LOS ANGELES — She woke up at 4 a.m. on July 1 with nothing to do but wait for the sun to rise. With as much as Jeanie Buss and the Los Angeles Lakers had riding on this day, she was lucky to have fallen asleep at all the night before. In a few hours, the NBA would learn where LeBron James had decided to spend the next phase of his NBA career, and Buss’ Lakers had emerged as the favorites to sign him.
She’d seen her father, Dr. Jerry Buss, pull off landscape-altering trades and free-agent coups like this before. But since his death in February 2013, it had been as dark for the Lakers as it was on that Manhattan Beach morning as she tossed and turned in bed.
“There was a feeling of confidence,” Buss said. “But I’d been there before, so I wasn’t going to allow myself to take anything for granted.”
All she knew at that point was that Magic Johnson had met with James at his house right as free agency began the night before. She didn’t know how it had gone or what had been said. No, she’d spent the night of June 30 watching the first few hours of free agency unfold on ESPN’s The Jump special just like a regular fan. And it didn’t go well for the Lakers at all, as Paul George announced he was staying in Oklahoma City without even meeting with other teams, let alone his hometown Lakers. Just like that, one of the Lakers’ top free-agent targets was off the board, and this was starting like the past five unfulfilling summers.
Buss had fired her brother, Jim Buss, as president of basketball operations, and longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak in February 2017, replacing them with Johnson and Rob Pelinka to help change what had become a losing culture. Her dad had taught her many lessons in the years he’d groomed her to run the Lakers, but perhaps most important was that Lakers fans expect their team to have superstars and contend for championships year after year. Anything less, and they go elsewhere for their entertainment. This is Hollywood. There are plenty of other shows in town.
Jeanie Buss felt that angst personally the past five years. The Lakers had never missed the playoffs more than two years in a row in the 34 years her father owned the team. Since his death, they’d been shut out of the postseason five seasons in a row and seen the last link to their glory years, Kobe Bryant, retire.
Lakers fans might have been spoiled by all the prosperity, but that’s hardly the kind of trait the Buss family wanted to soften. No, it needed to produce another hit as soon as possible.
“Yeah, there was no push-back from me because I knew there was no way to argue that we weren’t at the bottom of the standings,” Jeanie Buss said. “We were. The numbers showed that as fact.”
All she could do as the Lakers CEO was try to fix it. Change the culture, give the franchise a facelift, then get two of the biggest Lakers stars of the past four decades — Magic and Kobe — to help recruit the best player of his era, LeBron James.
The term “recruit” is a relative one in this case, though. Stars of James’ magnitude tell you what they’re going to do and what you’re going to do to help them do it. There is no wooing or bargaining or leveraging. There is only proving that you are worthy of James’ trust, then accepting whatever terms he gives.
When he retires one day, James’ embrace of his own power will be one of his most impactful legacies. Few players have controlled their own destinies as sagaciously as James has throughout the latter half of his career.
Moving to L.A., where the locals not only understand but also expect such power moves from their stars, made sense.
Accepting James’ terms and waiting for him to decide are two different things, however.
By the morning of July 1, all the people waiting on James’ decision found themselves suspended in a state of anxious excitement or dread, knowing their lives were about to change.
EVERYTHING ABOUT JAMES’ free agency felt different this time around. There was no televised special. There were no pitch meetings. There was no dramatic week in which the rest of the league essentially stopped doing business and waited on James’ decision.
He didn’t want any of that this time. Nor did he need it. At age 33, with three championships and 15 seasons in the NBA on his résumé, James knew the league and his suitors better than anyone. He also knew his place in the game and the ramifications of this choice on his legacy.
So when he met with his agent, Rich Paul, and other close advisers a few days before going on vacation with his family to Anguilla at the end of June, the priorities were clear. There would be no profiting off this free-agent decision. No documentary, no tie-in with James’ myriad business interests and no celebratory party or news conference.
