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    Is That Steph Curry … or a Work of Art?

    This Instagram account will change how you see basketball.In the flat red frame of a photograph, a woman smiles upward. With the camera, we gaze down upon the whirl of her body. Near her face, a basketball sinks through the net; below her feet, a white line divides the image, like the fold of a pocket mirror. On the other side of the line, the matte red of a basketball court gives way to textured brush strokes, punctuated by lines and grids in black and white. These abstracted shapes reflect, with a difference, the woman’s radiant skill. This image is titled “A’ja Wilson and Team USA Extend Win Streak to 51 | Kandinsky.” You can find it at my favorite place on the internet: the Instagram account @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s.@b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s posts partner a photograph of an N.B.A. or W.N.B.A. player with an accompanying detail, sometimes modified, from an artwork, usually an oil painting. If you (me) feel a nervous frisson around the name’s reference to a famous German design school, don’t worry: @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s never flattens the players into high culture’s dupes, and never flattens their sport into some noble but vague idea of “art.” Instead, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s comparisons recognize professional basketball as a synthesis of labor and creativity, craft and art, practice and personality. I love its vision of the game.The breadth of these images makes clear that most sports media praises a narrow range of characteristics.Using comparisons to explain objects of interest — whether artistic, athletic or both — isn’t a new strategy. But @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s posts have a gorgeous uncanniness, rewiring the expectations I bring to the players they depict. Their physical and emotional insights surpass what a “SportsCenter” highlight reel can show. Look: LeBron James swaggering, warped and cerebral like a Lucian Freud self-​portrait; Giannis Antetokounmpo grieving, his loose joints weighted like Jennifer Packer’s seated figure in “Mario II”; Sophie Cunningham triumphant, hair flaring, fierce and radiant like Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” and Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” The breadth of these images makes clear that most sports media praises a narrow range of characteristics. Think of the side-eye cast at Philadelphia’s James Harden, whose stubborn eccentricity is illegible to most analysts. @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s images show something different. They dive into the players’ sensibilities and seem to understand that being weird, effete or ambivalent might be part of these athletes’ power. In one @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s post, Harden stares cryptically out of the frame, eyes full of secrets, next to Paul Gauguin’s “The Sorcerer of Hiva Oa.”I realized the force of @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s during the N.B.A. playoffs, which culminated in a collision between the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, the sweetest three-point shooter the sport has ever known, and the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, an emerging young star. How to understand these players as people and artists? Rather than asking where Tatum would fit in the pantheon of N.B.A. greats, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s posted images like “Celtics up 3-0 | Edgar Degas.” Surrounded by Nets players, Tatum stretches into the air, his arm extending toward the basket in an elegant port de bras. His uniform finds its mirror in the tulle skirt of a ballerina, shimmering as she sweeps into an arabesque. Gracefully balanced, the dancer’s leg lifts away from the tilt of her head; Tatum’s muscled shoulder echoes the delicate arch of the ballerina’s toe shoes.Seeing this iconic image of (white) femininity used to complement Tatum’s strength felt like a revelation. The critic John Berger famously observed that in art and life, “men act and women appear.” But @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s figures, across gender and genre, define their meaning through what their movement can do. @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s went on to interpret Curry’s play via a series of juxtapositions to dancers: Sometimes he’s lithe and smooth, like Loïs Mailou Jones’s painting “La Baker”; sometimes monumental in strength, like Picasso’s women on the beach. In this context, envisioning Tatum with Degas’s ballerina seems neither a joke nor a too-easy equivalence. Instead, it highlights the precision of his technique. What might the rest of our sports media accomplish if it were equally willing to reconsider gender as a final mark of an athlete’s worth or ability? What stories might it tell about these athletes, or their world, if its attention was focused through @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s wider lens?Sports are played to win; that’s part of their pleasure. It may seem odd to chafe against sports media’s rankings, which arguably only track the competitive structure of the game itself. But basketball, like art, is worth more than a final score or a price tag. No simple calculus can determine what a given player might mean to the game or to fans. I love how @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s recognizes the players’ cosmopolitanism and humor alongside their ferocity and sweat, and how all this persists even in defeat. @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s’s way of seeing appeals to me because its comparisons resist both simple equivalence and forced hierarchy. It enriches images on both sides of the frame, making art and athlete seem wilder, more compelling. Criticism, whether of sport or art, doesn’t often manage to capture this thrill. At its best, @b_a_l_l_h_a_u_s can feel like the greatest kind of basketball game, one with both teams playing at their most elegant and strong. One team wins, but it’s seeing everyone’s talents that makes the victory a work of art.Sarah Mesle is a professor, writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is on the faculty at the University of Southern California and the editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books online magazine Avidly. More

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    Naomi Osaka Starts a Media Company, With Help From LeBron James

