LeBron James paused near the loading dock inside State Farm Arena on Friday, smiling, thinking about the cheers. Later in the night, he’d make more history — 47 points on his 38th birthday during the Lakers’ win — the friendly Atlanta crowd completely seduced by his excellence.
No, this smile, this was about something else, something James can only dream about.
For everything he’s accomplished as an athlete, for everything he’s done and will eventually do, this feeling will always elude him.
When James and his friends pile into a suite at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday to watch Ohio State play in the College Football Playoff semifinals, he’ll experience one of the few feelings of regret with which his athletic career has left him.
“Do I find myself envisioning that it was me? Yeah. Absolutely. All the time,” James told The Times about playing college football or basketball. “Every time I go to an Ohio State game, a football game or a basketball game or any of those games where it’s just super-jam packed, super excitement. You’ve got the student sections. For sure. No question about it.”
James’ life — from growing up in Akron, Ohio, and cheering for Eddie George and David Boston to going straight from high school to NBA stardom — skipped a step. His oldest son, Bronny, seems destined to get a taste of the pageantry of big-time college sports should he choose to play basketball in college next season.
James, though, has to settle for using his imagination.
While he never attended Ohio State, he’s become an unquestioned part of the school’s athletic family.
“I love it,” Chris Jent, a Lakers assistant coach and former Buckeyes basketball star and coach said. “He’s adored. The fact that Ohio State fans are so passionate anyways, the fact that someone like that who didn’t go to the school embraces the university. Not everyone in Ohio is an Ohio State fan. So having him, it means a great deal to the following.
“The fact that he reciprocates and gives back all that love and passion for the university, it means a great deal.”
James has been a consistent presence around Ohio State, commonly spotted on the sidelines at home games or in luxury suites, as he was for the 2015 national championship football game and as he will be for the Peach Bowl on Saturday when the Buckeyes play Georgia.
Nike even produces Ohio State jerseys with the No. 23 and James’ name on the back. Friday, Hawks season-ticket holder Kyle Clemente — an Ohio native — wore James’ Buckeyes jersey while in his seat behind the Lakers’ bench.
Clemente said he got the jersey in Columbus when Ohio State hosted — and lost — to Michigan in the final weekend in November.
Seeing a photo of the jersey after the game, James said, “That’s beautiful.”
“The fans. The alumni fan base, the kids that are there, the tenured bit — like how many people always come back to their respective schools. I just think it’s super, duper cool,” James said. “… I feel like an honorary alum, for sure.”
He’s realistic about the Buckeyes chances on Saturday. He’s consistently praised Georgia whenever college football has come up over the last month.
“It’s going to be fun. Obviously, it’s going to be a tough one,” he said. “Us playing the No. 1 team on their home turf, but if anybody can do it, Ohio State can do it.”
After scoring 47 points and beating the Hawks in Atlanta on Friday, James ended his news conference by saying “Go Bucks.”
While Friday night ended with James being loudly cheered inside State Farm Arena, it’s nothing like being on the sideline when more than 100,000 people cheer so loud it rattles inside you.
“How could you not want to go out and just run through a wall?” James said of what it feels like to hear it. “Do whatever it takes to represent scarlet and gray. Know what I’m saying?
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to put on an Ohio State uniform and play in front of the faithful.”
James actually doesn’t know.
But he can imagine.