James wanted to decide quickly this time, knowing how his situation affected the rest of the league. Then he wanted to be with his family, first on a vacation to Italy and then as much as he could, all summer long, because after eight straight trips to the NBA Finals, he has grown protective of this small oasis of quality downtime before everything starts up again.
But mostly, everything felt different this time around because James had delivered on his promise to bring a championship to Cleveland. And this last season, damn, he’d done more than anyone thought possible. “He did it at the highest level you can probably ever do it,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “It was arguably his best season ever.”
“I genuinely believe [LeBron] was torn. I really do. And he made a decision that he thought would make him and his family happy.”
Cavaliers GM Koby Altman
Lue was in the High Limit Lounge at the Aria hotel in Las Vegas when James announced that he’d chosen to sign a four-year, $153.3 million deal with the Lakers. It was quiet in the lounge at that time on a Sunday evening. Ironically, it was a good spot to get away from the high-stakes game Lue and the Cavaliers had just lost. But while Lue had known this was a possibility, it took a while for it to feel real.
“It’s tough because he meant so much to me as a coach, especially our players in the organization and the city of Cleveland,” Lue said. “But he’s the one guy that throughout the whole course of his career came in with the most pressure and the most scrutiny. Nobody else has done that. And from day one, he never cracked. He continued to get better and better and do so much for the city of Cleveland and the league. So I’m just glad that he had an opportunity to do what he wants, to enjoy it, his family and the rest of his career.”
Lue stayed in contact with James after the Finals ended, which was not unusual. During the season, Lue and James texted constantly about the team or how James was feeling as he averaged 38.0 minutes per game over the 104 games the Cavs played.
“Sometimes it was five-to-six times a week, sometimes five-to-six times a day,” Lue said.
This offseason, he wanted to stay in touch but not in a way that would make James think he had an agenda or was trying to influence him to stay.
“No, I wasn’t recruiting. Rich [Paul] made it clear that with Cleveland, we don’t have to do any of that. [James] knows exactly what we do and what we bring. So just to let him make the decision about his happiness and where he’s at in his career,” Lue said. “I wanted to make sure I respected that.”
It was much the same position in which Dwyane Wade found himself in 2014, when James was deciding whether to leave the Miami Heat and return to Cleveland. They were friends, more than teammates at that point. Even though Wade had ample opportunity as they hung out in Las Vegas in the days before James had to decide and flew back to Miami together on a private plane the night before James’ letter in Sports Illustrated announcing his return to Cleveland posted, Wade never crossed that line.
“I never once said come back,” Wade said a few years later. “Not once. Once I knew he made up his mind, I said, ‘It was fun, wasn’t it? Now go do what it is LeBron wants to do. I’ll support you either way.’
“Not a lot of people could have done that. But my life wasn’t made off what LeBron could do for me. I just appreciated our friendship. Everything else is a bonus.”
Because of their friendship, Lue was probably the most optimistic of anyone in the Cavaliers organization that James would stay in Cleveland. Each time he’d talk or text with James after the season, it felt normal, like maybe nothing would change and they’d be back in training camp this fall, trying to do it all over again.
The rest of the city and the franchise seemed to be bracing for James to leave, though. Fans at Quicken Loans Arena even gave him a standing ovation as he came out of the game for the last time at the end of Game 4 of the NBA Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors.
What had been anger and resentment in 2010 had turned to sadness and nostalgia by 2018.
As columnist Marla Ridenour wrote in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 2: “I thought my heart was protected. I thought I was prepared for LeBron James to leave Cleveland again. … As James heads to the Los Angeles Lakers, I was overcome by the feeling that the most awe-inspiring moments I have witnessed in my 41-year career might be behind me.”
CAVALIERS GENERAL MANAGER Koby Altman spent the weeks after the Finals trying to swing deals to improve the team and convince James to stay. But he communicated only with Paul during those critical weeks and was never given any assurances or instructions on what moves might persuade James to stay.