    The tennis star, who has struggled on the court of late, is behind an entertainment company called Hana Kuma in partnership with Mr. James’s fast-growing SpringHill.She is a four-time Grand Slam singles champion who ranks as the world’s highest-paid female athlete, having earned $57 million in 2021, mostly from sponsorships. Walmart recently began to stock products from her skin care company, Kinlò, in nearly 3,000 locations. Last month, she started a sports representation agency.And now Naomi Osaka is pushing into Hollywood — with an assist from LeBron James.Ms. Osaka, 24, has started a media company called Hana Kuma in partnership with SpringHill, a fast-growing entertainment, marketing and products company co-founded by Mr. James. Ms. Osaka said in a brief Zoom interview that her ambitions for Hana Kuma, which stands for “flower bear” in Japanese, include scripted and unscripted television series, documentaries, anime and branded content, which is entertainment programming that has embedded or integrated advertising.“I honestly can’t say if I’ll personally be in anything right now,” Ms. Osaka said. “What excites me is being able to inspire people and tell new stories, particularly ones that I would have wanted to see when I was a kid. I always wanted to kind of see someone like me.” Ms. Osaka is of Japanese and Haitian ancestry.Fans should expect Ms. Osaka’s advocacy to underpin at least some of Hana Kuma’s offerings, most of which are still in development. Ms. Osaka has been outspoken on topics that many elite sports stars try to avoid. She was an early supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Last year, she started a global discussion about mental health in sports when she withdrew from the French Open, citing a need to make her own well-being a priority. She also disclosed past struggles with depression and anxiety.Ms. Osaka’s candor has resonated with an audience far beyond sports — young people in particular — making her a sponsorship dream even though she has recently struggled on the tennis court. (She lost in the first round of the French Open last month. She said in a social media post on Saturday that she would not play at Wimbledon this summer because of an Achilles’ injury.)One project in development involves cooking and the Haitian community. “I watch a lot of food-related shows, cooking competitions, because I like to cook,” Ms. Osaka said with a laugh. The first project with Hana Kuma credits will be a New York Times Op-Doc about Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress. Hana Kuma is also working on unspecified documentary content for Epix, a premium cable channel now owned by Amazon.SpringHill, co-founded by Maverick Carter in 2020, will serve as a financing, operations and producing partner for Hana Kuma. SpringHill has roughly 200 employees and was valued at $725 million when selling a minority stake to raise capital last year. Operations include a marketing consultancy and a media and apparel division dedicated to athlete empowerment. Another unit focuses on film and television production. There is also an events team.“Naomi can just plug into what we have built,” Mr. Carter said.SpringHill wants to replicate the Hana Kuma deal with other athletes who have global appeal. “We want to do a lot more of this in the future,” Mr. Carter said, noting that discussions have started with other sports stars.It must be asked: Isn’t this just a newfangled vanity deal? For decades, old-line studios gave favored stars funding to start affiliated companies, most of which never amounted to much — aside from keeping the star happy.“Under the old system, sometimes those ended up being for vanity,” Mr. Carter said. “But the goal here is to build Hana Kuma into a real company and a real brand.” SpringHill’s emphasis on branded content sets it apart from old-line studios, he added. Hana Kuma has been hired by FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange, to produce branded content.LeBron James at the premiere of Netflix’s “Hustle” in Los Angeles this month.Kevin Winter/Getty ImagesMr. James said by telephone that Ms. Osaka’s “grace and power” on and off the court made her a good match for SpringHill, “which exists to empower athlete creators.”“We don’t take for granted the position we are in to lend a helping hand, in this case to Naomi, to help empower her to do even more great things,” Mr. James said.Ms. Osaka has 12 sponsors, including Nike, Mastercard, Louis Vuitton and Panasonic. Her longtime agent and business partner, Stuart Duguid, said some could be involved with Hana Kuma content. Mr. Duguid is a Hana Kuma co-founder.“We really want to bring that number down and have more in-depth relationships with the ones that continue,” Mr. Duguid said, referring to corporate sponsors. “We want to take bigger swings and start companies, invest in companies, things that might have potentially a bigger outcome than if you did a McDonald’s deal and got paid year to year. What will really move the needle?”Building a portfolio of businesses — while still in the middle of her tennis career — makes Ms. Osaka something of a pioneer among female athletes. At least, it will if she succeeds.“We haven’t seen any female athlete do anything like what we are trying to achieve,” Mr. Duguid said. “Serena has done well with her venture business. But she’s toward the end of her career, and, you know, we’re in the middle.” He was referring to the tennis legend Serena Williams, whose venture capital firm, Serena Ventures, has raised an inaugural fund of $111 million to invest in founders with diverse points of view.Because she is still playing tennis, Ms. Osaka will not be sitting in on many production meetings. “But everything creative and everything strategic, it’s obviously going to have Naomi’s stamp on it and her style and her input,” Mr. Duguid said. More

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    Stephen Curry’s Golden State Is the NBA’s Newest Dynasty

    Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green won four N.B.A. championship teams in eight years.BOSTON — The N.B.A.’s dynasties share certain commonalities that have helped them tip the scales from being run-of-the-mill championship teams to those remembered for decades.Among them: Each has had a generational player in contention for Mount Rushmore at his position.The 1980s had Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics battling Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Los Angeles Lakers. Michael Jordan’s Bulls ruled the ’90s, then passed a flickering torch — a championship here and there, but never twice in a row — to the San Antonio Spurs with Tim Duncan.Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant sneaked in a Lakers three-peat at the start of the 2000s.And then there were … none. There were other all-time players — LeBron James, of course. And James’s Heat came close to the top tier by becoming champions in 2012 and 2013, but fell apart soon after.Dynasties require more than that.Patience. Money. Owners willing to spend. And above all, it seems, the ability to “break” basketball and change the way the game is played or perceived. That’s why there were no new dynasties until the union of Golden State and Stephen Curry.Curry said the fourth championshp “hits different.”Elsa/Getty ImagesDonning a white N.B.A. championship baseball cap late Thursday, Curry pounded a table with both hands in response to the first question of the night from the news media.“We’ve got four championships,” Curry said, adding, “This one hits different, for sure.”Curry repeated the phrase “hits different” four times during the media session — perhaps appropriately so. Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala had just won an N.B.A. championship together for the fourth time in eight years.“It’s amazing because none of us are the same,” Green said. “You usually clash with people when you’re alike. The one thing that’s constant for us is winning is the most important thing. That is always the goal.”Golden State has won with ruthless, methodical efficiency, like Duncan’s Spurs. San Antonio won five championships between 1999 and 2014. Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were All-Stars, though Duncan was in a league of his own. Their championships were spread out — Parker and Ginobili weren’t in the N.B.A. for the first one — but they posed a constant threat because of their disciplined excellence.Tim Duncan, left, Manu Ginobili, center, and Tony Parker won four championships together on the San Antonio Spurs. Duncan won a fifth, in 1999.Eric Gay/Associated PressDuncan, left, Ginobili, center, and Parker at Parker’s jersey retirement ceremony in 2019.Eric Gay/Associated Press“Steph reminds me so much of Tim Duncan,” said Golden State Coach Steve Kerr, who won two championships as Duncan’s teammate. “Totally different players. But from a humanity standpoint, talent standpoint, humility, confidence, this wonderful combination that just makes everybody want to win for him.”Unlike Golden State, the influence of Duncan’s Spurs is more subtle, which is appropriate for a team not known for its flash. Several of Coach Gregg Popovich’s assistants have carried the team-oriented culture they saw in San Antonio to other teams as successful head coaches, including Memphis’s Taylor Jenkins, Boston’s Ime Udoka and Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer. Another former Spurs assistant, Mike Brown, was Kerr’s assistant for the last six years. For San Antonio, sacrifice has mattered above all else, whether in sharing the ball with precision on offense or in Ginobili’s willingness to accept a bench role in his prime, likely costing himself individual accolades.Johnson’s Showtime Lakers embraced fast-paced, creative basketball. The Bulls and Bryant’s Lakers popularized the triangle offense favored by their coach, Phil Jackson. O’Neal was so dominant that the league changed the rules because of him. (The N.B.A. changed rules because of Jordan, too.)Even so, Golden State may have shifted the game more than all of them, having been at the forefront of the 3-point revolution in the N.B.A. Curry’s 3-point shooting has become so ubiquitous that players at all levels try to be like him, much to the frustration of coaches.“When I go back home to Milwaukee and watch my A.A.U. team play and practice, everybody wants to be Steph,” Golden State center Kevon Looney said. “Everyone wants to shoot 3s, and I’m like, ‘Man, you’ve got to work a little harder to shoot like him.’ ”Michael Jordan, right, and Scottie Pippen, left, won six championships as the Chicago Bulls dominated the N.B.A. in the 1990s.Andy Hayt/NBA, via ESPNThe defining distinction for Golden State is not just Curry, who has more career 3-pointers than anyone in N.B.A. history. The team also selected Green in the second round of the 2012 N.B.A. draft. In a previous era, he likely would have been considered too short at 6-foot-6 to play forward, and not fast enough to be a guard. Now, teams search to find their own version of Green — an exceptional passer who can defend all five positions. And they often fail.The dynasties also had coaches adept at managing egos, like Jackson in Chicago and Los Angeles, and Popovich in San Antonio.Golden State has Kerr, who incidentally is also a common denominator in three dynasties: He won three championships as a player with the Bulls, the two with the Spurs, and now he has four more as Curry’s head coach.In today’s N.B.A., Kerr is a rarity. He has led Golden State for eight seasons, while in much of the rest of the league, coaches don’t last that long. The Lakers recently fired Frank Vogel just two seasons after he helped them win a championship. Tyronn Lue coached the Cavaliers to a championship in 2016 in his first season as head coach, and was gone a little over two seasons later — despite having made it at least to the conference finals three years in a row.The 2000s Lakers with Kobe Bryant, left, and Shaquille O’Neal, right, were the last team to win three championships in a row. Jordan’s Bulls did that twice in the 1990s.MATT CAMPBELL/AFP via Getty ImagesSince Golden State hired Kerr in 2014, all but two other teams have changed coaches: San Antonio, which still has Popovich, and Miami, led by Erik Spoelstra.In a decade of rampant player movement, Golden State has been able to rely on continuity to regain its status as king of the N.B.A. But that continuity isn’t the result of a fairy-tale bond between top-level athletes who want to keep winning together. Not totally, anyway.Golden State has a structural advantage that many franchises today can’t or choose not to have: an owner in Joe Lacob who is willing to spend gobs of money on the team, including hundreds of millions of dollars in luxury tax to have the highest payroll in the N.B.A. This means that Golden State has built a dynasty in part because its top stars are getting paid to stay together, rather than relying on the fraught decisions of management about who to keep.The N.B.A.’s salary cap system is designed to not let this happen. David Stern, the former commissioner of the N.B.A., said a decade ago that to achieve parity, he wanted teams to “share in players” and not amass stars — hence the steep luxury tax penalties for Lacob. Compare Golden State’s approach to that of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who in 2012 traded a young James Harden rather than pay him for an expensive contract extension. The Thunder could’ve had a dynasty of their own with Harden, Russell Westbrook and — a key part of two Golden State championships — Kevin Durant.Either one of the leg injuries Thompson sustained in recent years could have ended his career.Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports, via ReutersAnd there’s another factor that every dynasty needs: luck.Golden State was able to sign Durant in 2016 because of a temporary salary cap spike. Winning a championship, or several, requires good health, which is often out of the team’s control. Thompson missed two straight years because of leg injuries, but didn’t appear to suffer setbacks this year after he returned. Of course, Golden State has also seen some bad luck, such as injuries to Thompson and Durant in the 2019 finals, which may have cost the team that series.The N.B.A.’s legacy graveyard is full of “almosts” and “could haves.” Golden State simply has — now for a fourth time. There may be more runs left for Curry, Thompson and Green, but as of Thursday night, their legacy was secure. They’re not chasing other dynasties for legitimacy. Golden State is the one being chased now.“I don’t like to put a number on things and say, ‘Oh, man, we can get five or we can get six,’” Green said. “We’re going to get them until the wheels fall off.” More

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    Praying the Lakers Regain a Starring Role in the N.B.A. Playoffs

    This postseason, the only reminders of the Los Angeles Lakers’ luster appear on a fictionalized cable series and streaming documentaries.Dear God of Sports,This prayer comes in the name of N.B.A. healing and restoration.The playoffs are happening now, blessed with tension and talent. What a spectacle. Thank you for the young among us, beginning with Ja Morant and Jordan Poole. Make safe the health of the great, grizzled Noah known as Chris Paul.The vigor you have again bestowed upon the Boston Celtics is beauty to behold.But something is missing: the Los Angeles Lakers. Any postseason without the Lakers feels like a breach of a cosmic bond.For all to be right in the Kingdom of Hoops, the Lakers must be a fixture in the playoff firmament; same as they were in all but five seasons from their birth in the late 1940s until 2014, when Kobe Bryant (may he and his beloved rest easy) began edging toward retirement.The Lakers are cherished and hated like no other team. They bestow extra attention, vibe and legitimacy upon the postseason. Nothing is the same without them in the mix.Great Spirit of Sports, the Lakers now wander in the desert. With this season’s epic collapse, they have failed to reach the postseason in seven of the last nine years. Yes, they reached the highest of heights in 2020. But that season’s N.B.A. championship finished inside a pandemic bubble. Two years ago now seems like 20. Today, the journey to that title is a parable few remember. Was it just a dream?Basketball fans have been forsaken. A generation walks in the wilderness, having never seen a powerful Lakers team challenge Steph Curry and Golden State with everything on the line.But you never let us down, God of Sports. Amid the playoffs, you have sprinkled reminders of Lakers luster for all to see — at least those of us who subscribe to HBO Max and Apple TV+.Two years removed from winning an N.B.A. championship, the Lakers missed the playoffs this season.Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports, via ReutersLast week came the unveiling on Apple TV+ of the documentary “They Call Me Magic.”Please allow for good reviews.Heal the hearts of the Lakers family, who now live in distress over another recent depiction, the HBO series “Winning Time.” It is classic Hollywood: a glitzy blend of fact, fiction and glammed-up dramatic license that focuses on the team’s 1980s Showtime era. All that off-court excess, all that soap opera intrigue, along with those five league titles.That series has caused hurt feelings and bruised pride to consume Lakersland.Jerry West demanded a retraction and an apology from HBO over the overheated, fictive way he is depicted.Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called the series a deliberately dishonest rendering, “with characters who are stick-figure representations that resemble real people the way Lego Han Solo resembles Harrison Ford.”Magic Johnson, the show’s centerpiece, the Showtime era’s North Star, said he had not seen the series and that it did not tell the truth. Confusing, I know.Lord of Hoops, Great Giver of the Three-Point Shot, far be it from me to tell these basketball legends that their anger is misplaced. But ease their troubles. Remind them that few will watch a series like “Winning Time” in these discordant days without being in on the joke.Help them see the irony: The Lakers’ iconic modern image was built in part on Hollywood smoke and mirrors. On the cloaking and twisting of reality. Indeed, on magic.The Lakers of the 1980s were more than just a team that won five championships in a decade. Their uniqueness came not just from those titles but from the power of make-believe — the Forum Club, the Lakers Girls, the age-defying movie stars in every other seat.Remind aggrieved Lakers of their team’s twists of narrative. Their storied rise in the 1980s was cast as villains to the Boston Celtics and drawn in simple strokes: the cool, Black team standing in the path of the stodgy, white one.Yes, Boston had Larry Bird and other white stars, but it also had Black Celtics like Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish and Cedric Maxwell — legends in their own right.And which team had a Black head coach? The Celtics, led by K.C. Jones for two of their three N.B.A. crowns that decade.In the longtime telling of this duel, the city of Boston has often been projected as mired in racism. But simple stories, as you well know, sometimes mask the complicated truth. Los Angeles has always had plenty of its own problems with race.Injustice exists everywhere. Greatness is a rarer thing. The greatness of 17 N.B.A. championships ground the Lakers, even though mythology has always been a part of their story.Oh mighty one, in the name of St. Elgin, lessen the burden of former Lakers who feel wronged.Then turn back to the hardwood.Restore LeBron James, his creaky knees and 37-year-old back.Remind him that all good things come in due time — so long as due time starts next season. The entertainment empire he is building in Los Angeles is something to behold. But being a movie mogul and community force flows first from the river of N.B.A. championships.Consider purgatory for the front office executives who signed Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and the other elder-Lakers before this season.When you finish replenishing Hollywood’s team, would you mind granting an even bigger miracle to another basketball calamity?God of Sports, remember the Knicks? More

