Thu. Oct 29th, 2020

How LeBron James and the Lakers fought heartbreak to win the NBA Finals

11 min read

THE OTHER DAY Jeanie Buss sent a text to Phil Jackson, the previous coach to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a title. This was not an unusual occurrence. The two have remained friends and talk often. But the reason for this text was extraordinary.

Buss’ team was on the verge of winning its first NBA title since she assumed control of the team from her father, Dr. Jerry Buss, and since Jackson had retired following the 2011 season. She’d been through championship runs before, but this one was entirely different, and connecting with the coach who has won the most titles in NBA history (11) seemed like a good idea.

“We’ve been going back and forth a little bit about the last game,” Jackson said. “And how to not get over the edge of your skis and stay balanced.”

Jackson had been following the Lakers all season, and felt it was important Buss knew that her steady hand and leadership had been essential to the team’s success. All she had to do now was stay true to that.

And on the 356th day of the 74th NBA season, the Lakers franchise claimed its 17th championship in a 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat.

There was confetti and champagne Sunday in the mostly empty arena in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, where the NBA sought refuge from the deadly pandemic that interrupted its season and society as we know it. As the clock ticked to 0.0 in Game 6, the Lakers’ bench circled LeBron James, joyously hugging him on the court. And Anthony Davis sat down on the scorers table, bending his head forward as the emotions rushed over him.

Before presenting the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Buss, NBA commissioner Adam Silver talked about everything his league and its players had endured just to make it to this finish line.

“We found a way to play through a pandemic, keep everyone safe and put a spotlight on these critically important [social justice] issues,” Silver said. “For that, every team deserves to be celebrated.”

Buss wore a burgundy blazer and a crisp white shirt, but the collar was open wide enough to see the gold chain she wore around her neck, with the signature of her late father, Dr. Jerry Buss.

And then she did what her father taught her to do: cede the spotlight to the players by letting them grab hold of it first.

“We’ve all been challenged so much in 2020,” Buss said before the win. “It really takes your breath away.”

And so it is fitting that the NBA champions of 2020 are the team that held it all together the tightest.

“That is what families do for each other,” Buss said. “Lift each other up when they feel like they can’t go on.”

From the tumult of last offseason, to the death of franchise icon Kobe Bryant in January, to the pandemic, to the nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd, to the creation of a virus-free bubble where the NBA could resume its season, to the near-cancellation of the season following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, this season has tested and humbled everyone.

“No matter what,” Buss said. “The proof is in the work. That’s where we found our comfort and our mission.”

The Lakers were able to consistently steady themselves in the moments that could have broken them.

“You start to reflect back on the challenges,” Buss said. “To be here in the NBA Finals is at one time so uplifting, but also heartbreaking because of all the loss that we have gone through, and that we’re not together as Laker fans living these moments that this team is providing us.”

She paused as she delivered these words. The sentiment jogged an old story Jackson used to tell people about his mentor, Tex Winter.

“A lot of Tex’s quirks were from the fact he lived through the Depression, and that he didn’t have food on the table,” she said. When the Chicago Bulls or Lakers would go out to eat at a nice restaurant or hotel buffet, Winter would always wrap up and save everything on his plate.

“It drove Phil crazy,” she said. “Phil’s like, ‘You can’t possibly take this with you, we’re in a hotel.’

“But I guess now we’re all people who can say we’ve lived through this pandemic, through this heartbreak, through these challenging times.”

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The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 4-2 in the 2020 NBA Finals to claim their 17th championship. Check out all our Finals coverage here.

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The entire Lakers team ran over to check on Davis as he grabbed his right foot. Cameras captured James’ face as he processed the thought of Davis sustaining a serious injury. His face said everything.

All season, James and Davis had pushed each other. To play at their top level, through injury and adversity. To block out the noise and the doubters. To keep, in one of James’ favorite sayings, the main thing, the main thing.

It’s rare in the annals of NBA history for a superstar duo to find such success in their first season playing together, without egos crowding the lane.

But James and Davis recognized their common purpose early on, having both paid a reputational price for the trade that brought Davis to Los Angeles in the summer of 2019. They spent time together, they trained together and, perhaps most important, they needed each other.

“I had seven years my first stint in Cleveland I felt like I couldn’t get over the hump, I felt like I needed some help, I felt like I needed someone to push me,” James said at the championship podium. “And that’s when I was able to go to Miami and get pushed by D-Wade [Dwyane Wade] and [Chris] Bosh and that franchise.

“So to be able to get [Davis], and we push him and let him know how great he is by just making him see better basketball and be a part of something that’s special, that’s what it’s all about. So to be able to put him where he is today, that means so much to me and the fact that he trusts me means even more.”

For James, Davis was his best, perhaps last shot, at making his golden years in L.A. actually golden. For Davis, James was the mentor he’d always sought.

“He was a great player before, but to get to play with LeBron, he can teach you this is what it’s all about,” Anthony Davis Sr. said. “For him to learn from LeBron and them to come together so quick, it’s just like, ‘Wow.'”

Davis’ bruised right heel was killing him. But they’d come too far together for it to end that way. Davis got up, paced along the sideline then waived every trainer away who dared come near him. He played the rest of Game 5, and was a defensive menace in the series-clinching win in Game 6.

