Sometimes you need to see something up close before you can really believe it. We’ve known for a while now that LeBron James is a Laker. He signed a four-year contract with the organization back in July, and before that there were plenty of signs that he planned to relocate to Los Angeles—from his ever-expanding Hollywood business pursuits, to purchasing a second Brentwood mansion, to the area schools he checked out. Even his future teammates read between LeBron’s lines. “We tried to use context clues,” Brandon Ingram said about predicting where James would land in free agency. “We saw his son going to the high school in L.A.”
This has been a long time coming, but it didn’t quite feel real. Until Monday. Until James emerged through a side door at the Lakers practice facility in El Segundo for media day. Suddenly, there he was, wearing the classic gold Lakers uniform with the purple numbers and trim. There was a din in the building after that—the chatter of reporters, the rapid-fire and unending clickclickclickclickclick of camera shutters—and a large crowd followed him as he moved around the room. He cut promos for local radio stations—“This is LeBron. Hear Lakers basketball tonight. Listen on ESPN 710 and the ESPN app.”—did a TV hit with his old Cleveland reporter pal, Dave McMenamin, and made small talk with various media members about Blaze Pizza, in which he’s an investor. (“It’s the best pizza in the world.”)
Despite the crush of coverage, James seemed comfortable. Which made one reporter ask what, at this point in his career, might make him feel pressure.
“Nothing,” James replied.
“Nothing,” he repeated.
And so it went. And so it will go.
By all accounts, there were more reporters at Monday’s media day than the Lakers have entertained in a long time. That’s hardly surprising. The last five years were not kind to the franchise. They lost 284 games over that stretch—95 more losses than Shaq and Kobe did during their dysfunctional buddy-cop routine. Given the heightened expectations for the Lakers now that they’re led by LeBron—and the media attention that goes along with that, and his side hustles as a successful businessman, producer, and future star of the long-awaited Space Jam 2—it would be natural enough for James to feel spread a bit thin. Or it would be natural if he was a normal human who didn’t have “Chosen 1” in ink across his shoulders. When someone asked if his outside business interests were a distraction, James paused before giving a playful, semi-exasperated response.
“How long have you been following me?” James asked.
“Apparently not long enough,” the reporter replied.
“Apparently not long enough,” James echoed.
Maybe I was expecting more of a circus atmosphere—they erected a g.d. Kobeland theme park outside Staples Center for Bryant’s jersey retirement ceremony—but Monday’s media day was fairly standard stuff. There was no awkward Kawhi laughing equivalent. No one to work blue like Enes Kanter and reveal that the playoffs make his nipples hard. No one to fill the Carmelo Anthony role and offer up some early drama by saying he hadn’t discussed coming off the bench—only to change course and say he’d come off the bench.
Now and then there were some random, tortured screams in the background as part of the usual media day picture-posing shenanigans—Michael Beasley was one of the few players to even acknowledge it when he looked up from his time at the podium and deadpanned, “Somebody just yelled”—but other than that it was a low-key occasion. The team even pumped some soothing music through the speakers—“Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” by Nicholas Payton, “Ahmad’s Blues” by Red Garland—to set the mood. There was a lot of talk about basketball and how competitive their scrimmages have been. At times, the afternoon had a boring business feel—which might have been by design.
“He knows what time it is,” head coach Luke Walton said about LeBron. “He’s been around a lot of years. He’s setting the tone that it’s time to work. He comes in every day and works during the offseason, playing pickup and things like that. He’s still, by example—the way he comes in and lifts weights, does his prep work, post work—is serious. There’s definitely that look that I’ve seen before in somebody that I used to play with that knows the season is coming up soon.”
Walton was obviously alluding to Kobe with that last part, but he couldn’t help but quip “Ronny Turiaf” when someone asked whom he was talking about. Laugh lines and wide-eyed front-office optimism aside, these Lakers have a long way to go before they’re Western Conference contenders. As James himself put it, the Warriors can “pick up right where they left off. We’re picking up from scratch.” It was a candid comment that made someone wonder aloud if not winning a championship this year would represent failure.
“I don’t believe the only thing that’s a success in marking the season is winning a championship,” LeBron said. “There’s only one champion, but that doesn’t mean you’re not successful. … As far as the ball club, we’re all new to each other. We have to take our bumps and our bruises. There’s going to be good times. There’s going to be bad times. And that’s what happens with a team that’s new.”
Putting aside the delightful fact that he calls it a “ball club” like he’s an old-timey baseball manager, his contention that you can have a successful season without winning a title is in direct contrast with his take on the topic back in June after the Warriors thumped the Cavs in four straight games of bumps and bruises: “It’s never a success in the postseason when you lose. Not for me.”
While LeBron and the Lakers figure out what success for this “ball club” looks like, the members of the Meme Team—which James has already tried to rename—seemed content to be in each other’s company. Beasley jumped the line and started his media session early just to say hello. Rajon Rondo called James “one of the greatest IQ players” in history and said he looked forward to serving as a mentor to Lonzo Ball. And JaVale McGee couldn’t help but be JaVale McGee.
If he does absolutely nothing else, McGee is a welcome addition to Los Angeles for his willingness to be himself. He might be one of my favorite people to talk to in the league. (I had a lengthy conversation with him last year about his unrepentant and very serious love of fanny packs.) Not surprisingly, McGee was involved in one of Monday’s funnier moments.
You can always count on the local media to overstate a team’s talent. That’s not unique to L.A. There’s some earnest reporter out there somewhere who’s absolutely certain the Orlando Magic are gonna be really good this year. (That reporter’s name is Kevin Clark.) And so, in that tradition, one journalist asked McGee a very, very, very long question that can be shortened and paraphrased thusly: Are the Lakers already better than Golden State? It was such a cringeworthy question that it short-circuited the reporter seated to my right; his head immediately dropped and reflexively fell onto my shoulder.
“I don’t know if I would say that,” McGee replied, trying to let the guy off easy. Then McGee said he was excited to play with “grimy guys who like to get down.”
“This is everybody’s dream—to play for the purple and gold,” McGee continued. “I’m so happy to be here. Things just worked out for me to be here and I love it … LeBron James slash the Los Angeles Lakers. I don’t think anyone who got that call would be like, ‘Uh, nah, I’m OK.’”
Including Lance Stephenson. Especially Lance Stephenson. He wore some fun new Lakers sneakers Monday and generally beamed about being in the mix—which, he admitted, was a bit surprising given his long history as a LeBron antagonist.
“It was definitely surprising, him wanting me to play with him,” Stephenson admitted.
Stephenson said he’s never talked to James about the infamous ear incident—but he’s looking forward to finding the time. “I’m waiting for it,” Stephenson said with a smirk. “I’m waiting for him to say something.” Then he laughed. A lot. The Lakers should televise that exchange if they ever have it. The ratings would be monstrous.
That’s how it went Monday. A cast of characters who were previously hard to imagine being on the same team came together for the first time. Like everyone else, they’re not quite sure how they fit or what their unique puzzle of a roster will look like now once it’s assembled. It will be a process. Rondo probably summarized the whole situation best when he discussed the strange sensation of wearing purple and gold after so many years in shamrock green.
“They’re not used to me in this color,” Rondo said about some of the Lakers staffers. “I’m not, either. I’ll get used to it.”