By CATHAL KELLY
Friday, January 12, 2018
TORONTO -- Though he has been at this for longer than Michael Jordan, Bill Russell or Oscar Robertson, LeBron James has avoided talking about the end of his NBA career.
He did that in substantive terms for the first time yesterday. Asked if he could see his own professional demise, at first he said, "I do not."
But then, as if it were occurring to him for the first time, he added: "The only thing is my kids getting older. That's the only thing that could stop me from going as long as I'd like to."
His children are 13, 10 and 3. If the point here is not to miss the developmental stage, that doesn't leave him much professional runway.
Then, in an awkward analogy, James likened leaving to marriage.
"Retirement for me is like getting engaged. I didn't know if I was ready or not, but I just felt like it was the time. The timing was right. The vibe was right," he said. "Was I ready for marriage? I don't know. ... I'd never experienced it. We'll see." (Clearly, we should not be looking forward to a LeBron James line of Valentine's Day cards.) It was an odd place (Toronto), an odd time (midseason) and an odd way (tossed off as an aside) to deliver remarks that will shift the NBA landscape.
For more than a decade, James has been the league's flagbearer and one-man rationale. If he isn't actively planning on leaving, we now know he has at least seriously considered how and why it would happen. That's new.
James has always been the sort who speaks a great deal but says very little. It has proved to be a remarkably adept marketing tactic. Since that slip-up during his first transition away from Cleveland, he's worked hard to never give anyone a reason to hate him (and, thereby, not buy his shoes).
In the interim, he has become the totemic athlete of his generation - so omnipresent that it feels like he's always been here.
Despite his relative youth (33), he's already appeared in more postseason games than all but six players in NBA history.
The going line on James is that however much he's achieved, he wants more. More awards, more records and, especially, more rings. He's never had any significant injury problems, so that pursuit of superlatives was theoretically endless.
That was another common piece of wisdom he jettisoned on Thursday.
"I've already gone further than I thought I'd go. Everything at this point is extra credit," James said.
"At this point, I'm just adding crazy toppings on a cake."
Does that sound to you like someone whose fire still burns just as bright? It sounds more like a guy who's beginning to think about how many rounds of golf he can fit into a week and whether that'll make him happy.
When you've existed at James's level for this long - "I've been in this spotlight for half of my years" - and are not in the midst of a charged situation, you don't just blurt out this sort of thing. Everything he says is calculated.
That leads you to believe there must be some reason to be so revealing.
As a bargaining strategy, it would be a bit of brilliance.
James will likely leave his hometown club once again at the end of this season.
As mentioned, the first parting did not go over so well. It has the potential to go just as badly this time around, especially if he is trading a championship-calibre club for an NBA starter kit in Los Angeles. Thursday's declaration puts that in a different public-relations light.
James isn't so much leaving for greener pastures, but instead is off on a farewell tour. Perhaps, like the Rolling Stones, it will be one that never ends.
Cleveland will still despise him for it, but less so. Everyone else will eat it up.
As a way to put his own team on notice, it would also count as a smart motivational strategy.
If this is indeed his last year in Cleveland, the breakup will go smoother with a trophy in hand.
To that end, the Cavaliers haven't looked very good this year. In fact, they occasionally look terrible.
It has been the team's habit with James to coast through the regular season and pop the clutch during the postseason.
But the battle of attrition through the Eastern Conference is getting tougher, and James isn't getting younger. He may be a little sick of everyone else depending on him to win playoff games by himself. There's nothing like a "Maybe I've had enough of this" to put a shudder through the herd.
That would be the cynical perspective on James's comments.
But it may be sincere - that he has begun to recalibrate his priorities and sees his own professional horizon.
As he continued down this line of thought, the U.S. media that follow him regularly got a stricken look.
"You're not contemplating this now, are you?" someone asked.
"Give it up?" James said, suddenly incredulous. "I got too many sneakers to sell."
While everyone laughed, he wheeled away. It was a great line - but delivered too late to undo everything that had been said before it.
Only a dozen or so people got to see it live, but it was a minor landmark in Air Canada Centre history.
The second act of arguably the greatest player in history ended an unremarkable Thursday morning in the arena basement.
Although it could go on a long while yet, we're now into the climax of LeBron James's career.
LeBron James picked an unusual location, Toronto, to open up for the first time about the possibility of eventually retiring from the NBA.
MADDIE MEYER/ GETTY IMAGES