It was similar to the way James behaved when he left Miami four years earlier: very little contact, no instructions or assurances, just an open line of communication to Paul. Heat President Pat Riley had grown so uncomfortable with the distance that he went to James’ trainer’s wedding in hopes of stealing a short conversation with James. But they never connected that day and never met face to face until James was ready to do so on his terms — after he’d met with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and set his homecoming in motion.
If there were lessons to draw from James’ previous free agencies, this was among the most important: He will do things on his terms, not anyone else’s. The people who understand that and can respect his style are the ones James will ultimately choose to keep in his life.
Both the Cavs and the Lakers seemed to get that this time. And both will stay in James’ life, just not the way Cleveland hoped from a basketball perspective.
“It’s just so different from the last time,” Altman said. “He still cares about us. I really do believe that. He had really heartfelt feelings for us, and I genuinely believe he was torn. I really do. And he made a decision that he thought would make him and his family happy.”
Altman was at home in Cleveland when Paul called to let him know James had chosen the Lakers. It was after 8 p.m. Eastern, and Altman had a massive rebuilding job ahead of him, so he got on the phone and called his staff and all the Cavaliers’ returning players while the hurt and emotion washed over him.
Could they have gotten more in the trade for Kyrie Irving last summer? Should they have done whatever it took to land Paul George from Indiana, regardless of whether James was willing to commit long term?
“You go back, and you always scrutinize everything you do as a general manager. That’s why we don’t f—ing sleep at night,” Altman said. “But I don’t think this was anything we did right or wrong. This is what he wanted to do for him, as a personal preference or a family decision. And I’m OK with that. I have to be OK with that.”
THE NEXT MORNING, Altman got a call from the only person in the world who knew exactly how he was feeling in that moment: Miami Heat general manager Andy Elisburg.
“I called him and said, ‘Well, did the sun come up this morning?'” Elisburg said. “And he said, ‘Yes, it came up.’ And I said, ‘Well, I just want to let you know it’s going to come up tomorrow too.'”
Four years ago, Elisburg and the Heat had the wind knocked out of them by James’ decision to go back to Cleveland. Like the Cavs, they’d known it was a possibility at some point. They just never thought it would come as soon as it did — after only four seasons, in all of which the team went to the NBA Finals.
There are parallels in their shared experiences, but there are also important differences. James got what he needed from both franchises in the time he was there. In Miami, he learned how to win championships and take control of his destiny. In Cleveland these past four years, he fulfilled that destiny. But when he left Miami, his path forward was clear. His reasons for leaving were clear, which ultimately helped Elisburg process the departure. This time around, everyone has to trust James when he says going to Los Angeles is what will make him and his family happy.
“The night it happened [in 2014], I was so angry and emotional I was having chest pains,” Elisburg said. “I was lying in bed and thought I was having a heart attack.”
He spent that day trying to salvage what was left of the Heat’s roster, convincing Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to stay and setting meetings with other free agents to help fill the void left by James’ departure.
“When it first happened, it was like the scene in ‘Jerry Maguire’ when suddenly all the clients are leaving,” he joked.
But once the rush was over, the pain set in. He couldn’t sleep if he tried. So he got in his car and drove two hours north, past Boca Raton and Palm Beach, until he started to find a bit of peace.
“I got clarity about 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning: It wasn’t about us. It was about what he wanted to do,” Elisburg said.
Fast-forward to July 2018, and it was time to relay the story and the wisdom to Altman.
“I came in the next day around 9, 10 o’clock in the morning, went to the whiteboard, started putting down names and building the roster like we’d always done,” Elisburg told the young general manager. “You have to realize, it always ends. It never ends the way you want it to end, but it ends, and you have to start again.
“But no matter what, it was an incredible four years. You won a championship, you know? Nothing takes that away.”
Altman listened and tried to absorb the lesson, knowing it’ll mean more to him in the months and years ahead.
