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No Country for Old LeBron

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There’s a line in (one of) LeBron’s recent smartphone commercials that always jumps out at me. The ad opens with LeBron receiving a call before dawn. The caller exhorts James to get into his workout routine. That is unless, the caller says, the King is content with his many successes. James cuts the guy off (“Man, you know it’s all about getting one for the Land”) and hangs up. Then the line, delivered with a Roger Murtaugh–like sigh: “It’s too early for this.”

Athletes get old (sure) or injured (of course), and from time to time they will even admit to being fatigued (usually adding something like, “but I’m pushing through it”). Bodies, even those that resemble colossal statues, tire. Weariness — the kind that LeBron expresses in this ad — though, is an unexpected note.

Maybe I’m giving too much weight to one second of a television commercial. But when an athlete appears in an advertisement, every word and image that ends up in the finished piece must pass through a multilayered gantlet of writers, executives, designers, brand strategists, handlers, managers, and various advisers before ever reaching the King himself. My guess is the thinking behind the line was that it humanizes LeBron. Who doesn’t want to hit snooze on a 5 a.m. workout? Athletes: They’re just like us!

And why shouldn’t James be weary? He turned 31 in December, and has logged more than 38,000 minutes in a 13-year career. In his fifth straight visit to the Finals last June, James was Atlas, with all of the Land balanced across his mighty shoulders. And Cleveland lost in six. LeBron’s usage rate topped 40 percent in four of the six games (47 percent in Game 1!). After losing Game 5 104–91 in a barrage of fourth-quarter Warrior bombs, James was asked about his confidence. “I feel confident,” he answered, “because I’m the best player in the world. It’s that simple.”

No one argued.

But what once appeared to be Steph Curry on a [Borat voice] very nice hot streak has turned into Steph Curry: Blazing Heart of the Sun That Powers the Golden State Starkiller Base. LeBron is still great. He’s just not the greatest anymore. More than ever before, LeBron needs his young, largely unblooded, sometimes flaky teammates to help carry a weight that only he seems to comprehend.

In time, I believe, future historians — working from a space station because humanity lost the war against the AlphaGo A.I. — will look back at that line of phone commercial dialogue as the beginning of the Dad Bron era.

Just look at the evidence:

  • After using Twitter to seemingly chide his teammates, LeBron admitted last week that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing on the platform: “Twitter hasn’t been around that long, I’m kind of old,” James said. “I don’t know.”
  • He posted a bitmoji of himself as Batman wearing red LeBrons and holding a teeny-tiny helmet. In fairness, kids love Batman.
  • Earlier this month, he came through with the very fresh Teddy Roosevelt drop: “If you’ve ever read Theodore Roosevelt, ‘the man in the arena,’ it basically just symbolizes if you’ve never been in the arena before and felt the blood, sweat, and tears … then you can’t really understand.” If that doesn’t get Kyrie’s attention, I don’t know what will.
  • He praised Channing Frye on Monday for showing steel after receiving an elbow to the groin: “He’s a vet.”
  • He had a serious talk with his team (*cough* J.R. *cough*) last weekend warning them about the dangers of partying in L.A.
  • He compared himself to noted old man Tim Duncan.
  • He wants everyone to get together and pose for group pictures, which is a power-dad move.

This is a lesser LeBron we’re watching. His 3-point shooting has been worsening since the 2012–13 campaign. This season, he’s posting his lowest free-throw rate (.354) since his rookie season. And he takes off more plays on defense than ever. Is this the great decline? Who knows, maybe he’ll turn on the afterburners in the postseason. One thing’s for sure, though: Father Time has more rings than anyone.

This piece originally appeared in the March 16, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.