The streets that intersect Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood are lined with murals. Walls are painted in psychedelic colors that catch the eye of drivers passing by, and perfectly stenciled quotes and angel wings attract lines of Instagram-seeking Angelenos and tourists. It’s a hipster’s Walk of Fame.
A few steps before North Ogden Drive, to the left of sports apparel store Sportie LA, is Melrose’s latest attraction. Fans cycle in and out of a remodeled outdoor parking lot, taking pictures of a two-car-garage-length painting depicting LeBron James looking up at a Mount Rushmore of Lakers greats. Legendary announcer Chick Hearn is in the top left. Kobe Bryant cradles a Larry O’Brien Trophy in a letterman’s jacket as he did after winning the 2001 Finals. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds one of his own. Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal sandwich a third, while Wilt Chamberlain points in their direction.
When artist Gustavo Zermeño Jr. was in the middle of the piece, which took 40-plus hours, five days, and five gallons of paint to craft, he made sure to paint the jerseys of former Lakers greats the same day he painted LeBron. He didn’t want any trouble. “That way people know it’s not just LeBron,” said Zermeño, a lifelong Lakers fan who quit his grocery store job to focus on art in 2016. “So, that way it’s avoiding someone getting upset over it.”
Zermeño had seen what had happened to an earlier LeBron mural in Venice. In early July, a portrait of James backed by the words “The King of LA” was painted behind Baby Blues BBQ. In a matter of days, someone had vandalized it with barbs aimed at the Lakers’ newest signee. We don’t want you. LeFraud. 3-6. No King. Jonas Never, who made the mural with Fernando Valdez, fixed the mural and removed the “of” to appease fans.
“How can you be the King of L.A. when you just came?” asked Lakers fan Carlos Serrano. Serrano had come with his group of friends to Melrose to admire Zermeño’s creation. In his mind, this mural is more appropriate. “It shows that if [LeBron] wants to be the King of L.A., he’s gotta win first.”
It’s been 18 days since James signed with the Lakers, 26 days since he announced his decision, and many more since billboards beckoning him to Los Angeles peppered the city’s streetscape. The contrast between those pleas before James’s choice was made and the backlash to the murals after is stark. Though LeBron has made only one public appearance as a Laker—sitting courtside, in Lakers shorts, at Las Vegas summer league to watch one of his new team’s games—the city is already debating his place in Lakers lore. While the move was largely seen as a return to glory for the NBA’s glamour franchise, some ardent sections of the fan base haven’t been as welcoming.
Zermeño’s own mural was vandalized with a vertical stripe of paint a day and a half after completion. Zermeño fixed it immediately, even enlisting some fans to help him. It hasn’t been touched since, though a white splotch of paint remains on the pavement below. Never’s fix for his mural didn’t last. It was vandalized a second time, so he painted over the entire thing.
“It’s bullshit. They didn’t even consider the artist and his work,” Zermeño said. “It had nothing to do with the art or the artist; it was the person on the wall.” He pauses. “That was for sure a Kobe fan.”
One block east from where Zermeño’s mural is located, a Kobe Bryant made out of 413 triangles rises for a dunk on a wall on the side of the store Shoe Palace. Even though the painting is based off a photo from 2001, when Kobe still had his Afro and his explosive athleticism and wore no. 8, the mural honors the date April 13, 2016, when Kobe dropped 60 points in his final game. In a single image, a career-spanning two decades is told. For all of them, Kobe was a Laker.
“Kobe arrived right out of high school, and everyone got a chance to watch him mature right in front of their eyes,” said Jeff Fellenzer, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a former Los Angeles Times writer and editor. Fellenzer also worked for the Lakers’ stats crew from 1976 to 1978, and has interviewed everyone from Jerry West to Jeanie Buss to Byron Scott. “Kobe grew up here. This fan base raised him, in a sense. So there’s been a great loyalty to him.”
That loyalty has, at times, devolved into something beyond a rooting interest. Kobe stans are known for inciting outlandish arguments in defense of their favorite player’s honor, especially online. Bryant’s aggressive style of play brought out the same in his fans as it did in the NBA players who followed his lead on the court. They are who they follow: brash, driven, stubborn.
“I think for the Lakers fans of Kobe’s generation, who had heard all about the Lakers of Jerry West, [Elgin] Baylor, Chamberlain, and then the Showtime Lakers, they took great pride in the fact that this was their Lakers,” Fellenzer said. “Naturally, these are things that define your childhood, your sports fandom, and your upbringing.”
But there are factions of Lakers fans that perceive Kobe differently. The older generation watched him rise from Shaq’s sidekick to an MVP. The younger generation, like 17-year-old Rafael Cardenas, got to experience Kobe only as a hobbling relic of a bygone era. “I’ve been a LeBron fan,” said Cardenas, who wore a black Bryant shirsey. “Die-hard Kobe fans, the old ones, they still hate LeBron.”
Steven Ashe, a 33-year-old from Compton, is slowly accepting LeBron in purple and gold, but he hasn’t lost his affection for Kobe. “They’re always comparing LeBron to Jordan, but as a Lakers fan, as a Kobe fan, I feel like [Kobe is] closer to Jordan. Same playing style, and he’s only one championship short of him,” said Ashe, who wore a purple Kobe jersey at the Melrose mural.
