October is for baseball glory, and there can only be one Mr. October. By swatting three home runs on three swings in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Reggie Jackson cemented one of the most fitting, enduring nicknames in all of sports.
In 2020, of course, little proceeds as we expected. LeBron James is chasing one more win for his fourth N.B.A. championship at Walt Disney World at the same time Jackson’s beloved Yankees are scuffling with the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Divisional Series at a neutral site in San Diego.
The schedule glut across so many sports has posed an unexpected quandary for Mr. October, since Jackson is also an unabashed LeBron James fan.
“I enjoy watching him as much as I do the baseball,” Jackson said. “The basketball is winding down, so if they’re both on at the same time, I’m going to be flipping back to baseball, because I’m going to be on the basketball. You need to see this guy.”
I had a feeling that was the case when I saw Jackson gushing on Twitter after the 38-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist masterpiece that James uncorked in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals to close out the Denver Nuggets.
So I called him over the weekend to confirm that Jackson would be tracking James closely, even amid the fleshiest baseball postseason ever — with 16 of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams invited after a pandemic-abbreviated regular season spanning just 60 games instead of 162.
Mr. October, at 74 now, is a lifelong basketball fan who has been watching the game long enough to cite Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving as some of his favorites before he got to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and, eventually, Kobe Bryant. Jackson knows as well as anyone that James, to some, will never have a case to rival Jordan in the ever-contentious G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) debate. But he surmised that this doesn’t bother James as much as many of us think.
Miami’s Jimmy Butler was so good in Game 3, outplaying James in the game of his life, that it prompted James to label Tuesday’s Game 4 as a must-win game to his teammates in a pregame text. Although the Lakers delivered, now they must guard against another letdown, with Bam Adebayo (neck) back in Miami’s lineup from injury and Goran Dragic (foot) potentially returning for Friday’s Game 5.
The big-picture view, mind you, has looked as inviting for James for much of this series as he has ever had it at playoff time. In his nine previous trips to the N.B.A. finals, James often arrived with the decidedly weaker team (2007, 2017 and 2018). Or the team, like Miami in Games 2 and 3, missing its second- and third-best player: Cleveland, remember, had no Kevin Love and lost Kyrie Irving in Game 1 of the 2015 finals.
Maybe this season’s landscape is James’s compensation for past inequities. James is flanked by Anthony Davis, who even Dwyane Wade said last week was the best sidekick James has ever had. The league, as Golden State’s Draymond Green described it in our last newsletter, is “wide open” for James, Davis and their modest supporting cast to seize with the Warriors out of contention in 2020 after five consecutive trips to the N.B.A. finals. Even the abrupt halt of the N.B.A. season nearly seven months ago has not seemed to affect him. James initially feared that the hiatus would set him back physically; he lamented in late March that his body was in shock because the season’s suspension took him out of his usual playoff rhythm just as he was “rounding third base.” If the Lakers blow it from here, up 3-1 and after seizing the first 2-0 finals lead of James’s career, count on the opprobrium directed at James to be louder and harsher than ever. If the Lakers finish the Heat off as widely expected, James will become the first player to win finals most valuable player honors with a third team.