How LeBron's Lakers and the NBA are a reality-show match made in heaven

ByPablo S. Torre ESPN logo
Saturday, October 20, 2018

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 29 NBA Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

"I really feel like a zoo animal. That's where life's gone for me."

-- Odell Beckham Jr., to LeBron James, on "The Shop"

MEDIA EXECUTIVES DO not categorize sports as reality television, but this is a superficial favor to our pastimes. Sports loves to signal civic virtue; reality TV, meanwhile, can sound pejorative:Kardashian. And yet, which genres most formulaically engineer suspense for the audience? And thrive on human conflict? And pay their stars to risk on-camera humiliation?

Think of last month's controversy-ridden US Open final, which gave us Serena Williams in raw psychological combat with a chair umpire and a younger version of herself. A couple of weeks before that, Giants wideout Odell Beckham Jr. confessed to the surreality of feeling watched, everywhere, as if he were on "Celebrity Big Brother." And now, in Los Angeles, an A-lister who has lived on camera for 15 consecutive years is engineering an unscripted program that will attract more eyeballs to him than ever.

LeBRON JAMES ENJOYS an overstuffed portfolio. The 33-year-old has a burgeoning production company, SpringHill Entertainment, and a digital media company, Uninterrupted, the latter of which specializes in behind-the-scenes video from athletes. But for all the projects James has in the works -- at CBS, NBC, ABC, TNT, HBO, Showtime, Starz, Google, Facebook and ESPN -- the Lakers are easily his most ambitious show.

"Do not forget what his job is," says Paul Telegdy, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment. "The core of his engine is the sport he loves and adores."

In truth, more than any other league, the NBA has realized the economic potential of reality television. And more than any other player, James has made GMs feel like they're on"The Bachelor" and head coaches feel like they're on "Survivor." James' agent, Rich Paul, pushes back on the image of his client as a shadow exec. Still, this summer suggests a unique partnership with president Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka, whose tenures hinge on superstar acquisition.

Consider: On June 30, the night free agency began, an anxious Johnson parked near James' mansion in Brentwood one full hour before their introductory meeting could lawfully begin. Johnson, maybe the greatest Laker ever, just sat there with the engine off, watching the clock tick down to 9:00, and hoped he didn't have to pee.

Relief arrived by phone the next day. James announced he was awarding Johnson a four-year contract. And after James provided the Lakers with personal scouting reports on potential housemates -- Johnson had said to Spectrum SportsNet that he'd "definitely ask him his opinion because he knows those players better than us" -- the most viral casting call in memory commenced.

First they signed Rajon Rondo, a point guard who once fastballed a water bottle through a 50-inch television in a film session. Then they signed Lance Stephenson, a guard who established himself as no less than James' foremost irritant by blowing into his ear canal in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. Then they signed JaVale McGee, a center so notorious for on-court bloopers that his mother publicly accused Lakers legend and TNT analyst Shaquille O'Neal of bullying her son. And then they signed Michael Beasley, a forward who wore a wristwatch on his right ankle while debating, in a televised interview, whether humans use only 10 percent of their brains.

"If the Lakers were 'Family Matters,'" says one Western Conference source, "this would be like adding four f---ing Urkels."

SO WHY WOULD the most watched team in basketball want to play memeball? A few notions are bouncing around the league. The most cynical of these suggests that all this absurdity is essentially PR insurance. Rondo, McGee, Stephenson and Beasley were given only one-year contracts. The Lakers, this theory goes, have merely added rodeo clowns for the media bull to snort after, once James inevitably fails to contend with Golden State this season.

A kinder theory, however, goes Occam's razor. What if James actually enjoys having jesters in his court? After all, Cavs guard JR Smith remains James' friend, even though James famously injured his hand by decking a whiteboard after said friend forgot the score in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals. (In March, months before that incident, Smith had also reportedly thrown a bowl of tortilla soup at Cavs assistant Damon Jones -- so very "Real Housewives.")

But what if Rondo, Beasley, Stephenson and McGee can also be energized to trap the Warriors and be more disciplined than anyone imagined? What if it's too easy to discount talent when it's wrapped in suspense, conflict and humiliation?

That last question is the bet James has made on the Lakers. Because on this team, all the aforementioned jesters might wind up mere understudies in a nightly hardwood performance of "Watch What Happens Live." In June, it is worth recalling, point guard Lonzo Ball and forward Kyle Kuzma got sucked into an online beef whose seriousness turned on the question of whether your "friend" can really joke about the fact that you never met your biological father.

Everybody, incidentally, has met Ball's biological father. Besides being a man imitating a pro wrestler he invented, LaVar Ball has starred in his own reality show on Facebook; hot-taked ESPN and CNN anchors; founded an apparel company that received an F from the Better Business Bureau; trolled the nation of Lithuania; feuded with President Donald Trump over another son's arrest in China; and declared that, in his prime, he would've owned James one-on-one.

Many had speculated that James would never want to waste his time around this circus. But the man has never been scared of what some would deem "distractions." Do not forget that in 2010, James gave America the seminal 75 minutes of reality TV known as "The Decision," which raised blood pressure across the Midwest, drew 10 million or so hate-watchers to ESPN and presaged the employment reveals, free agency documentaries and Facebook reality shows of the present.

TO BE ABUNDANTLY clear: LeBron and LaVar are not gaming our attention economy in nearly the same way. For one thing, think about how the first reality-show athlete handled his own feud with the first reality-show president. After Trump insulted James' intelligence on Twitter in August, writing that making "Lebron look smart ... isn't easy to do," James didn't engage. In place of a reply came a news release, with Showtime announcing that James was producing a three-part docuseries about sports and politics titled "Shut Up and Dribble." And then, the same month, his company released "The Shop," a new talk show on HBO.

On "The Shop," James stars, produces and reflects on life with famous friends while sipping red wine and cursing. Again: very "Housewives." But the first episode was more notable as the one space where Odell Beckham Jr. could feel comfortable enough to discuss how he feels like a zoo animal.

Yes, Beckham's safe space to lament the toxicity of attention is, in all sincerity, a television show ... filmed in Los Angeles ... produced by and starring LeBron James.

In response to Beckham's introspection, James did not explain his grand strategy for navigating public life. But the very broadcasting of it all, not to mention James' arrival in Hollywood, suggested a solution.

You can feel like a zoo animal. Or you can build your own damn zoo.