There are Lakers fans who like Kobe, and there are Kobe fans who like the Lakers. That split became more pronounced when the Lakers gave Bryant a two-year, $48.5 million extension in 2013, sacrificing the franchise’s immediate future for a legend still fighting his way back from a career-threatening injury. Now, LeBron’s decision to fill Kobe’s role as the face of the franchise seems to have dredged up the divide. Kobe fans are “not a representation of all Lakers fans,” said 32-year-old William Valencia, a Lakers fan from Highland Park. “Kobe had his time; he will always have his legacy here. That’s not gonna be touched. But LeBron is just trying to do his thing.”
Jeanie Buss, Lakers controlling owner and a staunch Kobe loyalist, issued a stern rebuke to the people who defaced the LeBron murals. “They’re not Laker fans,” Buss said in an interview with Fox Sports Radio. “I guess I just didn’t realize how many people from Boston live in Los Angeles.”
In many ways, LeBron is Kobe’s antithesis. His team-oriented brand of basketball and congenial image isn’t what Kobe apologists are used to. He’s much closer to the Magic Johnson tree than Kobe’s. But as many Lakers fans pointed out, the rivalry between LeBron and Kobe was much anticipated, but didn’t come to bear on the court. LeBron never stood in the way of a Lakers title during the late 2000s. He and Kobe never clashed in an important game, outside of a Christmas Day matchup or two. The extent of their rivalry is probably puppetry, for a marketing campaign by Nike.
But as fans and the league come to grips with the reality of LeBron as a Laker, the only pushback on his decision seems to be coming from Los Angeles. Vitriol poured out over his Miami move in 2010, but James’s most recent departure from Cleveland was largely greeted with golf claps. If the Cavs were unhappy, they certainly didn’t show it. Dan Gilbert, who authored a hateful screed after James bolted for the Heat, bid James adieu this time by saying the team is looking forward to retiring his no. 23.
Lakers fans seem more mixed. Some, like Farhana Bholat and Sanah Bholat, cousins and Lakers fans from Orange County, are ready for success no matter who brings it. “It’s Kobe’s town no matter what, but we traffic in rings, so we’ll take anything that’s beneficial to our team,” Farhana said. Sanah, who was already wearing a Lakers LeBron jersey, spoke up: “We could have spent the next five to six years trying to build and become great; right now we have a clearer path with LeBron.”
But some fans who are protective of Kobe’s legacy are torn. Their team’s success now relies on LeBron’s success. Let the mental gymnastics ensue.
“If he could just get us one, and get us one ring closer to the Celtics … and it still leaves him one ring short of Kobe, because then Kobe will still have five, one more than him,” Ashe said. “That’s the ideal scenario.”
Within an hour of the press release on July 1 announcing LeBron’s decision to join the Lakers, artist Hashim Lafond knew what he wanted to do. He had been brainstorming an idea to fill the blank space on the corner of Melrose and Vista for a while. That Sunday night, Lafond called the owner of the throwback-jersey store Fampion X and told him he had decided to paint LeBron James.
A week later, following 12 hours of work over two days in 110-degree weather, Lafond looked at his finished masterpiece and thought that his own creative decision was going to get his piece vandalized. Lafond had created a portrait of LeBron in his distinct style—first as a digital sketch, then a free-hand execution. No stencils. He also left the space on James’s gold jersey blank on purpose. “I’m not done,” Lafond said. “I’m waiting to fill in the jersey until after the first game he plays. I want him to earn it.”
At the same time, it was an inviting canvas for anyone who wanted to lash out against it. “I was expecting them to tag it. If you’re gonna tag it, at least make it his shirt. Say what you want,” Lafond said with a laugh, as he stood near his portrait.
Fans shouted “Fuck LeBron” at Lafond while he was painting it. Zermeño said he heard the same when he was painting his. But Lafond’s mural has gone untouched. He believes the lack of a message has kept it clean. He also made a point to invite locals via Instagram to help him paint it. It turned into a communal event.
Lafond and Zermeño have received waves of attention because of the murals that they never expected. Zermeño said he’s getting offers to do other murals around Los Angeles, and he’s been contacted by Jeff Hamilton, a designer who made the leather jacket Kobe wears in Zermeño’s piece, to collaborate on a project. Lafond, meanwhile, said Ray J came to look at his mural and now wants him to paint something for him. That kind of interest wouldn’t be there without their polarizing subject.
“I feel like there’s so much emotion behind it,” Zermeño said. “Either you love LeBron or you really hate LeBron. Regardless, you’re getting a high-energy reaction.”
Lafond drives by constantly to make sure his LeBron on Melrose is still spotless. He loves watching it catch pedestrians’ eyes; it almost always leads to a picture. But it’s not the first time he’s painted on this wall. When he first arrived in Los Angeles two years ago from Boston, he reached out to Fampion X, and the store let him paint a portrait of a young Michael Jordan clutching a pair of Jordan 1s. It’s still there, just a few steps away from where LeBron is now. The juxtaposition of the two is perfect, but of course, the complaints have already begun.
“Somebody came to me in person and said, ‘It’s kind of disrespectful that you have Jordan there, and LeBron here, and LeBron didn’t even play yet. You’re just gonna forget Kobe?’” Lafond said as he shook his head. “So, I might have to paint Kobe.”