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    Not Even LeBron James Could Save the Lakers

    The team that was built to be unbeatable just kept losing.On Jan. 25, the Los Angeles Lakers went to Brooklyn to face the Nets and displayed a joyfulness that was unusual for them this season.Their top stars LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook were all healthy — one of only 21 times this season that happened. It was Davis’s first game back from a knee injury. It was James’s only appearance in New York City. He had been suspended for the team’s November visit to Madison Square Garden, his favorite place to play.On back-to-back Nets possessions, James stole the ball and raced the other way as the crowd murmured in anticipation. They erupted into cheers each time James dunked.After the second one, James grinned. He laughed with Michael Strahan, the former N.F.L. star, who was sitting courtside, and jogged back to the Lakers’ bench still smiling.“The more minutes that we log, we continue to see how dynamic we can be,” James said after that game.The Lakers were in eighth place in the Western Conference, and the night offered hope. At the time it felt inconceivable that a team built to be an unbeatable superteam might get stuck in the play-in tournament, but the Lakers had plenty of time to rise in the standings. Many assumed they could still be dangerous in any playoff situation.Back then, few expected what would actually happen.The Lakers were eliminated from playoff contention by the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, even though James had the second-highest point average of his 19-year career this season. On Friday, James was ruled out for the final two games of the season because of a lingering ankle injury that had already kept him out of the three previous games. The Lakers are likely to finish 11th in the Western Conference, a spectacular failure for a team that expected to compete for a championship this season.This season was challenging for many teams, as the N.B.A. attempted a return to normal with the coronavirus pandemic still happening and with high-profile injuries afflicting many teams. But no team in the league will finish the season with as large a chasm between expectations and reality as the Lakers did.“It’s obviously disappointing on many levels,” Westbrook said. “But there ain’t much you can do about it at this point.”Westbrook was introduced with superstar fanfare in August, as Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, declared that he gave them a chance to win the franchise’s 18th championship. But his arrival didn’t come without questions.Russell Westbrook was booed and jeered, both at home and on the road, because of his shooting struggles.Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesHow, for example, would a player who needs the ball in his hands to be productive fit with James, one of the best offensive facilitators ever? Was it wise for the Lakers to get older — by signing a slew of over-30 veterans — when they had already been plagued by health issues that often come with age?Preseasons don’t always foretell the regular season, but the Lakers went winless in theirs.When they stumbled at the start of the season, there was an easy way for the team to explain their situation: It happens. Superstars don’t always jell right away.The pandemic offered an excuse — it made continuity nearly impossible for any team in the first few months of the season.Pandemic disruptions reached their apex during the Omicron wave in November and December, during which dozens of players entered the league’s health and safety protocols.The N.B.A.’s testing system wasn’t perfect and James suffered because of it — he flew home from Sacramento on a quarantine plane because of a false-positive coronavirus test result before a game against the Kings. It was the 12th game out of the Lakers’ first 23 that James had missed.A few weeks later, a coronavirus outbreak spread through the team, even sidelining Lakers Coach Frank Vogel for six games.Many teams, though, were hit even harder than the Lakers, including the Chicago Bulls, who had 10 players in health and safety protocols at once in December, and had to postpone two games.Injuries offered another explanation for the Lakers’ stumbles. James and Davis missed more than 60 games combined — not an unexpected outcome, given their recent histories. Davis said he was “disappointed that we haven’t had a chance to have a full team.”“Not sure how good we could have been,” he said. “With myself personally, two unfortunate injuries that kept me out for a while. That just came to be part of the season. As one of the leaders on the team, especially on the defensive end of the floor where guys need me to be out there, sucks for me, sucks for our team, our organization.”But this season, injuries throttled many teams.The Miami Heat lost Jimmy Butler for nearly a month. The Phoenix Suns lost Chris Paul for a month. The Los Angeles Clippers spent all season without Kawhi Leonard and lost their other star, Paul George, for three months.While those teams found ways to adapt and keep themselves in the playoff conversation anyway, the Lakers couldn’t.James and Anthony Davis (3) missed more than 60 games combined because of injuries this season.Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports, via ReutersThis was in part owing to a roster that was thinner than it should have been because of the resources dedicated to Westbrook.To acquire Westbrook, the Lakers traded away young role players in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma. They declined to re-sign Alex Caruso, who went on to be an important defensive piece for the Bulls.The Lakers’ defense was among the bottom third in the N.B.A. this season, as they have given up 112.8 points for every 100 possessions. The only team that has given up more fast-break points per game is Houston.The Lakers also struggled to defend inside the paint, a symptom of their complicated big-man rotation.During their championship season two years ago, the Lakers used JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard as their primary centers, occasionally asking Davis and James to fill the role. This season they brought back Howard, two years older and less effective. They signed DeAndre Jordan, 33, who proved past his prime as well.They didn’t have the assets at the trade deadline to make a move that didn’t hamstring them further. Westbrook’s contract will become more attractive to other teams next year when he is on its last year, assuming he picks up his player option for the 2022-23 season.As clear as it was that the Lakers’ roster was not working, it was even more clear that a fix would not come soon.They were losing to the league’s bottom-dwelling teams. The best teams were beating up on them, too. Young playoff teams like the Grizzlies and Timberwolves were mocking them, with Westbrook’s poor shooting a regular target.“This was the season that we just didn’t get it done,” Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony said. “We had the tools. Some things was out of our control. Some things we could control, some things we couldn’t. We didn’t get it done. We can’t make excuses about it. We just didn’t get it done.”In the past nine years, the Lakers have missed the playoffs seven times. It is a previously unthinkable stretch for a franchise that was once used to competing for, if not always winning, championships.This is a franchise that expects adding superstars will save them, and sometimes they do. This season that equation didn’t work. More

