LeBron James

Whether it was Bill Russell, the duo of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the high flying acrobatics of Michael Jordan, or the sustained excellence of Kobe Bryant, the league has depended on these and others to win fans and spread its popularity.

The NBA has always been a league where superstars set the tone.

As the 2023 playoffs continue, the approaching end of another era has suddenly emerged as a huge story, one that threatened to drown out the ongoing battles for a title on the court.

Only moments after a tough loss to the Denver Nuggets that ended the Los Angeles Lakers season in the Western Conference Finals, Lebron James seemed to float the idea of retirement as he walked off the court. Now while he didn’t say anything definitive in that regard, just the mere hint that James might not return next season triggered a host of sports talk discussion for the next few days. It also generated  columns and commentaries about the possibilities.

Now the chances that James retires are remote at best. He has one more year on his contract plus an option year, and would be leaving almost $100 million on the table if he retired. There also remains his long expressed desire to play at least one season with his son who will be a freshman at USC in the fall and won’t be eligible to enter the NBA until the following year. Many also feel he wants a shot at winning at least another title, either in LA or elsewhere.

But after 20 years in the league, the impact of Lebron James extends far beyond his impressive statistics. Whenever he departs, he will leave as the league’s all-time scorer and leader in minutes played. He will have won multiple championships on at least three different teams and earned multiple regular-season and NBA Finals MVP awards as well as multiple All-NBA honors.

Still, it can be argued he is more important as the symbol of the modern athlete turned entrepreneur and citizen advocate. James has purchased stakes in multiple sports teams and helped build a thriving film and television production company. He endorses products, appears in various films, shows and podcasts, and has created a successful school in his hometown of Akron.

He has also taken public stances on controversial issues, most notably police misconduct.

He hasn’t been flawless, and there remain those still embittered at the way he left Cleveland the first time via “the Decision.” Other critics consider him a shameless self-promoter and publicity seeker, and ridicule the fact he’s only been on four title teams and been on teams that got swept multiple times.

But only the most ardent James detractors would fail to acknowledge he’s been far more of a positive than negative force in the league and as a personality for over two decades.

Whether it’s sooner or later, whenever Lebron James does retire, he will be missed. He has been a once in a lifetime player and star, and has certainly made the NBA better and more popular than it was when he joined it 20-plus years ago.