It sometimes feels like they never left, but throughout the last decade the Los Angeles Lakers slipped into the sort of NBA irrelevance usually saved for rebuilding teams in the southeast.
Last week, I ticked off a major bucket item in my life: sitting courtside at a Los Angeles Lakers game.
It was one of those dreams that you never actually think will come true, but thanks to my amazing wife, it did.
Knowing my passion for the Lakers – I’ve been supporting them since 1985 – Wifey arranged a surprise present for my birthday last year, and with friends and family chipping in, presented me with courtside tickets to a Lakers game.
The not-so-small cherry on top? LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers would be in town. It was the absolute perfect gift, and needless to say, the wife is firmly entrenched in the good books for the time being. Or, “forever”.
Given how much Roarers love their sport, I thought I’d share some of the random observations from a once-in-a-lifetime experience, starting off the court…
Everyone is fan-boying and fan-girling
The only apprehension I had before the game was that I wouldn’t be able to control myself, and would be the uncool person fan-boying the players and celebrities. I was certain that wouldn’t be deemed acceptable behaviour for courtside seating.
It took all of five seconds to realise I had nothing to worry about, because everyone is fan-boying and fan-girling everyone else. (Except for Floyd Mayweather, who acts as if the crowd is there to see him.)
I’ll remove names here, but you’ll get the point: the players make eyes at each other – on the court – when they notice a supermodel sitting courtside. Supermodels get excited when they see NFL players sitting near them. NFL players become fans when their favourite rappers enter the building. Rappers are high-fiving actors and comedians. The actors and comedians are schmoozing with billionaire CEOs. The billionaire CEOs act like giddy school kids when the players come near them.
Everyone is excited to see everyone else, which is actually kind of cool. A Lakers game makes everyone a kid again.
And absolutely everyone completely loses their mind when Magic Johnson walks around saying hello to everyone courtside. In a city full of stars, it’s remarkable that Magic remains the brightest of them all.
Despite last playing over 20 years ago, Magic still owns Los Angeles.
Jeannie Buss is the boss
We were sitting right next to Jeannie Buss, the Lakers owner, and it was interesting that all the ‘stars’ came over and said hello to her in a very respectful manner. It honestly felt like she was the host of the party, and everyone was saying thanks for the invite.
Meeting Zach Lowe
Despite the plethora of famous people in close proximity to me, in only two instances could I not resist a photo.
The first was when Magic did the rounds, greeting those that were sitting courtside. I simply had to get a high five. He’s my favourite all-time athlete, so you can excuse my lack of composure. Besides, literally everyone else, irrespective of their level of fame, was over-excited too.
The second person that got me excited was Zach Lowe, who walked past after the game. For an NBA geek like me, Lowe is as a big a star as anyone else in the building, and I couldn’t help but say hello to my favourite NBA journalist. To my surprise, he even stopped and talked for a couple of minutes after I said I was from Australia.
His humble opening line was pure Lowe: “Do you know who I am? There are actual famous people here, why are you talking to me?”
They put on a show
The production values are reminiscent of a massive concert. As the Lakers are introduced, the lights go off and the stadium goes dark. LED Laker necklaces on crowd members all glow in unison. A large white sheet drops from the scoreboard, and suddenly highlights from Lakers teams past and present are projected onto it. The crowd goes crazy, all of whom were greeted with a Lakers replica jersey on their seat.
To say it’s impressive would be an understatement… and that’s just the intros.
Oh, and courtside tickets come with premium in-seat catering. Yeah, that’s right: my beer was delivered to me.
From the actual game itself
I won’t lie, as enthralling as it was to be surrounded by the rich and famous, I was way more excited for the actual game, and experiencing elite level basketball up close and personal. I was not disappointed, and here are a few takeaways…
Jack Nicholson really gets into the game
This shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise to anyone, let alone basketball fans.
Jack has been a Lakers regular for decades and is almost synonymous with the term ‘Lakers home game’, such is the legend of his fandom. I was told that he only attends three or four games a year now, and understandably, LeBron’s trip to LA is one the games that Jack had circled on his calendar.
Make no mistake, Jack is not there to be seen, or in attendance because it’s cool. He’s there to watch the game and cheer for his team. He yells at the refs, gets frustrated with his team, has a stressed scowl on his face, and regularly checks the stats.
