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LeBron James, right, of the Los Angeles Lakers talks with Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies before Game Three of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Arena in Los Angeles, on April 22.Harry How/Getty Images

When they were in the midst of revolting the British establishment in the 1970s, the Sex Pistols had a favourite putdown. Whenever they hit resistance in interviews, Johnny Rotten would smirk and tell the questioner he or she was “too old” to understand punk.

A few months into this routine, the New Musical Express sent Julie Burchill to interview the lads. Burchill, who would go on to become one of England’s great incendiary columnists, was 17.

She recalled later how that meeting went down:

”I interrupted [Rotten]: ‘How old are you?’

‘What? Me? … I’m 19,’ he stuttered, stunned.

‘Oh, you’re too old,’ I sneered.”

Nearly 50 years on, it’s still the most effective insult in our culture. It’s an elemental fear that only needs to be spoken to be made true.

Because what’s the comeback? “No, I’m not”? Yeah, whatever, granddad.

LeBron James is not old – he’s 38. But I suppose that depends on who you’re asking.

In sports today, 40 isn’t just the new 30. We’re waiting for someone to make 50 the new 35. Everyone wants to believe that the next-gen Tom Bradys and Serena Williamses are not just inevitable, but improvable.

As elite athletes go, so do the rest of us. If Roger Federer can play tennis far past his sell-by date, then maybe I will live forever. I just have to take the right supplements, eat the right superfood and wear the right clothes.

There’s a reason Uniqlo signed Federer to a 10-year deal when he only had a couple of more years of tennis left in him. Because the Swiss isn’t selling sport. He’s selling immortality.

James wants to be in the same business. In the past, most players his size and age were new members of the joint-replacement-of-the-month club. James just keeps going. He doesn’t play as much or dominate in quite the same way. But until last week, the perception was that he would remain one of the very best for as long as he chose to.

And then Dillon Brooks had a thought.

Brooks is a 27-year-old NBA forward from Mississauga. By the standard of famous Canadians, he brings something rare to the table – he’s interesting. He’s no star, but he’s not shy, which is its own kind of superpower.

Right now, Brooks’s Memphis Grizzlies are playing James’s Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. On paper, the series is a toss-up.

Brooks, a defence-first agitator, has James as an assignment. Where most players in the league defer to James, Brooks tilts the opposite way. Forget about right up in his grill. Brooks has crawled in under James’s grill and started yanking out wires.

In the second game, the two had some sort of verbal confrontation on the court. Afterward, Brooks was asked about it.

Usually, the question would be, “What happened there?” But because it’s James, the question was framed as, “Maybe you shouldn’t do that to one of the better players in the game …”

Brooks, shirtless, wearing sunglasses and what looked like a suit jacket made of a beach towel, was already shaking his head.

“I don’t care,” Brooks said. “He’s old.”

And just like that, the legend of LeBron James died.

Ahead of Saturday’s Game 3, James reasserted his alphaness. He approached Brooks on the court during the warm-ups and said something. Judging by facial expressions, it wasn’t friendly. Brooks wasn’t as chirpy tête-à-tête. James has a few inches and quite a few pounds on him.

“There was nothing private about it,” James said later when asked about their “private” conversation. “It was very, very public.”

The dominance continued after tipoff. Brooks was ejected after nailing James in the groin. The Lakers won. The momentum in the series shifted.

Ten years ago, even five years ago, this solves James’s problem. Someone challenged him and he was seen putting that guy in his place.

But this time, there is no making people forget.

Two weeks ago, James was on career cruise control. He was still talking as though he were not only a key figure in the league, but one fixing to be like that forever.

Everyone knows that James’s most important goal is playing with his son, Bronny. Bronny James is 18. He hasn’t even picked a university to go to. We still have to figure out if he’s good enough to make the NBA (though “good enough” probably isn’t a factor here). We’re a couple, three years at least from James’s next big career signpost.

Until Brooks spoke, we all shared in this dream. That James could play forever, and so maybe the rest of us might make it to 100.

Now James is fighting a rearguard action. Winning this series is no longer optional. It is vital. Winning the next one will be much harder. Winning the one after that is probably impossible.

Once the Lakers are out, you know where this is headed: “Is Brooks right? Is James too old?”; “How old is too old?”; “Why is the league humouring Methuselah over here?”

Brooks popped the cap. James cannot get what’s been freed back in the bottle. Because by the standard of his sport, he is old. Ancient and in decline. Once you hear it, it’s difficult not to see it, too.

James’s inevitable disillusionment is shared by the rest of us, though by some more than others. His people are the middle-aged cohort who are the first generation in human history to not only defy time, but hold it off indefinitely.

They’re the ones wearing the wrong clothes and getting over their fear of needles. The ones who think everyone at the office would be shocked if they knew their real age. “Forty-five?? I thought that virile example of wo/manhood was in her/his early 30s, max.”

No one is fooled. Everyone knows, and that’s okay.

Until someone says it out loud.

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