“I'll scoop you up at 6 o'clock. Be ready!” I had scored tickets for LeBron James' first official game on the Lakers’ home court a few Sundays ago and I wasn’t going to waste the extra on a date or a casual fan. My friend Luis is as rabid an L.A. sports fanatic as there is, and he understood why we had to be on the road an hour and a half early for the preseason game. For the last five years, we Laker fans have suffered through losing streaks, bizarre Buss family infighting, missing the playoffs, Robert Sacre and Lavar Ball. The magic of Staples Center was more about the statues out front than the stats inside, and the house that Shaq and Kobe built had been reduced to little more than a museum. But tonight it was relevant again. The Los Angeles Mother Fucking Lakers were relevant again.
I’m a middle-aged man, but I was grinning like a kid; I couldn’t stop myself from randomly shouting “Fuuuuck!” on the drive down Olympic. I was glad I wasn’t with someone I’d have to explain this adolescent, idiotic joy to. Again, Luis understood.
“LeBitch.” “LeBum.” “LeWrong.”
The buzz all summer was about how LeBron didn’t belong here. This is Kobe Bryant’s team and Kobe Bryant’s town. From social media comment sections to vandalized murals of James in a Lakers jersey, the people had spoken. (I attempted to contact a few haters I had found through anti-LeBron comments on NBA’s Twitter or the House of Highlights Instagram page to ask them to expand on their views but every single one of their profiles was private. Take that for what it’s worth.)
I, too, had reservations about James coming to Los Angeles, and not because I don’t like him. As a spokesman for social issues, frequent verbal sparring partner for Donald Trump, not to mention an all-time great basketball player, I respect the hell outta King James. My issue was more that I didn’t want my proud and storied Lakers to be reduced to nothing more than “LeBron’s new team.” So far, those concerns have been confirmed, with press describing other players as “LeBron’s shooting guard” instead of “Lakers shooting guard.” It’s to be expected and it’s the realistic trade-off.
Well, if any of those trolls or vandals were at Staples that night, they were invisible. A sea of jerseys bearing James’ No. 23 filled the L.A. Live plaza, all but completely replacing last season’s fashion, Lonzo Ball’s No. 2.
And what of the much-hyped second-year point guard? Would his shine get snuffed out by the basketball meteor that just crash-landed in his backyard? The kid who had spawned a thousand Lonzo-inspired Twitter and Instagram handles, whose savant-like court vision and instinct already was predicted to ensure his jersey getting retired in the arena rafters before he had set one Big Baller Brand shoe on an NBA court. Last year the mighty Magic Johnson had proclaimed Ball the “face of the franchise,” and this year he’s “LeBron’s point guard.” Though tonight he wouldn’t even be that, as Ball was sidelined with an injury; we’d have to wait another week to see the wunderkind share the court with his new mentor.
The vibe inside the arena for the Oct. 2 preseason game was closer to a concert than a basketball game. Not only was it completely sold out, which even for the Lakers is unusual in the preseason, but there was also the curious-girlfriend factor. The egalitarian brand of the NBA attracts more female fans than any other major sport but tonight was something different. Instagram models in brand-new Lakers hoodies filled the concourse, clinging to boyfriends’ arms with one hand while staring down at their phones in the other.
The celebrity count also was higher than normal. Everybody expects to see Jack Nicholson or Flea courtside, but in a short walk from the escalator to the Tostitos cart, I witnessed three teenagers excitedly taking photos with a guy in sunglasses and more face tattoos than my forearm (considerable) — perhaps a member of Migos? I then saw a ’90s sitcom actor in line for an $18 beer at Tap Haus. A few steps later I literally ran into one of the ladies from Netflix’s GLOW. I told her I watched the show and she gave me a hug I wasn’t expecting but was happy to receive. My shirt smelled like cocoa butter and a missed photo opportunity.
Once at our seats, I immediately noticed something was missing. Gone was the cheesy Sammy Hagar–era Van Halen playing over the PA, and in its place, a Kendrick Lamar jam. In fact, all the in-house music was current hip-hop. Maybe this was another ripple of LeBron’s influence or maybe it was a casual preseason atmosphere. Either way, it wasn’t fucking “Africa” by Toto, and thank you LeBron.
I once saw Madonna do a full tour production dress rehearsal at the Forum in front of maybe 150 people. The feeling in this building was similar in that the superstar didn’t really have to do much more than show up. Preseason, just like a rehearsal, is a low-stakes affair but, in a way, that made it more exciting. Like 19,000 of us had snuck in the side door and were rewarded for our curiosity.
Finally the lights went down and the crowd got up. Introductions for the other players came across like a pretty solid opening band when finally “…and the other forward wears No. 23, 6-foot-8, 16 campaigns, from St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School … LeBron James.” Longtime Lakers announcer Lawrence Tanter's trademark deadpan (think Principal Skinner calling Bart Simpson to the office) was all but drowned out by the sound of hope and expectation about three beers deep.
Two-time NBA Champion and new center Javale McGee, former Golden State Warrior, gets the tip and sends it back to new point guard Rajon Rondo, former Boston Celtic (for those not totally up on their basketball history, imagine reading “Paul Ryan introduced Obama’s Affordable Care Act to the House floor, where it was heavily endorsed by Mitch McConnell”). These two former Laker rivals have joined fellow NBA champion James and a squad of promising young players in what has been called “The Expendables meets the cast of Stranger Things” to chase a further title in Los Angeles. Still, all eyes were focused on LeBron. Without attempting to score himself, his brilliance was still on full display. Playing defense, shouting directions, dishing passes and running up and down the court at a pace he hasn’t done since his early years in the league. Like Magic Johnson before him, LeBron’s sheer presence on the court makes the team better.
Finally, at roughly seven minutes in, an eternity in basketball time, James gathers a full head of steam and barrels through the entire Nuggets defense to land an off-balance, fadeaway jumper, scoring his first points in Staples Center as a Laker. The cheers in the arena are deafening. To add a little context, I was in this same building on Election Night 2016 when the Lakers took on the Dallas Mavericks. Everyone was watching election results on their phone and by halftime the atmosphere was as dark as I’ve ever seen at a sporting event. Given Trump’s personal attacks on James over the last two years, it was especially satisfying that LeBron brought this house to its feet in a relatively insignificant but symbolic celebration. In 2018, everything is political.
James went on to play roughly 15 minutes and score 11 more points in the game, which was a 113-111 loss to the Denver Nuggets, yet the feeling of the crowd walking out of the arena was anything but defeated.
The Lakers have always represented more to this city than just a sports franchise. From Jerry West to Kareem Abdul Jabbar to Kobe Bryant, the Lakers have been one of the few forces that have the power to unify this culturally and economically divided city.
In the last three seasons of his tenure, Kobe’s lack of help on the court rendered him a leader in exile, creating a vacuum custom-fit for a new candidate. During this year’s media day (essentially a dog-and-pony show sports teams use to introduce their new rosters to the press), ESPN’s Brian Kamenetzky asked LeBron what, at this stage of his career, creates pressure for him. James’ answer? “Nothing.” It was either dismissive or a campaign slogan.
Standing in line at a taco truck on Olympic after the game, Luis said to no one in particular, “It’s like L.A. has its own president … Fuckin’ LeBron, man.”
The NBA's 2018-2019 season kicks off Tuesday, Oct. 16, with games televised on TNT.com.
LeBron James' regular-season home debut at Staples Center against the Houston Rockets is Saturday, Oct. 20. Tickets and info at nba.com/lakers/.