The jerseys that hang in the rafters of the Staples Center hold a special place in the hearts of Lakers fans. LeBron James now has a chance to join that Hall of Fame group alongside true legends like Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
But even James cannot simply don the purple and gold and be considered worthy of that honor. This is a different situation than his stops with the Heat and Cavs.
When he left for Miami, James had another star in Dwyane Wade waiting to welcome him, plus a strong third option in Chris Bosh coming from Toronto. When he departed Miami for his second tour in Cleveland, winning a championship was everything. Even without a ring, though, James would have gone down as the greatest Cavalier of all time.
Becoming a legend in the eyes of the Lakers faithful will not come as easily. This time around, there are not two All-Stars by his side, and he is joining a franchise with a title-or-bust mentality. It’s not enough just to reach the NBA Finals.
So how can James ensure he will receive a standing ovation at a jersey retirement ceremony down the road? It’s all about three simple (but not easy) steps…
The return of Showtime
James has single-handedly made the Lakers the hottest ticket in town once again. And in order for him to become a Lakers legend, that will have to continue.
The entertainment industry is ingrained within the culture of Los Angeles, and the Lakers organization is no exception. Having Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio sitting in the crowd is key to the Lakers brand. And while Nicholson is a die-hard fan and has continued to attend games even when the Lakers have struggled, the Staples Center has lacked a certain buzz over the past five years.
Think about what has happened in that time: the end of Bryant’s career, five consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance and the emergence of a much-improved Clippers squad. That took away a lot of the glitz and glamour surrounding the Lakers. Outside of the NBA, the Dodgers became the toast of the town with their World Series berth, and the Rams made the Coliseum the cool place to be on Sundays during the fall.
But James firmly puts the Lakers back in the spotlight. To reach legendary status, he must remain the biggest show in town. But if he wants the celebrities to keep lining up for season tickets, James will need help.
Recruit one (or two) star free agents to LA
The pride of the Lakers was wounded before James decided to move to LA at the start of free agency. The front office has always believed the franchise is an easy sell. Everyone should love Los Angeles and want to play for a team that has won 16 championships, right?
But the Lakers have struggled in recent years to acquire free agents. (Remember that horrible meeting with LaMarcus Aldridge?) And while snagging James certainly helps restore the Lakers’ reputation, James will need significant help around him in order to compete in the loaded Western Conference.
Johnson has made it clear that 2019 is the main focus — and James will play an integral part in personnel decisions.
“Just like when I was playing, [owner Dr. Jerry Buss] and [general manager] Jerry West would come to me when we were thinking about making moves,” Johnson said, per the Los Angeles Times. “They’d say, ‘Hey, who do you think can help us that we can get?’ I’d always give out a couple names… then Jerry West would make his decision with Dr. Buss. It’s gonna be the same way here.”
The 2019 free agent class is loaded. Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker and even Kevin Durant may all be available. Part of bringing back Showtime will be bringing in multiple All-Stars to play alongside James. The combination of Johnson and James can’t whiff on recruiting free agents if they hope to win over the Lakers faithful.
Just win one ring
This is where it gets interesting. James is never going to be viewed in the same way as Johnson, West, Abdul-Jabbar and Bryant. All four of them are unreachable. Aside from Abdul-Jabbar, they each played their entire careers for the Lakers (Kareem played 14 of his 20 seasons in a Lakers uniform).
James will never be fully embraced like Johnson and Bryant. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen how some Lakers fans feel about those comparisons with multiple LeBron murals being vandalized in just the last month.
But James doesn’t have to eclipse Johnson or Bryant in order to go down as a legend and have his jersey retired. He just needs to win one championship. That’s it.
Two of the most legendary Lakers of all time — Chamberlain and West — only contributed one ring apiece to the Lakers organization. (It seems silly to say “only,” but we’re talking about the Lakers here.) Both of their numbers are retired. This is what James should be gunning for. Just get one, and he will never be forgotten, especially considering recent history and the ability to tie the Celtics for most NBA championships with 17.
James wanted to be in LA because of the potential to improve upon his greatness. He also needed a new challenge. Part of that challenge is becoming a legend in a city that is full of them. If he wants to see his jersey raised into the rafters one day, he has his work cut out for him.