LeBron James is Mr. October this year
By Marc Stein
This has never been the month that basketball players were meant to peak.
October is for baseball glory, and there can only be one Mr. October. By swatting three home runs on three swings in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Reggie Jackson cemented one of the most fitting, enduring nicknames in all of sports.
In 2020, of course, little proceeds as is expected. LeBron James is chasing one more win for his fourth NBA championship at Walt Disney World at the same time Jackson’s beloved New York Yankees are scuffling with the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Divisional Series at a neutral site in San Diego.
The schedule glut across so many sports has posed an unexpected quandary for Mr. October, because Jackson is also an unabashed LeBron James fan.
“I enjoy watching him as much as I do the baseball,” Jackson said. “The basketball is winding down, so if they’re both on at the same time, I’m going to be flipping back to baseball, because I’m going to be on the basketball. You need to see this guy.”
I had a feeling that was the case when I saw Jackson gushing on Twitter after the 38-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist masterpiece that James uncorked in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals to close out the Denver Nuggets.
So I called him over the weekend to confirm that Jackson would be tracking James closely, even amid the fleshiest baseball postseason ever — with 16 of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams invited after a pandemic-abbreviated regular season spanning just 60 games instead of 162.
Mr. October, at 74 now, is a lifelong basketball fan who has been watching the game long enough to cite Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving as some of his favorites before he got to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and, eventually, Kobe Bryant. Jackson knows as well as anyone that James, to some, will never have a case to rival Jordan in the ever-contentious GOAT (greatest of all time) debate. But he surmised that this doesn’t bother James as much as many of us think.
“Once in a while you get a detractor, but the comparisons for LeBron are at the highest level,” Jackson said. “He’s one of the Mount Rushmore guys.
“Is he the greatest? I would say it doesn’t really matter. When you’re in the last paragraph, you’re pretty damn good.”
Miami’s Jimmy Butler was so good in Game 3, outplaying James in the game of his life, that it prompted James to label Tuesday’s Game 4 as a must-win game to his teammates in a pregame text. Although the Lakers delivered, now they must guard against another letdown, with Bam Adebayo (neck) back in Miami’s lineup from injury and Goran Dragic (foot) potentially returning for Friday’s Game 5.
The big-picture view, though, has looked as inviting for James for much of this series as he has ever had it at playoff time. In his nine previous trips to the NBA finals, James often arrived with the decidedly weaker team (2007, 2017 and 2018). Or the team, like Miami in Games 2 and 3, was missing its second- and third-best player; Cleveland, remember, had no Kevin Love and lost Kyrie Irving in Game 1 of the 2015 finals.
Maybe this season’s landscape is James’ compensation for past inequities. James is flanked by Anthony Davis, who even Dwyane Wade said last week was the best sidekick James has ever had. The league, as Golden State’s Draymond Green described it in our last newsletter, is “wide open” for James, Davis and their modest supporting cast to seize with the Warriors out of contention in 2020 after five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. Even the abrupt halt of the NBA season nearly seven months ago has not seemed to affect him. James initially feared that the hiatus would set him back physically; he lamented in late March that his body was in shock because the season’s suspension took him out of his usual playoff rhythm just as he was “rounding third base.”
If the Lakers blow it from here, up 3-1 and after seizing the first 2-0 finals lead of James’ career, count on the opprobrium directed at James to be louder and harsher than ever. If the Lakers finish the Heat off as widely expected, James will become the first player to win finals MVP honors with a third team.
The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo was an overwhelmingly deserving choice to win the regular-season MVP trophy, but James’ on- and off-court deliverance, from last summer to the championship series, has been unmatched. Davis wouldn’t have forced a trade from New Orleans to the Lakers if James wasn’t already there. Frank Vogel couldn’t have coached through his first season in LA so free of drama after the collapse of the team’s negotiations with Tyronn Lue, without such support from James.
Year 1 in Hollywood was disastrous for James — and he certainly wasn’t blameless as the Lakers capitulated to a franchise-record sixth successive season without a playoff berth in 2018-19. But he has been a beacon of reliability in leading the Lakers to the brink of the club’s 17th championship.
A planned meeting with James when he was still in high school was scuttled by a scheduling conflict, but Jackson met him in the bowels of Oracle Arena in 2016 on the night of James’ biggest triumph. Jackson made numerous trips to the Warriors’ former arena in Oakland, Calif., that season and had a close-range view of James’ chasedown rejection of an Andre Iguodala layup in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The block helped the Cleveland Cavaliers complete a historic comeback from a 3-1 series deficit and clinch the city’s first major championship in 52 years.
“I walked up to him, shook his hand and asked him, ‘Do you know me?’” Jackson said. “He said: ‘I know who you are. You’re Mr. October.’”