In other words, he’s just like the rest of us when watching our beloved team. He’s a fan, and it’s awesome.
The Lakers are potentially a very good team
The Lakers have an interesting off-season ahead of them, because they have cap space to chase a couple of marquee free agents, but also already have the nucleus of a talented young team.
Sitting up close, you notice how much the Lakers enjoy playing with each other, and the great chemistry they have. They certainly need more elite level talent if they want to compete for a championship in the next few years, but as a fan, I’m wary of breaking up this group too much.
There is definitely something coming together in LA, and Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka need to decide who is central to that, and who is expendable.
Not a lot of trash
I was expecting some chit-chat on the court, but I noticed very little trash talk going on.
Part of that is the fact the Lakers are a young team, and young teams traditionally don’t want to talk too much smack.
Another reason for it is that the teams were very friendly with each other. Isaiah Thomas was greeted warmly by his ex-teammates, as were Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr and Derrick Williams. You could tell there were some friendships and history out there, so the talk was friendly rather than fierce.
Lastly, nobody wants to motivate James. While some players in the past have tried to get in James’ head, they’ve either been crazy (Lance Stephenson), fierce rivals (Joakim Noah) or proud championship winners with a history of trash talking (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Draymond Green, etc).
Nobody else is picking a fight with LeBron in a regular season game in March.
Lonzo Ball will be very good
Having watched him closely in shoot-around, there is no question that Ball can shoot. His biggest problem is that, apart from when he can unleash his step-back, his jumper is pretty easy to defend, as his mechanics are too complex.
What I did notice, which was a bit of a surprise, is that he isn’t consistent with his follow-through. Sometimes he’ll snap his wrist, other times he won’t. Sometimes his fingers end up pointing at the basket, sometimes they float elsewhere.
Assistant coach Miles Simon was passing/defending him in shootaround and didn’t correct him once. Perhaps that’s not something you do right before a game, but Ball clearly still needs to work on his jumper. If a complete overhaul is too drastic, then he at least needs to find a consistent release.
It was also obvious that he’s still very young. You forget he’s just 20 years of age, but it shows occasionally. Nerves, trying too hard, defensive lapses, getting down on himself after a bad shot or missed dunk. He’s definitely young.
The good news is that he does so many things incredibly well, and his feel for the game is outstanding. Not everything he contributes shows up in the box score, but he has a high basketball IQ.
Plus, despite his father’s outlandish comments, you can tell his teammates absolutely love him, and love playing with him.
I’m confident Lonzo Ball will be very good.
Julius Randle is a beast
Randle is strong, skilful and talented.
Watching him dismantle the Cavs, it’s hard to believe that he was once stuck on the bench, and then trade bait, and was also considered a certainty to leave in free agency this upcoming off-season.
You could make a strong case that he’s the Lakers’ best player. I’d be loathe to see him leave and provided he can stay motivated and consistent, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to simply see some of that Lakers’ free agency money come his way.
LeBron James exudes class
Nobody needs to be told that James is really good at basketball. However, what you notice when you’re watching him up close is not just how much better he is than everyone else, but importantly, how much everyone else on the court knows it.
I could wax lyrical about James for days, but everyone knows he’s great. What I will mention is the complete and utter control he plays under. He’s so calculating and so aware of everything that is going on, over every inch of the court. He’s never rushed, and plays with an amazing aura of confidence that comes from knowing you’re the best player in the world.
It’s breathtaking to watch someone dominate a game by doing absolutely everything. Shooting, rebounding, passing, defending, blocking shots, getting steals, dribbling, running the offence, directing traffic.
No newsflash here, but James is freaking awesome, and his presence is truly felt when you’re in the stadium watching him.
LeBron to LA next year?
James certainly enjoyed the attention and adulation showered upon him by the LA crowd. He carries himself like a star and he would have noticed the way Magic was embraced by the audience, especially the stars and powerbrokers (plus me!) in the front row. You can’t really get that anywhere but Los Angeles.
I, like everyone else, have no idea what he’s going to do next season, but it’s hard not to see a part of him wanting to embrace his stardom in a city that knows a thing or two about stars.
Even if he does join the Lakers, I doubt I’ll ever be courtside again, so it was great to be able to see the King from mere metres away, and the whole experience is something I’ll certainly never forget.