OLIVER HOLT: Why age won't tarnish LeBron and Hamilton's legacies

OLIVER HOLT: Sporting superstars like LeBron James, Lewis Hamilton and Andy Murray don’t tarnish their legacy by playing on – they embellish it

  • LeBron James is still a dominant force in the NBA at 38 years of age 
  • James broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record of 38,387 NBA points last year
  • Lewis Hamilton and Andy Murray are still competing even if not at their prime

Everybody knew there was bad news by the time Darvin Ham, the thoughtful, softly spoken coach of the LA Lakers, walked into the media area next to the home locker room at the Crypto.Com Arena early on Sunday evening.

It was two hours before the tip-off of his team’s regular season game against the Portland Trail Blazers and Coach Ham had come to talk about LeBron James with a group of 15 or 20 mildly crestfallen journalists.

The 38-year-old superstar, the coach confirmed, was to miss his first match of the season with a ‘left calf contusion’. 

He was pressed for more and more details until his press conference became an extended medical bulletin. The gloom, the sense of anti- climax, was palpable.

A Lakers game without LeBron is like a court without its king.

LeBron James remains a dominant force in the NBA, despite being 38

The Los Angeles Lakers star is in his 21st season in the NBA but shows no signs of slowing down

The Lakers star missed his team’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night, after picking up  calf injury in the game against the Phoenix Suns

Speculation about James’ injury had been rife since he limped away from the previous game against the Phoenix Suns. 

The idea of him not being available had been discussed in apocalyptic terms. Analysts did not try to hide how reliant the Lakers were on James’ enduring brilliance.

Coach Ham did not try to disguise it, either. ‘There is no reason to run him into the ground this early in the season,’ he said. 

‘You are not ever going to replace what he does, but if you do things right you can survive his absence.’

‘Survive his absence’ felt like an interesting phrase. It’s what we all try to do when the great sports stars grow older and creak, succumbing to more injuries and rationing their time.

We survive their absences and try to ready ourselves for the time when they decide they cannot compete any more.

Not that that time is nigh for James, who became the highest scorer in NBA history last year by breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record of 38,387 points.

He is still the Lakers’ best player by a distance, still the one the team is psychologically reliant upon. He is still one of the leading scorers in the league. He remains the team’s best chance of making the play-offs.

He remains a hero to all who love the game, too, and all who acknowledge greatness. In a recent interview, Jude Bellingham, the Real Madrid and England player who has the world at his feet, was asked to name the person he would like to be for one day. ‘LeBron James,’ Bellingham said. ‘Someone who is the absolute best at something.’

James won his fourth NBA title back in 2020, when he steered the Lakers to their first championship in a decade

The veteran superstar remains the Lakers’ most influential players, despite his age 

Just to repeat — James is 38 years old. In that game against the Suns, he was nine years older than the next oldest player in the Lakers starting line-up. 

He is old enough that a LeBron James Museum will open next week in his home town of Akron, Ohio. He is both a museum piece and a man excelling among players nearly half his age.

At the start of this season, he agreed a plan with Coach Ham that would limit him to 30 minutes of the 48 over four quarters as a half-hearted concession to his age. That plan was dead within a couple of matches. James was playing more minutes than anyone else.

There are some who seem to resent the longevity of the greats and the havoc time can wreak on them. Those people argue that if James cannot win another championship, what’s the point? I am not one of them. 

I admire athletes like James and Andy Murray as much for their refusal to bow to time as for the triumphs of their earlier careers.

I don’t understand those who say that Murray, James or Lewis Hamilton, also 38 and about to flog his uncompetitive Mercedes around the streets of Las Vegas, are tarnishing their legacies by competing beyond the prime of their careers. 

They’re not tarnishing their legacies. They are embellishing them. They are adding more layers to them.

To compete when age makes the odds against you even steeper, to persist even when you know your chances of winning are slimmer, to strive even when you know younger rivals have a built-in advantage — there is something about the indomitability of that and the bravery of that which brings a whole new level of greatness to great ones.

Like James, Lewis Hamilton is still competing at the age of 38, despite being short of his prime

The Briton’s quest for a record eighth world title has been hampered by an uncompetitive Mercedes over the past two seasons 

Andy Murray’s competitive fire burns as intense as ever, despite the fact the Scotsman is 36 and has endured a torrid time with injuries over the past several years  

James still played a part on Sunday. He sat, dispassionately at first, at courtside at the end of the row of Lakers’ replacements. The only emotion he showed in the first half was to react to Lakers’ three-point baskets by folding his left arm across his chest and tapping three fingers on his right arm.

He became more animated in the third quarter as the game slowly began to swing the Lakers’ way. By now, he was leaping off his stool and marching up the court to celebrate significant moments. When the game was over and the Lakers had sealed a 116-110 win, he hurried out of the arena to leave the stage to his teammates.

As the crowd poured out of the exits, they were met by the sight of a giant digital billboard on South Figueroa Street that played on the astonishing longevity of the Lakers superstar who refuses to take a step back.

‘Last generation had LeBron James,’ the slogan says, alongside a picture of James in a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey, about to dunk the basketball. Then the screen changes to show a picture of him in exactly the same pose in a Lakers jersey. The slogan has changed, too. ‘This generation has LeBron James,’ it says.

A cruel end to Rapinoe’s big goodbye

There were 10 or 12 big screens in the sports bar on Venice Beach. On Saturday night, most of them were showing college football from Texas, Oregon and Ohio, young men at the very start of their careers with everything ahead of them.

One screen was showing the women’s soccer from San Diego where OL Reign were playing NY/NJ Gotham FC in the NWSL Championship game. 

The match was pitched as a battle between Gotham’s Ali Krieger and Reign’s Megan Rapinoe, who, at the age of 38, was playing her last match before retirement.

Megan Rapinoe’s last ever game ended with her tearing her Achilles after just a few minutes

The USWNT legend was in tears as she called time on an illustrious career in football 

A few minutes into the game, Rapinoe went to close down an opponent, slipped and fell awkwardly. And that was it. 

She knew straight away it was over. She heard a pop in her heel. She had torn her Achilles tendon. She was helped from the field, her game and her career finished.

Rapinoe polarises opinion like few other athletes. Men who fear the incursion of women’s football on their world seem particularly threatened by her. 

But she left a game that had dealt her such a cruel farewell with grace, honour and dignity. ‘Maybe I’m just a bigger vessel for life,’ she said after Reign’s 2-1 defeat.

‘You don’t always get to have the perfect ending.’

The USA have pickleball fever

A lot of my friends in England have been bitten by the padel bug and play every moment they can. In Santa Monica and Venice Beach, there are pickleball courts everywhere. 

I love both sports, partly because they are essentially easier versions of tennis. 

Hayes will polish US diamonds 

The NSWL Championship game was one of the highest quality women’s matches I’ve seen. 

And as I watched the brilliance of Rose Lavelle in the OL Reign midfield, and the pace, guile and intelligence of player-of-the-match Midge Purce on Gotham’s right wing, it struck me that under the management of Emma Hayes, the US women’s national team now has a coach who is going to get the best out of a brilliant bunch of players.

English football may soon come to regret losing Hayes for more reasons than one.

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes is set to take charge of the USWNT next season 

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