LeBron James has seen a great deal during his 17 seasons in the N.B.A. He has already won three championships, and now aspires to win his first with the Los Angeles Lakers. At 35, he is one of the oldest players in the league, with patches of gray showing in the beard he grew out during the four months he recently spent in relative seclusion.
It is not often, then, that James finds himself in a new environment, coping with unusual circumstances that no one could have seen coming. But there he was on Thursday night, stationed on the foul line in a largely empty arena at Walt Disney World, barking defensive assignments at teammates as a game-operations crew piped in artificial crowd noise.
James had not played basketball for the (television) viewing public in 135 days, since the N.B.A. suspended its season in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. But if there were questions about how he would look in his much-anticipated return, as the Lakers faced the Dallas Mavericks in a scrimmage ahead of the league’s official restart later this month, he crammed his 15 minutes of playing time full of answers.
In short, LeBron James looked exactly the same.
There are so few guarantees as the N.B.A. hopes to finish the season in its so-called bubble at the sprawling theme park near Orlando, Fla., but James seems determined to fill his familiar role. Against the Mavericks, he collected 12 points, 5 assists and 3 rebounds while shooting 4 of 6 from the field. He watched the second half from the bench, where he put ice packs on various parts of his body and accessorized his warm-up top with a couple of gold chains. The Mavericks’ 108-104 victory in a game with 10-minute quarters was an afterthought.
“We wanted to try to get better,” James said. “We’re using this moment as a training camp to implement our identity, and our identity is to defend, share the ball, push the tempo and play together. I think we were able to accomplish that for as close to 40 minutes as possible.”
Skeptics have suggested that this season — interrupted and uncertain, somehow both abridged and extended — will come with an asterisk. James does not subscribe to that theory, and why would he? As the window on his career narrows, he wants to seize another crack at a title. History will not remember that he won his fourth ring in a bubble.
Giannis Antetokounmpo would love to win his first. Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks’ do-everything forward and the league’s reigning most valuable player, described the format as “the toughest championship you could ever win, because the circumstances are really, really tough right now.”
It is an argument that suits his purposes, but there are merits to it. Players had to stay in shape during the long layoff, and even now, teams are short-handed. Like the Lakers, the Bucks made their Disney debut on Thursday. And in a 113-92 win over the San Antonio Spurs, the Bucks were without Eric Bledsoe, their starting point guard, and Pat Connaughton, one of their reserves. Both players recently revealed that they had tested positive for the coronavirus. Connaughton live-tweeted the game from his home in Milwaukee.
As for Antetokounmpo, the odd atmosphere became apparent to him when he went to shoot free throws in the first quarter.
“It was just quiet,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you play basketball, try to make the right play. Just listen to your coach. So for me personally, I tried to lock in.”
Antetokounmpo also said that he felt out of shape, adding that he hoped to spend the next couple of weeks ratcheting up his fitness. All he did against the Spurs was score 22 points in 21 minutes while shooting 9 of 13 from the field. Imagine the havoc once he has his legs under him.
The Lakers, too, are dealing with some absences. Avery Bradley, their top perimeter defender, opted out of participating in the restart, citing family reasons. Rajon Rondo is expected to miss several weeks after fracturing his right thumb shortly after the team arrived in Orlando, and Alex Caruso sat out Thursday’s scrimmage with a back injury
It is worth noting that all three of those players are guards. James often has the ball in his hands regardless of his supporting cast, but it is a safe assumption that he will be his team’s primary facilitator throughout its stay at Disney. One scrimmage is a small sample, but he was the driving force on Thursday — and it worked out well, per usual.
“You’ve got to create your own energy here,” James said.
At the same time, James appears determined to continue speaking about issues that are important to him. After Thursday’s game, he prefaced his news conference by saying he wanted to “shed light on justice” for Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker in Louisville, Ky., who was shot and killed by the police on March 13.
For more than 10 minutes, James fielded additional questions about social justice causes and challenges facing Black people across the country. At one point, he objected to the idea that Black Lives Matter was a movement with some sort of resolution in the near or distant future.
“When you wake up and you’re Black, that is what it is,” James said. “It shouldn’t be a movement. It should be a lifestyle. This is who we are. And we understand that. And we know that for one step that someone else might have to take, or for one yard someone else may have to take, we know we’ve got to take five more steps.”
He added, “I don’t like the word ‘movement’ because, unfortunately, in America and in society, there ain’t been no damn movement for us.”