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    Lakers Eliminated From Playoff Contention

    The loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday sealed their fate. It’s the second time the Lakers will miss the postseason since LeBron James joined the team in 2018.The Los Angeles Lakers’ last glimmer of hope for this season is gone.With LeBron James watching from the bench, the Lakers lost to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night, ending their chances of making the playoffs. A win by the San Antonio Spurs over the Denver Nuggets earlier in the evening made the Suns game a mathematical must-win for the Lakers to stay in contention for the postseason.The Lakers lost seven consecutive games beginning in late March, allowing the Spurs to eclipse them for the 10th-best record in the Western Conference and a spot in the N.B.A.’s play-in tournament, which will decide the seventh and eighth seeds in the playoffs that begin April 16.During the Lakers’ seven-game slide, James and Anthony Davis played together only once, highlighting a problem they have faced all season.Davis returned April 1 after missing 18 games because of a right mid-foot sprain. James has been managing soreness in his left ankle, which has caused him to miss five of the team’s last seven games.Since the league’s All-Star break in mid-February, the Lakers have the second-worst record in the West, having won only four games. Only Portland has been worse.This marks the seventh time in the past nine years that the Lakers have missed the playoffs, a once-unthinkable stretch for the organization. Before the 2013-14 season, the Lakers had missed the playoffs only five times since the franchise’s inception in Minnesota in 1948.Anthony Davis had 21 points and 13 rebounds for the Lakers in the loss on Tuesday.Rick Scuteri/Associated PressIt is also the second time James has missed the playoffs since joining the Lakers in 2018, when he came to Los Angeles following eight consecutive appearances in the N.B.A. finals with Miami and Cleveland.During his first season with the Lakers, James joined a young team that featured Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — all players who went on to be productive elsewhere.James injured his groin in a Christmas Day game that season and played in just 55 games. The Lakers went 37-45 and finished 10th in the West, which, before the advent of the play-in tournament, gave them no postseason hopes.They traded for Davis that summer and immediately won a championship in 2020, when the league finished its season in a bubble environment at Walt Disney World in Florida because of the pandemic.Last season, which was shortened because of the pandemic, Davis was injured and played in only 36 of the 72 games. The Lakers went 42-30 and lost to the Suns in the first round as the seventh seed.In the off-season, the Lakers looked to make themselves into championship contenders again. They traded young role players to the Washington Wizards for the aging nine-time All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, whose $44 million salary made him the highest-paid player on the team this season. They hoped Westbrook’s playmaking ability would help the Lakers when they were without James, who typically runs the Lakers’ offense.“I’m coming to a championship-caliber team and my job is to make sure that I’m able to make his game easier for him,” Westbrook said at his introductory news conference when asked about how he would fit with James. “And I’ll find ways to do that throughout the game.”As the season began, very little went according to plan.James missed 11 of the Lakers’ first 19 games because of injuries, the first suspension of his career and a false-positive coronavirus test.Davis has played in only 40 games this season, missing several weeks with two different injuries — first a knee injury then the foot sprain.Westbrook has struggled to find his footing. That led to Lakers Coach Frank Vogel, who has experimented with lineups all season, moving away from Westbrook in the closing minutes of games.Westbrook’s 18.4 points per game are his lowest average since the 2009-10 season, his second year in the N.B.A. His rebounds per game (7.5) and assists per game (7.1) also dropped sharply from last season.Still, with James in contention for the league’s scoring title, the Lakers had the ninth-best record in the West at the All-Star break, and a chance to force their way into the playoffs. But they couldn’t make the necessary late-season push. More

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    Enes Kanter Freedom and the Consequences of Speaking Out

