The Los Angeles Lakers entered the decade the reigning NBA champions, led by one of the greatest players of all time striving to match his basketball muse with the fifth and final ring of a storied career. They achieved that goal in a grueling seven-game series against their most hated rivals. Kobe Bryant had cemented his legacy.
What followed was the worst stretch of basketball that the Lakers had ever experienced.
An embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Mavericks. A career-ending injury and prolonging the sad conclusion of a legendary career. Lottery pick after lottery pick showing flashes of talent and potential all while the team continued its spiral into the depths of the NBA’s hell.
They exit the decade finally poised to make a return to the glory that has defined the league’s flagship franchise.
How perfect that they are being led by another transcendent star, the one so often discussed as a rival of his predecessor through their respective primes.
The 2010s belonged to LeBron James.
It was during the past decade that James won his first championship. And his second. And his third. Not four, not five, not six. At least, not yet.
It’s when he captivated and divided sports fans with one simple statement: “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.”
He went to eight straight NBA Finals. He won a title in Cleveland. He surpassed Kobe and Timmy. Magic and Bird. Michael? Maybe.
A decade that started with a fantastic failure in the Finals to cries of choker and loser ended with James atop the basketball world. No one came close.
LeBron will end the decade with more than 33,000 points, more than 9,000 assists, top ten in NBA history in both. Equal parts Magic and Mike. Between the tomahawk dunks and the chase-down blocks, the runaway train and post-up pain, James grew to a point where he could not be stopped. In 2011 and in 2014, the Mavs and the Spurs dared him to shoot by playing off him and it won them titles.
Now? Step away from LeBron at the top of the key and just watch.
Two dribbles. Look at the ball. Step back.
The basketball accolades speak for themselves, of course. You don’t need to hear about his stats and awards, his titles and MVPs. James was equal parts brilliant on the floor and influential off of it.
The sweet touch on every pass to a teammate’s shooting pocket was personified by every assist outside the 94-foot length of the hardwood.
The TV special that made him the most hated man in sports raised money for the Boys and Girls Club.
The look in his eyes as he demolished the last remnants of the Celtics’ Big Three squad turned into a twinkle as he helped those in need.
He left Cleveland for a second time but he left his legacy not with a powerful and improbable championship, but with a school for the underprivileged.
The ferocity with which he pinned Iguodala’s layup on the backboard to save the hopes of an entire state was the same determination with which he opened the doors for athletes taking advantage of their platforms, one public comment or statement about politics and social justice at a time.
What made LeBron James a great was his mastery of the sport, the beauty with which he eliminated all weaknesses, the sheer domination of all his peers. What made him the greatest was the philanthropy, the influence and the power he wielded and continually used for good.
In the past ten years, the NBA became a different league. The world became a different, maybe a darker place.
James grew up in those ten years. From a 24-year-old struggling to prove he was a winner and trying to climb out of the shadows of the game’s older stars to a 34-year-old jockeying for position at the top of the league with a booming voice that demands attention as he talks about the issues that he is passionate about.
When LeBron came to Los Angeles, he was championed as a savior for a once-proud franchise searching for answers. He may or may not achieve that goal in the coming decade; the early returns are promising.
But as James nears the end of his career, regardless of the outcome in the rest of his tenure in LA, his legacy has been cemented. With every bucket, every dime, every iconic block from behind, James rose above the lofty expectations given to an 18-year-old from Akron, Ohio. With every statement, every act of kindness, every school and playground built, he exceeded what anyone in his position has ever accomplished.
James’ career is far too incredible to condense into just ten years. But it was in this decade where his story was fully written. He went from villain to hero to mythical legend spoken about only in reverence. He went from choker and failure to closer and messiah. He became the embodiment of the dream that every boy and girl born into humble conditions aspires to achieve. He did that with class, with his head held high, and with the ambition to give back to those in the same situation as that kid from Akron.
It has been a pleasure watching LeBron James these past ten years as he wrote one of the greatest stories in sports. It will be all the more satisfying to watch the twilight of his career in Los Angeles as he continues to surprise us every day.