When the Lakers arrived in Orlando to resume play in July, they were awarded rooms at one of the best Disney resorts, on account of their first-place record. Whatever advantages the extra amenities conferred, they didn’t show up on the court. The team looked disorganized and listless. Their shots careened off the rim. They threw passes to no one. James, in particular, seemed to have grown older in quarantine, and not only because he’d been deprived of his barber.
When the Lakers lost their first playoff game to the eighth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, sportswriters’ knives came out. The team might have needed to taste blood: They would go on to win four straight to close out that series, before ripping through their next two series in similar fashion, finishing each with a 4–1 “gentleman’s sweep.” Only the Heat took the Lakers to six games, and the last one wasn’t close.
Because Laker history is so rich with championships, it will take more than one for James and Davis to earn immortality in L.A. But now they have at least paid the table stakes: No one can scoff when they’re mentioned in the same sentence as the franchise’s former illustrious duos. And with his fourth title on three different teams, James adds a résumé line that his admirers can cite when pitting him against Michael Jordan, in basketball’s most rehearsed debate.
If the Lakers’ victory is a rebuke to James’s doubters, the NBA’s remarkable success with the bubble is a rebuke to the president. Donald Trump has made a foe of the league and its Black stars whenever possible. But despite having the resources of the federal government at his disposal, Trump could not match its achievements at any scale. He failed to keep the coronavirus from rampaging through America and killing 210,000 of its citizens. He failed to surround the highest, most secure layers of his administration with his own mini-bubble. He could not even protect his wife from infection—or, in the end, himself.
Meanwhile, the NBA has displayed a refreshing institutional competence. While Trump and his maskless cronies backslapped and hugged at rallies and White House gatherings, hundreds of wealthy NBA players—all similarly accustomed to the autonomy and comfort of America’s elite—worked together to observe strict norms. Many lived alone in the bubble, without their partners or children. All submitted to pervasive surveillance, mandatory masks, daily testing, and serious penalties for breaking the rules. (The NFL and MLB have had a much harder time keeping the virus out.) Their discipline was a welcome reminder that there are still grown-ups somewhere in America.
As a cultural product, the NBA has also given the country something else it badly missed. At a time when Hollywood’s storytellers are largely on ice, many of us long to give our imaginations over to new stories. While we’re suspended in a collective state of limbo, we’re wondering when all this will be over. We’re craving the closure of a real ending, and sports, with its clear winners and losers, gives us that.