    Enes Kanter Freedom has condemned human rights abuses in Turkey for years. Now he claims the N.B.A. is blackballing him as he focuses on abuses in China.“My activism actually started when I was 9 years old,” Enes Kanter Freedom told a rapt audience of pro-democracy activists that included Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion known for his opposition to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.Freedom was at the Olive Tree Cafe in Greenwich Village on Feb. 23, dressed in a sport coat over a dark T-shirt that read, “Freedom For ALL.”“My mom told me — I remember when I was a kid — ‘Believe in something and always stand up tall for it. Even if it means sacrificing everything you have.’”Freedom used to be known as Enes Kanter, a serviceable N.B.A. center who has publicly defied President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, where Freedom was raised. But in recent months, the player has made headlines mostly by calling out China’s human rights abuses and ripping the N.B.A. for doing business with the country. In November, he changed his name, choosing Freedom as his surname, and his activism now overshadows his identity as a player.It has also made him a political weapon that right-wing politicians and pundits have used to bludgeon the N.B.A. and its biggest star, Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, a frequent conservative target whom Freedom has singled out for criticism.But Freedom’s allies aren’t just on the right. Many left-leaning pro-democracy activists, like those at the Greenwich Village event, have also embraced him. Because he brings attention to their cause, they have looked past his appearances with right-wing television hosts like Laura Ingraham, who welcomed Freedom on her show but once told James to “shut up and dribble.”At the moment, Freedom is not in the N.B.A. No team has signed him since he was traded and cut last month, and to hear him tell it, his activism is the reason. He has invited comparisons to Colin Kaepernick, the former N.F.L. quarterback who in 2016 began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and who has accused the N.F.L. of colluding to keep him out of the league.For decades, the N.B.A.’s plans for global expansion have included China, where there are more fans of the league than there are in the United States. Before the coronavirus pandemic, top N.B.A. stars routinely traveled there to promote shoe brands. China accounted for a steady stream of television and sponsorship revenue for the N.B.A. until the league’s relationship with the Chinese government frayed in 2019.Freedom declined to be interviewed by phone or in person, but agreed to answer questions over text message.“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize why I got little playing time and was released,” he said. “But it does take people with a conscience to speak out and say it’s not right.”The perception — whether true or not — that Freedom is being punished for his political beliefs has become pervasive among his allies.Jeffrey Ngo, a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist in Washington, said Freedom’s criticism of China “must have at least played a role” in his not playing.“All of a sudden there’s all this attention and people telling him to stop talking about it or there would be consequences,” Ngo said. “And then those consequences came.”Adam Silver, the commissioner of the N.B.A., said in an interview that the league’s position on China had not changed. He also denied that the league had blackballed Freedom, saying that comparisons to Kaepernick were “completely unfounded and unfair.”The Great ReadMore fascinating tales you can’t help but read all the way to the end.Brash and funny, Emily Nunn uses her popular Substack newsletter, The Department of Salad, to hold forth about ageism, politics and, oh yes, leafy greens.For years, a virus hunter worried about animal markets causing a pandemic. Now he’s at the center of the debate over Covid’s origins.A few years ago, Nicola Coughlan was working in an optician’s office in Ireland. Now, with “Bridgerton” and “Derry Girls,” she’s starring in two of the most beloved shows on Netflix.“We spoke directly about his activities this season,” Silver said, “and I made it absolutely clear to him that it was completely within his right to speak out on issues that he was passionate about.”Freedom said Silver characterized their conversation wrongly, but — in what has become a trend for him — he wouldn’t offer specifics.‘Always Full of Joy’Freedom never ended up playing for Kentucky but was still drafted into the N.B.A. with the No. 3 pick in 2011.James Crisp/Associated PressEarly in his career, Freedom gave little indication that he would become an outspoken human rights advocate.Raphael Chillious, then a Nike executive, first met Freedom at a basketball camp in Greece when Freedom was about 16. Freedom, who was born in Zurich, was one of the best rebounders on the floor — and shy, Chillious recalled.“I don’t think he was confident in his English at that point,” Chillious said. “So he wouldn’t initiate conversations.”Freedom played for a professional team in Turkey before going to the University of Kentucky in 2010. But because he had been paid by the Turkish team, the N.C.A.A. ruled him ineligible.“He was heartbroken,” Orlando Antigua, an assistant coach with the program, said through a university spokesperson. “It was very difficult. It was difficult for all of us.”Freedom instead served as a student assistant, improving his English by watching the Nickelodeon cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants.”The Utah Jazz selected him with the third overall pick in the 2011 draft even though he never played a college game. Brandon Knight, a college teammate, described Freedom as “super goofy” and “always full of joy.” After his rookie year, Freedom, no longer shy, posted a message on Twitter asking “for a blonde” to join him for dinner at the Cheesecake Factory.“Once he got used to being here and around his teammates, he’s a really loyal guy,” said Tyrone Corbin, who coached Freedom on the Jazz.‘Shut Up and Stop Talking’A protest in front of the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee in February.Arnd Wiegmann/ReutersFreedom’s foray into public political activism began in 2016 with his denunciations of Erdogan, who detained thousands of people in Turkey after a failed military coup. Erdogan blamed the coup attempt on Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher and former ally. Freedom is Gulen’s supporter and friend, and he has referred to Erdogan as the “Hitler of our century.”Turkey canceled Freedom’s passport and issued a warrant for his arrest. Freedom’s father, Mehmet Kanter, wrote a letter disowning him and was later arrested, and acquitted, on terrorism charges in Turkey. Freedom has not been back to Turkey since 2015.A chance encounter at a basketball camp in New York last summer turned the player’s attention to China.“I took a picture with this kid, and her parents called me out in front of everybody and said, ‘How can you call yourself a human-rights activist when your Muslim brothers and sisters are getting tortured and raped every day in concentration camps in China?’” Freedom told the crowd at the Olive Tree, referring to allegations commonly made by Uyghur rights activists of abuses by China in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China. The State Department, under the Trump administration, labeled it genocide, and the Biden administration has maintained that position.Freedom, who is Muslim but knew little about the Uyghurs, threw himself into the cause. Tahir Imin, a Uyghur activist in Washington who met Freedom at a Capitol Hill rally, said that Freedom “boosted the morale of Uyghur activism.”That was just over a week after Freedom opened the N.B.A. season with the Boston Celtics, in October. Ahead of their first game, Freedom posted a video on Twitter with a caption referring to China’s leader, Xi Jinping, as a “brutal dictator.” During the game, he wore shoes designed by the Chinese dissident artist Badiucao that said “Free Tibet,” referring to the region Chinese troops invaded and seized in 1951. The N.B.A.’s response, Freedom said, was to try to silence him. In several media appearances after that game, he said two league officials demanded that he take off the shoes, and he refused. At the Olive Tree, he changed the story, saying the officials were with the Celtics.He also said the N.B.A. players’ union separately tried to get him to stop wearing the shoes.