In a break from tradition, media members were not allowed in the Lakers’ locker room, due to the league’s coronavirus protocols. I did the best that I could, staking out a front-row position just to the right of the locker room’s door. “I’m free,” Danny Green said, running down the hallway with his hat turned backward. “I’m free out this b----. I’m f---ing free!”
Indeed, the Lakers had two reasons to celebrate: They won the title, but they also earned the right to go home as winners. Within seconds, the players were banging on the lockers and locating the nearest champagne bottles. James walked triumphantly down the hallway and then briefly detoured when he saw his teammates. “Goggles! I need some goggles! F--- no. No, sir, you’re not about to spray me and burn my f---ing eyes,” he said with the experience of a four-time champion. “Where’s the goggles?”
Unfortunately, I wasn’t a four-time champion, and I hadn’t thought to pack goggles. Or a poncho. Green popped out of the locker room first, letting off streams of champagne from two bottles in every direction. My suit jacket caught a few droplets, and I took a selfie as a keepsake.
Three minutes later, James emerged from the locker room with a full bottle. I was smart enough to keep my iPhone camera rolling but not smart enough to anticipate what was about to happen. As writers shouted and ducked out of the way, I stood tall and absorbed ounces of champagne straight to the face. My glasses were fogged up, my mask was wet, my iPhone’s lens was soaked, and my suit jacket and tie were an utter mess.
James then took his festivities down the hall, lying on his back in the concourse with Nike goggles over his eyes, a cigar in his left hand and a phone in his right hand. I hesitated for a moment, wondering whether calls with his children and his mother, Gloria, were better left off the record. As James puffed his cigar and shouted his greetings, I realized this was a scene that he wanted the world to see.
“Mama! Mama!” James said. “Hey, Mama! I had to leave the locker room. They’re going crazy right now. I had to get away. There’s nothing that can stop me because this s--- is nothing compared to the s--- you had to go through.”
“God is good,” Gloria replied.
“God is good,” James repeated. “God is great. I hope I continue to make you proud, Mom.”
“Man, are you kidding me?” Gloria asked.
That beautiful moment between a single mother and her only child passed quickly, as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope came by to reload James’s champagne supply. Before long, the NBA’s public relations staff intervened so that James could begin a long list of interviews with media partners. James chomped on his cigar on his way back to the court, and his teammates circled him. “You want to know what a champ looks like?” Markieff Morris asked, addressing no one in particular. “Look at me, motherf---ers!”
James composed himself for his official postgame news conference, although he blew huge plumes of smoke as he listened to the questions and weighed his answers. He said that he was “fueled” by “little rumblings of doubt or comparing me to the history of the game,” a possible allusion to the endless Michael Jordan debates.
Most of James’s interview, though, was spent reflecting on the Disney World experience. “You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have ups and downs in the bubble,” he said. “At times I was questioning myself. Should I be here? Is this worth sacrificing my family? So many things. I’ve never been without my family this long. Missing the days of my daughter being in kindergarten, even though it’s through Zoom. Missing my son’s 16th birthday, which we all know is a big birthday if you have kids. Seeing my middle child continue to grow and be who he is.”
James paused his sentimental stroll for a punchline: “Big-time shout-out to the late, great Steve Jobs. Without him, without his vision, those FaceTime calls wouldn’t be possible.”
After watching the entire playoffs, I left confident that the Lakers’ title wouldn’t bear an asterisk. They were clearly the best team, and James was clearly the best player. More importantly, the quality of play was excellent for months. The choppy games I feared during the hiatus hadn’t come to fruition. Instead, there were plenty of competitive series and memorable scoring performances.
“This was very challenging and difficult,” James said. “It played with your mind. It played with your body. You’re away from some of the things that you’re so accustomed to that make you the professional that you are. I heard some rumblings from people that are not in the bubble that we don’t have to travel or whatever. People just doubting what goes on in here. This is right up there with one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve had.”
The interviews continued for two hours after the final buzzer, but the arena started to empty around midnight. I didn’t want to leave. I took pictures of the confetti on the court, of James’s Finals MVP trophy and of a few media members who wanted a final bubble souvenir. With nothing left to do, I returned to my hotel room, where I could hear the Lakers’ party continuing at the restaurant across the lake until deep into the night. Some of my media colleagues had already checked out and hit the road.
Whenever a season ends, it’s impossible to sleep. My mind raced to recount all the pivotal moments. I thought back to Anthony Davis’s blockbuster trade, the Hong Kong controversy, Kobe Bryant’s death and the All-Star Weekend in Chicago where no one realized that the coronavirus was about to change the country forever. I remembered Rudy Gobert’s positive test, the endless hiatus and all those hours walking my neighborhood, watching “The Last Dance” and praying for a resolution to the season.
I recalled the endless planning meetings for the bubble, the long wait for the credential approval, my stressful health clearance and pacing in my hotel room during the quarantine. I re-watched OG Anunoby’s game-winner, Davis’s buzzer-beater and highlights of Jimmy Butler’s 40-point night. I pondered the Milwaukee Bucks’ protest and premature exit, the Los Angeles Clippers’ collapse and the Miami Heat’s valiant effort. I thought about my 92 coronavirus tests and how there wasn’t a single positive test inside the bubble.
I watched a video of Erik Spoelstra, who was overcome with emotion after Miami’s season-ending loss. The coach wiped away tears and took more than 30 seconds to collect his thoughts. “We didn’t get the final result that we wanted,” he said. “These are going to be lifetime memories that we have together. We’re going to remember this year, this season, this experience and that locker room brotherhood for the rest of our lives.
“You’re in this business to be able to be around people like this. We had several guys that were not even close to being 100 percent, probably shouldn’t have been playing. But that’s how this group was. They wanted to do it for each other. I’m really bummed that we couldn’t find a way to get over the hump and finish the season with a win.”
Spoelstra’s pain was as raw as James’s joy. Two sides to the same competitive coin.
This wasn’t the most dramatic Finals that I had covered, and I certainly had seen better championship-clinching games and heard more enthusiastic crowds. But that Sunday at Disney World was the most memorable, gratifying and fun night of my career. The Lakers’ celebration was equal parts college graduation and New Year’s Eve party, and the unexpected champagne bath was the perfect ending to three quirky months. My suit smelled horrible, in the best way.