Speaking extensively for the first time since the NBA announced it was suspending its season during the coronavirus pandemic, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James outlined some of the challenges facing the league as it hopes to get back to the court.
“So what happens when a guy who is tested positive for corona and you’re out there on the floor with him and it’s a loose ball?” James said as a guest on the Road Trippin’ Podcast hosted by former Cleveland Cavaliers teammates Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye and current Lakers studio host Allie Clifton.
The podcast, presented by James’ multimedia platform Uninterrupted, was released Thursday, the same day James and the Lakers were scheduled to be in Cleveland to play the Cavs. Instead, the NBA’s hiatus ticked past two weeks as there have been 14 reported cases of COVID-19 involving players and personnel — including two Lakers.
“It’s always special going back there and looking up there and look at that banner,” James said, referring to the 2016 championship banner James, an Akron, Ohio, native who played 11 of his 17 seasons in Cleveland, helped earn. “Think about all the great memories that we had. And then being able to play in front of my friends and family again. That would have been so cool. … I’m kind of bummed out about that.”
He was also disappointed at the thought of returning to play in a league that, at least temporarily, would likely be forced to play games with no fans in attendance.
“What is the word ‘sport’ without ‘fan’?” James asked. “There’s no excitement. There’s no crying. There’s no joy. There’s no back-and-forth.
“… That’s what also brings out the competitive side of the players to know that you’re going on the road in a hostile environment and yes, you’re playing against that opponent in front of you, but you really want to kick the fans’ ass too.
“So to get back on the floor, I would love it. I’m not going to sit here and say nothing. Like, if it’s get out there and get back on the floor 5-on-5 … but like, we can do that in scrimmages. Let’s just go to each other’s practice facility, put out a camera, just scrimmage and livestream it. … I just don’t know how we can imagine a sporting event without fans. It’s just, it’s a weird dynamic.”
James and the hosts also addressed the logistical concerns regarding what it would actually take to turn the lights back on for the league. When Jefferson, who also works as an ESPN NBA analyst, suggested that teams could be isolated in a league-selected hotel for the duration of the postseason as a safety measure, James objected.
“I ain’t going for that s—,” he said. “I’m not going for that.”
And when the fans do eventually return, James plans to adjust some of his interaction habits.
“I ain’t high-fiving nobody for the rest of my life after this s—,” James said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “No more high-fiving. After this corona s—? Wait ’til you see me and my teammates’ handshakes after this s—.”
James also thinks a truncated regular-season finale of five to 10 games would be necessary before the playoff bracket.
“One thing you can’t just do is go straight to the playoffs,” James said. “Because it discredits the 60-plus games that guys had fighting for that position.”
In order to build excitement for the final sliver of a regular season, the Road Trippin’ crew suggested using those games to have the teams currently seeded Nos. 8-11 in the Western Conference play each other in a mini play-in tournament, while the Nos. 1-7 seeds play the teams at the bottom of the West for their tuneup games.
In the scenario they presented, the No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies would play a best-of-three set against the No. 11 Sacramento Kings, and the No. 9 Portland Trail Blazers would play a best-of-three against the No. 10 New Orleans Pelicans, which would lead to the winners playing each other for a playoff berth.
James was particularly complimentary of the Blazers, who could end up as the Lakers’ first-round opponent.
“Listen, Dame Lillard in an eighth seed, that’s challenging,” he said. “… You got Dame Lillard, who could go for 50 [points]; C.J. McCollum, who could go for 40; a Carmelo Anthony that, if he gets hot — which we know [he can] — in the postseason could go for 35-40 as well. … When you have that type of experience with Portland, they can make things happen.”
James bounced around a variety of other topics during the 51-minute podcast, which James taped Wednesday from the wine cellar of his Brentwood, California, home.
He said he will start ramping up his training alongside his longtime trainer Mike Mancias on Monday. James has been training once a day in the mornings on his own, and occasionally again at night. He has been using his personal gym since the league mandated that practice facilities be shut down.
James doesn’t see any benefit to his body from the time off.
“When you’ve been building six months of conditioning and preparation and then [it’s gone], the narrative that I don’t like [is], ‘Well, now guys get so much rest.’ Or, like, ‘LeBron, he’s 35, he’s got so many minutes on his body, now he gets so much rest,'” he said. “It’s actually the opposite for me because my body, when we stopped playing, was asking me, like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’
“My body was like, ‘Hey man, what the hell is going on? It’s March 13th, you’re getting ready for the playoffs, why are you shutting down right now?’ And I was right there turning the corner, like, I felt like I was rounding third base, getting ready for the postseason.
“So the rest factor, I think it’s a little bit [overblown]. Especially when you’re in the full swing of things.”
He said “Space Jam 2” is still on schedule to be released next summer despite the domino of delays that the coronavirus is causing.
“‘Space Jam’ has always been scheduled to come out in June of 2021. So we’re kind of [OK],” James said. “And a lot of it right now is animation, so being indoors is actually great for us. So we’re still on. Just like everything in the world, everything is slowed down a little bit, but we’re still on target. I’m looking forward to it. During this time right now, I wish we could release it right now, man, and give people some things to watch in their households. But we got until next year, next summer. We’re excited about it.”
Speaking of things to watch, James is clamoring for ESPN to release its 10-hour docuseries “The Last Dance,” chronicling the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 season, while people are sheltering at home rather than on the original June 2 release date.
“If they release that thing right now? The views on it?” James said. “Listen, if I’m Michael Jordan, I’m going in there and I’m making a conference call and I’m like, ‘OK, what’s the reason that we’re going to hold on to it until June now? Compared to now when everybody is at home?’ Because it’s done [being edited]. It’s done. Yeah, it’s done.”
James is reticent to preach to others on the importance of staying inside while practicing social distancing because he knows how confining it can be to live in an apartment in an inner-city area.
“I would feel so weird if I was like, ‘Hey guys, stay at home,'” James said. “And somebody would look at me and be like, ‘Well, I mean, it’s easy for you to say.’ You know, ‘It’s easy for you to say.’ But I just go back to my childhood and how I grew up with me and my mom, that s— would have been hell. I feel like my mom would have been like, ‘I don’t give a f— about corona. You better get your ass out of my house. Get the f— out, you’re getting on my nerves.’
“… I don’t want to tell people, me being an advocate to stay home. Just take care of yourself and understand that [you should] distance yourself from large, big groups of people. People that you don’t know, complete strangers, you know? Because now it’s spring. So everybody thinks [during] spring break, it’s time to get around with strangers. Like, this is not the time. This is not the time.”
He thinks the Lakers would need only a one-week mini-training camp to get back up to speed on the court before playing games. In the meantime, the players are staying in touch daily on their phones.
“We got a text chain between all the guys on the team. And we just stay in touch every day, pretty much,” he said. “… To Laker Nation: The guys are staying connected. Everybody knows where everyone is. We know what’s going on.”
He’s spending his time at home filming TikTok videos with his family, watching movies and TV shows, playing card games and UNO and drinking wine. He plans to have a virtual pool party with one of his DJ friends over Instagram Live this week.
What the co-creator of the barbershop-themed talk show “The Shop” on HBO is not doing, however, is getting a haircut or beard trim while he’s stuck in the house.
“I’m just growing mine to see how far it goes,” he said.