“Instead of advocating on my behalf, I have encountered the union telling me I need to shut up and stop talking about the human rights violations in China,” Freedom said to The New York Times.Freedom’s story is difficult to corroborate because he would not disclose the names of his antagonists. The union would not comment on the specifics, but said in a statement that it supported Freedom and other players’ speaking out on important issues.Brad Stevens, the president of basketball operations for the Celtics, said team staff members merely asked whether the shoes were a violation of the league dress code.“Even the next day, I just walked up to him and said, ‘Hey, you always have our support to freely express yourself and say what you want,’” Stevens said. Freedom confirmed this exchange.Even if Freedom’s criticisms were not an issue for the Celtics, they have hit a sore spot in China. Tencent, which streams N.B.A. games in China, pulled Celtics games, evoking memories of 2019, when China stopped broadcasting N.B.A. games on its state television network after a Houston Rockets executive shared a Twitter image supportive of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The Chinese government was outraged, and the N.B.A. drew bipartisan criticism in the United States for what some saw as a weak response.The N.B.A. said the 2019 episode cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars. Silver, the commissioner, said that he wants the N.B.A. to normalize relations with China, despite the criticism. “Virtually every major U.S. company” does business there, he said.“So then the question becomes,” Silver added, “why is the N.B.A. being singled out as the one company that should now boycott China?”The league did, however, recently pull business out of Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. The difference between China and Russia, Silver said, was that the U.S. government instituted an economic boycott of Russia.“It’s very difficult for the league to practice foreign policy,” Silver said.‘Money Over Morals’Shoes Freedom has worn with protest slogans during games.Getty Images and Associated PressFreedom has criticized some iconic players, including Michael Jordan, who owns the Charlotte Hornets, and James, the Lakers star, for their business with Nike, which has deep ties to China. During a game against Charlotte on Oct. 25, Freedom wore white Nike Air Jordans that said “Hypocrite Nike” and “Made With Slave Labor.” The Washington Post reported in 2020 that some Nike shoes were being made with Uyghur labor. (In a statement at the time, Nike said that it was “concerned” about reports of forced labor, but that the company did not find any Uyghur labor or that of other ethnic minorities from the region in its supply chain.)Freedom has accused James of choosing “money over morals” by associating with Nike, and he wore custom shoes that mocked James — much to the delight of prominent Republicans who have attacked James, who is Black, for his social justice advocacy. A spokesman for James declined to comment, and a representative for Jordan did not respond to an inquiry.As Freedom’s new identity and activism have raised his profile, he has drawn a backlash for his choice of targets and allies.In December, the former N.B.A. player Jeremy Lin announced that he would play for the Beijing Ducks for the 2021-22 season, drawing a stinging reply from Freedom.“Haven’t you had enough of that Dirty Chinese Communist Party money feeding you to stay silent?” Freedom wrote on Twitter. “How disgusting of you to turn your back against your country & your people.”Lin, who is Taiwanese-American, was born in Torrance, Calif., and the suggestion that Lin’s country was not the United States was met with disapproval on social media.In late November, Freedom appeared on Fox News with Tucker Carlson, the conservative host who has frequently denigrated immigrants and social justice activists. Freedom had just become an American citizen, and Carlson asked him whether people who grew up in America were as likely to “appreciate the freedoms” offered by the United States. Freedom’s response — that American critics “should just keep their mouth shut and stop criticizing the greatest nation in the world” — seemed to please Carlson, but clashed with Freedom’s portrayal of himself as a champion of free expression.Uriel Epshtein, an executive director at the Renew Democracy Initiative, which hosted Freedom at the Olive Tree, said the criticisms of Freedom’s appearance on Carlson are “relevant,” but “they pale in comparison to the simple fact that Enes has taken unbelievable personal, professional and security risks to do what he thinks is right.”The Carlson appearance, combined with Freedom’s attacks on James and Jordan, who is also Black, brought a sharp response from, among others, the journalist Jemele Hill.“Taking shots at prominent Black athletes who have done significant social-justice work will not help Freedom advance freedom,” Hill wrote in a column for The Atlantic. “All he’s doing is empowering right-wingers who delight in silencing social-justice advocates.”Freedom has also been criticized for agreeing to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which this year hosted several conspiracy theorists and election results deniers. He later backed out, saying he needed to focus on basketball.‘I Don’t Want to Retire’Charles Krupa/Associated PressIn February, the Celtics traded Freedom to Houston, which immediately waived him. Stevens, the Celtics executive, said the trade “was a basketball-driven decision, one thousand percent.”The Rockets declined to comment.Sen. Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, said Freedom’s release was a “disgusting example” of the N.B.A.’s “cowardly appeasement toward Communist China.” Freedom reposted the Twitter messages of other elected Republicans who expressed similar sentiments. Others on the right have explicitly likened Freedom to Kaepernick.The comparison is, at best, inexact. Some in the N.F.L.’s largely white fan base have described the protest of Kaepernick, who is biracial, as unpatriotic — even though he began kneeling during the national anthem at the suggestion of a former Green Beret. Freedom’s criticisms of the Chinese government, though pointed and perhaps irritating to the league, are largely popular in the United States.The athletes are different, too. Kaepernick was four seasons removed from a trip to the Super Bowl as a starting quarterback. Freedom, a journeyman center, is a strong rebounder with a soft touch around the rim. But his plodding, physical style of play has fallen out of favor in the N.B.A., which is now weighted toward shooters who are fast and can play multiple positions. Freedom is none of those things, and he struggles defensively. The Celtics signed him to a minimum contract to be a situational backup center before he began his China activism. He averaged 11.7 minutes in 35 contests — roughly in line with what a player in that role would receive — and scored 3.7 points a game.Freedom was not the least skilled player in the league when he was cut, but his role on N.B.A. teams began to shrink well before his China activism. He has not been a full-time starter since 2018. And many other players who have talents more suited than his to the current style of play also are not in the league.At the Olive Tree, a man in the audience asked Freedom what he wanted to do next.“I don’t want to retire at the age of 29,” Freedom said.“Sometimes,” he added, “sacrifice is a very important word, so there are bigger things.”Mike Wilson More

