LAS VEGAS—With his two sons in tow, LeBron James fulfilled USA Basketball’s attendance requirement on Wednesday, but stopped short of committing publicly to participating in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
James, donning a blue No. 27 jersey, participated in a light practice that culminated in a series of shot-making competitions with teammates Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. The four-time MVP appeared to be in good spirits, sharing conversations with coach Mike Krzyzewski and Paul during the hour-long practice.
USAB chairman Jerry Colangelo mandated that all players interested in being selected for the 2016 Olympic team must make an appearance at this week’s minicamp as a sign of good faith. James no-showed the first day of USAB’s minicamp on Tuesday and plans to skip Thursday’s public scrimmage, but his presence alone was a clear indication of his interest in heading to Rio, which would mark his fourth consecutive Olympics appearance.
Flanked by his sons, LeBron Jr. and Bryce, who in turn were flanked by Paul and Durant, James remained noncommittal about his plans for next summer following the practice session.
“I’m not penciling in right now for next summer,” James said. “This is the start of the process for all of us. ... If I’m fortunate enough and healthy enough, and if my family is willing to allow me be a part of it, it would be great. We’ll see where I’m at after the season.”
Influencing the decision, James said, will be the usual litany of factors: health, rest, family obligations, and contractual matters. James, now 30, has been to five straight Finals, and his Cavaliers are the early favorites to make it six next June. Last season saw the first extended absence of his career, as he took two weeks off in the middle of the campaign to address back and knee soreness. His contract status is a perpetual question: last month, he signed a two-year, $47 million contract with Cleveland that includes an opt-out in July 2016.
“All my decisions start with my family,” he continued, adding later that he would also discuss the matter with his longtime teammates and close friends, Anthony and Paul. “I’ll see how my family feels about it. Then my health. Then another NBA campaign, see what I can do with my team back home in Cleveland. Then we’ll go from there.”
If the choice is left up to his sons, it’s safe to assume James will be in Rio. As James conducted his post-practice interview session, his sons shagged balls, took a few jump shots and received high fives from the USAB players in attendance. At one point, James and Russell Westbrook huddled around LeBron Jr.’s tablet to watch a video game highlight. “I crossed up Brandon Knight,” LeBron Jr. said, as the perennial All-Stars cracked up.
Those laughs were surely music to the ears of Krzyzewski, who has worked to create an inviting environment that encourages player involvement and who, obviously, would be delighted to have James back as the face of the program next summer.
“It’s huge having LeBron here,” Krzyzewski said Wednesday. “We don’t talk about a guy who is ‘playing for’ USA Basketball. [LeBron] is, Carmelo, Chris, Durant, and [Stephen] Curry—they are USA Basketball. They have ownership. They’re not ‘playing for.’ LeBron has made an amazing commitment to our country’s basketball program. Huge positive impact, besides just winning.”
USAB executives have repeatedly expressed optimism that James will play in Rio, health permitting. James made his National Team debut at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where he won a bronze medal at age 19. He then won bronze at the 2006 FIBA World Championships in Japan, gold at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and a second gold at the 2012 Olympics in London, where he started every game and averaged 13.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists.
“Yeah,” Krzyzewski said when asked if he expects James to play next summer. “Yeah. He’s one of the leaders. He’s been a leader. He was a leader in London. He was a young leader in Beijing. LeBron is so darn smart and such a good guy. These guys, it’s like a renewal of friendships.”
True to his coach’s words, James said it was “great” to be back in the gym with USAB this summer, and he praised the job that Krzyzewski and Colangelo have done building the program into “a thing people want to be around” and “something that will last forever.” He also made a point to note the “unbelievable turnout” at the camp, which drew a crop of 34 players so deep and talented that USAB could likely field two 12-man teams capable of winning medals in Rio.
Although the mood in the Mendenhall Center, which is on the UNLV campus, was more or less a lovefest, that sentiment isn’t universal. TNT’s Charles Barkley, for example, argued during the NBA’s schedule release show Wednesday that James should skip the Rio games to rest a body that has already logged more than 35,000 regular season minutes and more than 7,000 postseason minutes.
“We don’t have to send a nuclear weapon every time,” Barkley said. “LeBron has won two gold medals. I don’t think he needs any more. I don’t think he needs that wear and tear on his body. I think it’s ridiculous they’re making some of these guys play three or four Olympics in a row.”
But perhaps it’s exactly that longevity that appeals to James. After all, a gold in Rio would give him three Olympic golds to Michael Jordan’s two, and it would mark the sixth total medal of his international career (counting the 2007 tournament of the Americas) to Jordan’s four.
It’s worth noting that James’s long career with USAB owes to his early start and a rule change that allowed professional players to suit up in the Olympics. Jordan, who played in the 1984 and 1992 Olympics, was ineligible for the 1988 Olympics because of a rule that only allowed American college players to participate.
James, meanwhile, is on track for his fourth Olympics not because he’s especially old but because he was so talented that he could make the team as a teenager and because he has enjoyed excellent health throughout his career. In fact, James will only be 31 when the Olympics open next summer, whereas Barkley himself was 33 when he won a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Colangelo, for one, is using history as a carrot in his recruitment of James.
“If LeBron wants to play next year, he’s got a spot,” Colangelo said. “He’s earned that. He’s one of the great players of all time, certainly in the NBA today. He would have a chance to play in his fourth Olympics. That’s pretty significant. … I think LeBron is very competitive. His juices flow when the time comes around. I know he enjoyed his time with us. He had some great experiences winning gold medals. If he’s healthy, I think he’ll want to be there.”