a rare loss this weekend. Morant explained that he was starstruck being lined up against James for the first time, but gained his composure as he led the Grizzlies to the win.
“The kid is super special,” James told reporters before adding “Memphis got a great one.”
Morant went on to say “That’s big bro — the King,” Morant said post-game. “He’s just one of a kind. I don’t think there can be another LeBron.”
And then there was the respect James showed Tatum after their last matchup where the Lakers defeated the Celtics 114-112. James took to Instagram to recognize the talent that is Tatum.
We seen Kobe Bryant mellow out later in his career, passing down his knowledge and wisdom to players who reached out, and it appears James is building upon that legacy. Whether it is the climate in which we live in now with the heightened awareness and importance of athletes mental health, or the AAU system with these guys essentially growing together, the league is far from the days of opposite team means enemies on and off the court. The NBA is a much friendlier game than it was when James came into the league, and for the most part it is for the better.