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    LeBron Fandom, and the Making of a Friendship in ‘King James’

    Rajiv Joseph’s new play, which chronicles the bond between two LeBron James fans over 12 years, is having its world premiere at Steppenwolf in Chicago.CHICAGO — When the actor Glenn Davis talks about his new play, “King James,” he gets some variation on this question: “So, are you playing LeBron James?”Not quite.“I’m 5-10,” Davis said, laughing. “He’s 6-9.”And there’s also this: James, the basketball superstar who broke hearts in Cleveland when he left to play for Miami 12 years ago, is not the protagonist of Rajiv Joseph’s “King James.” Rather, the play, which is having its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theater Company here, tracks the friendship between two young men in Cleveland, Shawn (played by Davis) and Matt (Chris Perfetti of “Abbott Elementary”), over a dozen years.Told in four quarters that span James’s rookie season to his championship season with Cleveland in 2016, “King James,” directed by Kenny Leon, explores how fandom can create a lifelong connection between two people who otherwise have little in common.“Rajiv’s first draft had a lot of basketball in it,” said Davis, 40, a longtime friend of Joseph’s and for whom the role of Shawn was written. “But as each new draft came in, the specifics about basketball began to disappear because Rajiv wanted to make sure this play was about friendship.”“Sometimes a love of the game is the only way people who have difficulty expressing their feelings are able to articulate them,” said Rajiv Joseph, the playwright.Lyndon French for The New York TimesKenny Leon is directing his first Steppenwolf production, and said he’s cherishing the opportunity to help develop Joseph’s work.Lyndon French for The New York TimesThe play, which is in previews and will open March 13, was originally slated for Steppenwolf’s 2019-20 season before the pandemic forced its postponement. It now arrives at the same time as several basketball-themed TV projects, including Adam McKay’s HBO mini-series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” about the team led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980s, and the upcoming Apple TV+ documentary mini-series “They Call Me Magic,” about Johnson’s life on and off the court.In “King James,” Joseph uses James’s career as a window to examine the emotional nature of fandom, and how it can facilitate relationships and increased openness among people, particularly young men.“At least in the sort of heteronormative world in which I grew up, it was a struggle for young American men to communicate emotion,” Joseph, 47, said over coffee at Steppenwolf’s Front Bar before a recent rehearsal. “Sometimes a love of the game is the only way people who have difficulty expressing their feelings are able to articulate them.”Growing up in Cleveland in the 1980s and ’90s, Joseph was surrounded by passionate sports fans.“We were a Cleveland family — we watched the Cavs, we watched the Indians, we watched the Browns,” he said. “And all of our moods fluctuated accordingly.”In the play, LeBron James’s infamous “Decision” announcement looms large for two fans of the Cavaliers.Lyndon French for The New York TimesHe began writing “King James” in the summer of 2017, a year after James had led the Cavaliers to the championship, making them the first Cleveland team to win a major championship in 52 years. He drew from his experience as a Cleveland native inundated with the reactions of friends and family to “The Decision” — a live prime-time special in 2010 in which James, a free agent after seven seasons with the Cavaliers, announced he was leaving his hometown team to “take my talents to South Beach,” as James infamously put it.“I thought this would be an interesting way of exploring my own relationship with LeBron,” said Joseph, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010 for his play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” (He previously collaborated with Davis on that production, which ran on Broadway in 2011.) “This play is a sort of alchemy of stories I’ve heard, conversations I’ve had with people and the general sense of being a young person in Cleveland Heights and those heightened emotions that come out when you start arguing about sports.”The cast and creative team of “King James” had widely varying basketball knowledge — and loyalties. Davis, who was a high school basketball player in the Chicago area but gave up the sport to pursue a theater career, is a lifelong Bulls fan. Leon, who grew up in Florida, has been a Los Angeles Lakers fan for 35 years. Perfetti, 33, who is from upstate New York, grew up in a home “where there was always some sports game on television,” but he didn’t begin following basketball seriously until about six months ago.They watched James’s announcement together — which was Perfetti’s first time seeing it. But, for Joseph and Davis, the special was a reminder of a milestone moment in the basketball world, one in which every fan remembers where they were and what they were doing when they found out.“It was traumatic,” Joseph said. “But when you watch LeBron from then, you realize he was such a different person than he is now — like we all are. If any of us look back at when we were 25, I bet we’d kind of wince at some of the things we did and said.”“Rajiv reminds me of August,” Leon (above left, with Joseph) said, referring to August Wilson. “Even if I’m hating a moment, he can embrace that and go down the hall and rewrite it.”Lyndon French for The New York TimesThis is Leon’s first time directing at the Steppenwolf Theater. When he was contacted last October, Leon, a Tony-winning director whose most recent Broadway production was “A Soldier’s Play” in 2020, already had about a half-dozen projects in the works, including upcoming Broadway productions of Adrienne Kennedy’s “The Ohio State Murders,” starring Audra McDonald, and a revival of “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,” Melvin Van Peebles’s 1971 musical. (Leon, 66, also runs the True Colors Theater Company, which is based in Atlanta.)But he said he jumped at the chance to oversee the production after its previous director, Anna D. Shapiro, resigned as the Steppenwolf’s artistic director in August. (Davis and Audrey Francis, both Steppenwolf ensemble members, replaced Shapiro as artistic directors.)“You don’t get a lot of opportunities to work with a living playwright on a new play that you think is beautiful and will have a great life,” Leon said as he nursed a cocktail after a rehearsal late last month. “The last time was when I worked with August Wilson on his last play, “Radio Golf,” leading up to the Broadway production [which opened in 2007].”The value of having Joseph in the room for rehearsals, Leon said, was that if he didn’t understand a character’s motivations for doing something, he could ask.“A lot of Rajiv reminds me of August,” Leon said. “I can tell him what I feel. Even if I’m hating a moment, he can embrace that and go down the hall and rewrite it.”And there were plenty of nips, tweaks and tucks to the script in the month leading up to the first performance. It was especially helpful, Joseph said, to have Perfetti’s perspective as an N.B.A. outsider in a play with some deeply insider references. (The Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s use of Comic Sans font in his letter to Cleveland fans after James’s departure, in which he lambasted James for his “disloyalty,” gets a shout.)“There’s lots of lines in the play where he was like, ‘Why am I saying this?’,” Joseph said of Perfetti. “And some of those lines were cut because of that.”“King James” plays out in four quarters, from LeBron James’s rookie year to his championship season with Cleveland in 2016. After Chicago, the play will have a run in Los Angeles.Lyndon French for The New York TimesBut audience members don’t need to be basketball fans to understand the larger points. The play’s first quarter, for instance, ends with Matt and Shawn — who to that point had been strangers — making plans to attend a season of Cavaliers games together. The action then picks up six and a half years later, when the two men are best friends.“With my best friend, the first and second quarter in our relationship feels like it went by that quickly,” Davis said. “That’s how it happens, you know?”Though Matt is white and Shawn is Black, Joseph decided not to make race a focal point of the show — at least, not right away. It eventually factors into their reactions to James’s return to Cleveland in the third quarter, but Joseph said that, having grown up in the diverse suburb of Cleveland Heights — where the play takes place — it “just made sense to me, before I even knew what the play would be about, that it would be a Black guy and a white guy.”“I didn’t anticipate any kind of racial tension in the play,” he said. “But the more I thought about what I was writing about, it just comes out and you allow for the story that wants to be told.”Following its five-week run here, “King James,” commissioned by Steppenwolf and the Center Theater Group of Los Angeles, will transfer to the Mark Taper Forum there in June, with Davis and Perfetti reprising their roles, and Leon again as director. Both Leon and Joseph are hoping for an eventual Broadway transfer, too.It will be special, everyone involved agrees, to present the show in the city where James currently plays. But Leon said it’s important to remember that “80 percent of the audience will be the same,” referring to the audience members who will not be passionate fans of the local team. “We’re going to try to strike those universal chords,” he said. “That’s what makes the play work. Somebody has to be able to say ‘Oh, that’s how I treat my friend’ or ‘That’s how it was when I didn’t see my mother for 10 years.’”Joseph, who has never met James, said he would be “thrilled” if James were to see the show during its Los Angeles run, which will coincide with the N.B.A. finals.“But, on the other hand, I hope he can’t come because he’s still playing,” he said. More