“He said he wouldn’t have given up his four years with him for the world, and I feel the same way,” Altman said. “To have four years of the Finals under my belt and the experience of working with the best player maybe ever … it’s incredible.”
NOW IT’S THE Lakers’ turn, and while this certainly feels familiar to a franchise with 16 NBA championship banners and 12 jerseys hanging from its rafters, there’s something about what lies ahead with James that feels both exciting and scary.
This wasn’t a perfect basketball fit, and James came anyway. The Lakers’ best players are still in their early 20s. George didn’t come with him. The price for Kawhi Leonard was too high to trade for him under duress.
Yet James decided to join them. Once he said yes, the Lakers weren’t about to ask why. Their challenge now is to live up to that faith.
James and Johnson have long been compared to each other. Two Midwestern boys with charisma oozing from every pore, outsized expectations as they entered the league and otherworldly talent. Johnson made the Lakers in L.A. when Jerry Buss drafted him No. 1 overall out of Michigan State in 1979, Buss’ first year owning the team. At 6-foot-9 with a megawatt smile and flashy skills, Johnson created and embodied the Showtime era Lakers, then transitioned into a successful business career and social activism after he retired.
It’s a model the 6-foot-8 James has followed on and off the court during his 15 years under the hottest of spotlights. But he has never formed a partnership with an owner like Johnson did with Buss. James’ closest bonds are with his family, friends in the league and long-term business partners such as Paul, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims.
“I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live. This would make my dad really happy. This is something that he would want to accomplish.”
Lakers owner Jeanie Buss on signing LeBron James
But if a partnership in L.A. was going to be a fruitful one, James knew he and Johnson had to meet in person and discover whether they shared a basketball vision as well as a basketball story.
Discretion was of the utmost importance. Only a few people in the organization — Jeanie Buss, Pelinka and Johnson — knew Johnson was going to meet with James on the first night of free agency. Keeping the meeting quiet was seen by the Lakers as something of a loyalty test for James, the same way it was for James’ inner circle. If he couldn’t trust them with that, how could he trust them with his career?
“We were not going to jeopardize any of our position for any mistake or overreach,” Buss said.
All that was left for Jeanie Buss to do was wait and trust in the two men she’d put in place last year.
“Magic and Rob, they really prepared and did their homework, where I think maybe the previous regime was a little bit more roll the dice and then react,” she said. “We had our best-case scenario, but there was a plan B and a plan C and a plan D and E.
“Nothing was really up to chance other than the player’s decision. It’s up to [James] to decide, but we’d done everything that we could.”
She had been in pitch meetings before that didn’t feel that way.
“We’d gone into a free-agency period with no coach,” she said. “How are you going to convince somebody to come if you don’t know who the coach is going to be? And they [the previous regime] were like, ‘Well, they’ll have feedback into who the coach would be.’
“I’m like, ‘What if you can’t get the one that they want?’ I didn’t understand or like that process.”
Buss had spent the past 18 months trying to remake the Lakers in her vision, instead of trying to make sense of somebody else’s. If it didn’t work, she could live with it.
Of course, that didn’t make it easier to fall back asleep the morning of July 1, as James made the choice that would either validate the Lakers’ new course or send them back to the whiteboard.
“I had friends in town and was hanging with them,” Buss said. “But I must have been staring at my phone the entire time.”
Finally, a few minutes after 5 p.m., she got a one-word text from Paul: “Congratulations.”
“I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live,” she said. “This would make my dad really happy. This is something that he would want to accomplish.”
LAKERS’ COACH LUKE Walton had started thinking about what it would be like to coach James a few weeks earlier, as he prepared for his role in a pitch meeting, should James grant one to the Lakers.
For the past two years, he’d been in an entirely different mode, grooming the Lakers’ young players to establish a winning culture and habits. It had been arduous, unglamorous work at times. But over the past year, Walton had come to enjoy the breakthrough moments when progress becomes obvious, not theoretical.
