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Election Night at the Lakers Game

What’s it like to watch the world change from inside the Staples Center

Getty Images
Getty Images

I stood behind the first row of floor seats at the Staples Center for a solid 10 minutes, ogling how Green Giant–large Timofey Mozgov was. Seven-foot-one appears to be twice that size, at least, in person. Luol Deng circled the top of the key, focused on his long 2s. On the other end of the floor, Harrison Barnes limbered up with resistance bands. Seth Curry practiced floaters in the paint. Andrew Bogut towered two full heads above Curry, grinning from ear to ear, lazily snatching at him as Curry strafed under the hoop. It felt, by all measures, like a run-of-the-mill Tuesday night. It was as though everyone who’d beaten the downtown Los Angeles traffic and already trickled in — a full hour and a half before the Lakers tipped off against the Mavericks — could comfortably ignore that it wasn’t. Not even a little bit. Not by a long shot.

Every election ever has been billed as “The Most Important Election Ever.” But the standoff between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton fits the bill; more so than any elections that came before it, and, as hardy and nearsighted as it is to say so, most that’ll come after. The free world was teetering on an oil-slick precipice, and, aside from the live updates I was furiously refreshing, very few people seemed to care inside the Staples Center.

People come to sporting events to forget their problems, not to be pestered by them. And who could possibly blame them? Things are, generally speaking, terrible. An online exit poll of early and Election Day voters showed that more than eight out of 10 Americans just wanted this all to be over. And I feel that, you know? We could all use a break.

Other than players and coaches, the only people stirring in the Staples Center 60 minutes before the game were a handful of early arrivals — facing rows of empty seats, their backs to a mostly empty court, cheesing into their selfie cameras — and the event staff, shuffling about, touching base, comparing lists, razzing each other occasionally.

Milling around the court I caught the tail end of a friendly, but intense “top 5” discussion about the league’s best point guards, and another about a breast cancer fundraiser that involved climbing 64 stories’ worth of stairs. Two flights per story and 10 steps per flight meant a sum total of 1,280 steps, which seemed doable. An attendant broached the topic of the election, and said he felt rather secure in a Hillary Clinton victory. He tried, and failed, to persuade me to detach myself from the outcome, on the grounds that these are all things that have happened before, and will probably happen again. “The process is random,” he told me. “The results, not so much.”

I said I wasn’t sure how much I believed that, and he kindly pointed me to the media room.

Yards away from the court, that safe, iridescent bubble of sporting fun was popped. I always forget how quickly commiseration turns strangers into friends.

There were a few TVs in the media room tuned to sports — the home stretch of the Nuggets-Grizzlies game; the Kings routing the Maple Leafs, 7–0; the exhibition game between the Oklahoma Sooners men’s basketball team and Washburn, whose mascot is the Ichabods, seriously. But we were all fixated on the largest screen, booming updates from the CNN newsroom, which showed Donald Trump in lockstep with, if not leading, Clinton in swing states, which was … not where he was supposed to be.

I sat down with a group of four reporters around a folding table. They were picking at their complimentary dinner while staring at the voting totals in disbelief. They talked about how similar this felt to the Brexit vote, which just so happened to take place while they were at the Lakers’ practice facility. We swished around the idea that the two were comparable before deciding that this was definitely worse. Fretting over the nondescript and far away Fellow Man requires a degree of idealism that few possess. This was clear, present, and close to home. Besides, the Brexit vote can be overturned. This can’t.

We arrived at the bargaining stage pretty early on, as projection models swung into Trump’s favor. I joked that a 59 percent projection from The New York Times didn’t mean much because the paper got the release date of Frank Ocean’s newest album wrong. I got no laughs. A man with an accent I couldn’t quite place said that his reheated burger on cold sourdough was the best thing he’d ever tasted, and another joked that it might be because it’s his last taste of freedom. We all laughed.

Three more people joined us, one of whom suggested I get some ice cream; “It helps.” As Ohio swayed red, my new group of friends considered all the possible futures: a ban on Muslims entering the country, nationwide stop-and-frisk, deportation of immigrants. When it got too painful to imagine, some actively shifted focus and turned their backs to the news, choosing to watch closed-circuit video of the Mavericks stretching at half court, still in their warm-ups, the tip still half an hour out.

As for myself, I didn’t actually look up at the game until well into the second quarter. The Lakers were trailing, 35–33.

I finally got it together enough to go out onto the floor with a little over nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. At Staples Center, the media sits at tables just off the court, behind the baseline. There are several televisions on the tables, so that the press can watch the TV feed of the game they’re attending, or other NBA action. Four of the TVs were tuned to election coverage. A few fans near us would give the monitors furtive glances, or ask what the latest count of electoral votes was. It was never good news.

Still, things in the arena seemed unsettlingly normal. Dance cams rotated over to fans, and they Dougied. That awful fucking Maroon 5 song with Kendrick Lamar rapping over marimbas came over the speakers, and a jolly drunk idiot kicked over a friend’s beer doing the cancan. Everyone batted their inflatable noisemakers together to push the needle on the noise meter just one — if only one — degree higher. It felt like a regular Tuesday night, and, assuming that these people were aware and just chose to ignore what was going on in the world outside, you had to think there was something to it. Maybe we, as a nation, start to crawl ourselves out of this racist, sexist, nativist hole by living our lives as usual, by putting one foot in front of the other as an act of defiance.

Maybe that’s ridiculous. It probably is.

Filing out of the arena in shoulder-to-shoulder traffic, I was stuck with an obviously drunk fan, and I decided to be That Guy and ruin the fun with a question about [gestures at the crumbling landscape] All This. “Man, all that shit was gonna happen anyway.”

“History is the fiction we invent to persuade ourselves that events are knowable and that life has order and direction,” I countered. (I might’ve left a word or two out, no one’s perfect.)

“Who said that?” he asked, instantly realizing the words were too vivid to be my own.

“I got that from Calvin & Hobbes, so Bill Watterson, I guess?” We both doubled over. What else could we do?