“What people don’t understand about Anthony,” his father said, “if they go back and watch the championship game he played at Kentucky, he had a horrible game. I think he scored five points total, but he had like 15 rebounds and five blocked shots.

“He was like, ‘I don’t have it tonight, but I’m going to block and defend everything coming to the rim.’ He has that mentality still. He doesn’t have to score. All he cares about is winning. That’s the mentality he’s had since Kentucky.”

Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020.

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Those first few weeks after Bryant was killed are something of a blur now. There was the initial period of shock and deep sadness. There was the grief of his family, then the incredible strength of Vanessa Bryant at the celebration of life for Kobe and Gianna on Feb. 24.

And then there was the basketball season, which stopped for a day, as the Lakers and Clippers postponed their game on Jan. 28, a game that had seemed so meaningful just days earlier, as the two city rivals and championship contenders were set to square off for the third time, now felt meaningless.

Coach Frank Vogel brought the team back for a practice after a few days, just so they would all be together again. Vogel spent the first part of practice outdoors, under the California sun, hoping the fresh air and vitamin D would do them some good.

“That is one of the luxuries of living in Los Angeles,” Vogel said.

A few days later, the Lakers were supposed to play a game again. James knew the moment called for his voice.

“Now, I’ve got something written down,” he started. “But Laker Nation, man I would be selling y’all short if I read off this s— so I’m going to go straight from the heart.

“As I look around this arena, we’re all grieving, we’re all hurt, we’re all heartbroken and when we’re going through things like this, the best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family.

“Now, I’ve heard about Laker Nation before I got here last year, about how much of a family it is and that is absolutely what I’ve seen this week,” James continued. “Not only from the players, the coaching staff and the organization, but from everybody. Everybody that’s here, this is truly, truly a family.”

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While her father was in charge, Buss was popular with Lakers fans. She sat in the second row at Staples Center. She was accessible to them.

“That’s one of the things that’s always amazed me about her and her father,” Jackson said. “They felt like the team was the city’s, the Lakers belong to L.A.”

It was initially hard to tell if James had miscalculated the way he’d be received by Lakers fans. Or if he was simply taking some time to warm up to his new city.

Fans bristled when they thought he announced an appearance at a Blaze Pizza and didn’t show. They painted murals around L.A. asserting Kobe Bryant was still the Lakers’ king, not King James. He might never live down the walk into Staples Center when cameras caught James, who was injured at the time, sipping a glass of wine.

“Well, one, what I’ve learned being a Laker is that the Laker faithful don’t give a damn what you’ve done before,” James said Thursday. “They don’t care about your résumé at all until you become a Laker. Then you’ve got to do it as a Laker, and then they respect you. I’ve learned that.”

Like Buss, James got here by staying focused on the work. Each day, each challenge, was something to get through. His sense of purpose never wavered.

“I didn’t like the way our season ended for us last year, especially myself with the injury and with our ballclub,” James said on Sept. 17. “My mom told me, ‘Don’t talk about it, be about it.’ So I didn’t talk much. Just go out and do your job.”

ALL THE HARD times tend to wash away when the championship champagne starts flowing. The shining moments rush to the front of your thoughts, the challenges recede.

Davis yelling “Kobe” after hitting a winning 3-pointer from one of Bryant’s favorite spots in the Western Conference finals. The confetti falling after the Western Conference finals and again at the end, right before they raised the championship trophy.

But those moments were sweeter because of the other moments that nearly broke them, and the way they responded.

“The fact that I’m here now means so much to me,” James said when he addressed the Staples Center crowd before the first game they played after Bryant’s death. “To continue his legacy not only for this year but as long as we can play the game we love.”

Buss got chills when Davis hit that 3-pointer and yelled out Bryant’s name.

“It was like, OK, he’s here,” she said. “People were like, ‘It’s planned, you guys are forcing this.’ And it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is completely organic. It comes from people’s hearts, it doesn’t come from a moment that can be planned.'”

One of the gifts of being so isolated in the NBA bubble for so long was that it provided plenty of time to think and reflect.

Buss arrived last week and stayed in the outer tier throughout the Finals. So close to the team that came together to win this title, and yet so far away, up in a balcony, behind a mask, cheering alongside one of her best friends of the past four decades, Lakers executive Linda Rambis.

Once the team won and the mission was complete, she was finally allowed down onto the floor to accept the trophy and fulfill her birthright.

“I am so proud of you both on and off the court,” she said to the team. “You’ve done Los Angeles proud with your hard work, your professionalism and your dedication. You have written your own inspiring chapter in the great Laker history.

“To Laker Nation. We have been through a heartbreaking tragedy with the loss of our beloved Kobe Bryant and Gianna. Let this trophy serve as a reminder of when we come together, believe in each other, incredible things can happen.

“When it’s safe, I look forward to celebrating with you. Until then, I will bring back the trophy to Los Angeles, where it belongs.”

Pelinka stood with the team he put together. His heart was still heavy, from the loss of Bryant, his longtime client and friend. But enough time has passed that he can appreciate what he still has, and what they all did together.

“When the deepest trial of life hit, we relied on the strength of each other,” Pelinka said. “And our own individual faiths, to find a path forward. We continued to believe that all things can somehow be worked together, to somehow, some way, find a good.”

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