“What’s the biggest difference? Well, this is different,” said Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton, raising his eyebrows and craning his neck around at the swarm of journalists hemming him in pre-game in the corridor outside his team’s locker room. There are opening nights of all shapes and sizes but few like this, which felt like a sporting coronation and cultural happening rolled into one.
LeBron James’ home debut for the Lakers, against the Houston Rockets on Saturday night, had been anticipated since the moment he left the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second time and inked a four-year deal in Southern California. Tickets were going for upwards of $1400 on official exchange sites even once the game had started. Not for a playoff game or even for Christmas Day, but for a home opener.
Walton’s pre-game audience looked sparse in comparison to the post-game huddle around James, also conducted in the corridor with no way of fitting all the journalists and cameras inside the locker room, with the Rockets’ 124-115 win unlikely to dampen LeBron fever. “It’s ok, I can hear you back there,” he reassured journalists firing questions from the eighth or ninth row.
With a full complement of stars courtside, led by the inevitable Jack Nicholson (whose appearance on the Jumbotron received the biggest non-LeBron-related cheer of the night), James put up a respectable 24 points, although his biggest late game intervention was restraining his close friend Chris Paul after a wild fight broke out towards the end of the fourth quarter, which eventually saw Players Association president Paul plus Lakers’ Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram ejected from the game.
With the brawl recalling the heyday of the Bad Boys-era Detroit Pistons and a jaunty brass band high up in the rafters of Staples Center seeing the fans off into the night it was, in a strange way, as fitting an end to a night that suggested the revival of former glories that there could be, in the absence of a James’ buzzer-beater to seal a home victory. The Showtime Lakers are back, and how.
The immediate excitement on James’ arrival wasn’t about the Larry O’Brien Trophy or championship rings – not yet, anyway. This was about returning the magic to the franchise. It’s already like The King has taken over the entire neighbourhood. In Cleveland, a huge Nike-sponsored banner of James with his arms stretched covered the façade of the Sherwin-Williams building, opposite the Cavs’ Quicken Loans Arena. Everything’s bigger and brasher here. There are two building-covering banners of James within LA Live, which sits next to Staples Center, plus a huge mural.
During a year during which James has stepped up a level as a sportsman who truly transcends sport (largely due to the growing enmity between him and Donald Trump, peaking with the President rubbishing his philanthropic efforts in his hometown of Akron, Ohio) it seemed like the stars were aligning for LABron to happen.
The anticipation was something. It had been a Pinteresque pause of a Friday night here, as if LA was keeping its powder dry, with the Staples Center sparsely populated at tip-off as the Oklahoma City Thunder arrived to take on the Clippers. Quite a few of those who did make the trip out arrived in purple and gold or LeBron jerseys, with some Lakers fans from out of town keen to make a weekend of it.
On game day, the mood built among the sea of James-shirted fans waiting for the doors to Staples Center to open, peering through the windows watching screens showing the Dodgers on their way to beating the Brewers to seal their spot in the MLB World Series. By the time tipoff was approaching the atmosphere was raucous, with even the line “and the rockets’ red glare” in the customary rendition of The Star Spangled Banner loudly jeered to try and get under the visitors’ skin.
Coach Walton is familiar with the circus, having been a teammate of Kobe Bryant in the Lakers’ last title-winning seasons, 2009 and 2010.
“It’s the same type of vibe,” he told us pre-game. “People love the Lakers and it’s back to that sort of feeling now.” He has limited his advice to a new team around James to “block out the noise”, and their focus has been clear. None of the players spoke in the locker room pre-game, and Ingram took the microphone before the game began to give the traditional first home game thanks to the fans, rather than James.
In the days leading up to the game even the Lakers’ version of low-key has been glitzy, mind you. On the day before the game, Kendrick Lemar came to the team’s El Segundo practice facility to give the players a pep talk, part of the ‘Genius Series’ instigated by general manager Rob Pelinka. By then, James had already announced himself in his new colours, nailing two outrageous dunks for his first Lakers points in Nike’s backyard, in a defeat at the Portland Trail Blazers. James warned after that this new team, an interesting mix of temperamental vets like Rondo and Lance Stephenson plus quality youngsters including Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, wouldn’t blend “like instant oatmeal”.
He should know. His second spell in Cleveland was fraught with upheaval, dysfunction and drama, which made it all the more astonishing that he and his teammates snared a first NBA title for the Cavs in the middle of it, in 2016.
That Houston, led by former Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, provided the opposition for James’ home bow wasn’t insignificant. As well as providing a stiff early-season indication of the tough competition they face in the west – the Rockets finished first in the regular season Western Conference last term, ahead of the mighty Golden State Warriors – James was coming face-to-face with two of his closest friends in the game, Carmelo Anthony and Paul, the pair which along with former Miami Heat teammate Dwyane Wade he calls his “brotherhood”.
In the end the Rockets’ stars, Paul and reigning MVP James Harden (who poured in 36 points), showed exactly what James’ Lakers must aspire to on the court. Off it, led by The Chosen One, they’re most of the way there already.