If he got to pitch James, he’d tell him about the things he believed in as a coach and hope James appreciated them. He prepared a package of plays and concepts in case James asked for that level of detail, but he had no expectation of giving it to him.
“It’s like, f—, LeBron doesn’t want to sit there and listen to, ‘Here’s what we can do with you,'” Walton said.
No, this was about confidence and vision, not X’s and O’s. Walton could relate to the decision James was about to make. Two years earlier, he’d left as associate head coach of the Warriors in the midst of their dynastic run to rebuild the Lakers. He went in with eyes wide open, knowing how high expectations were, despite a bare talent cupboard and a dysfunctional management situation.
Yet for some reason, he had faith it would turn around, that he could help turn it around.
“I’ve always loved the family atmosphere of sports and from high school to college and as a player in L.A. for eight years,” he said. “We won championships together, and it was just this incredible journey that really molded my basketball mind.
“When I saw [the Lakers] struggling, even when I’m coaching in Golden State, I see them losing, and I’m still pulling for them to win. So to have an opportunity to help bring them back, the team that pretty much raised me in the NBA, you have to love and embrace that challenge.”
Walton was going to tell James that story when he got the chance. But Johnson was the only Lakers official who met with James before he made his decision to join the team. Walton found out the morning of July 1 that James and Johnson had met for several hours the night before, and it had gone well. He didn’t ask any more questions, knowing how important secrecy and discretion had become. (He has since exchanged text messages with James and made plans to meet in person soon.)
“I had just gotten back from the office, it was a beautiful Manhattan Beach day, and we had just opened up the pool cover and were getting ready to have a nice Sunday barbecue with a couple friends,” Walton said. “We had corn hole being played in the backyard.”
Then his phone started dinging. LeBron had chosen the Lakers.
“I think I spent the next eight-and-a-half hours on the telephone. Missed my whole Sunday family barbecue,” he said with a laugh. “Missed the corn hole. The kids were already asleep by the time I got done taking calls.”
Once it was finally quiet, Walton could reflect on what had just happened and how it would change his life and the team he’d been working to restore to its former glory.
There were hundreds of texts and voicemails on his phone for him to answer later.
Kobe Bryant would tell him that the key to coaching James is to be willing to listen and work with him — but also, as Phil Jackson had done with Bryant, to “know what’s really important to you as a coach” and stick to it.
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra would tell him that James is going to want to know why the team is doing something, and the key to coaching him is to always keep that discussion open.
“He said, ‘First of all, you’re getting a different LeBron,'” Walton said of the conversation with Spoelstra. “‘We [the Heat] got him eight years ago when he hadn’t won a championship.’ But he’s like, ‘Dude, he works extremely hard. He’s so knowledgeable about the game. You gotta always be honest and prepared and ready to work hard. As long as you do those things, the relationship should be fine.'”
Luke’s father, Bill Walton, would call him from a Grateful Dead concert to help celebrate.
“Yeah, and he had [drummer] Mickey Hart in the background yelling at me that, ‘The rhythm is the answer to everything in life,'” Luke Walton said with a laugh. “So once I figure out what that means, we’ll be good.”
Deep down, Walton already knew what was coming and how things were about to change. His rookie year with the Lakers was the year Karl Malone and Gary Payton came to L.A. to try to win a title with Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant. He had lived through the rise and fall of that team, the breakup with O’Neal that came next and a summer of Bryant’s trade demands.
He had also won championships as a Laker and knew that all that drama could be worth it in the end.
“It’s gonna be completely nuts, but it’s also gonna be awesome,” Walton said. “The whole city’s gonna be behind us. We’re gonna be on SportsCenter every night. If we lose, it’s gonna be the end of the world. If we win, it’s gonna be wild. But no matter what, it’s gonna be fun.”
And so, Walton went outside and sat by the pool while the rest of his family slept. It was finally quiet enough for him to think.
“I sat under the stars and said to myself, ‘Damn, we got LeBron James on our team,'” he said. “‘The best player in the world is a Laker.'”