Shortly after brandishing a Lakers jersey to cheers at a televised news conference in El Segundo on Thursday, new point guard Jeremy Lin stood behind a gift bag table at skid row’s Midnight Mission before a decidedly less appreciative audience.
“Which one’s the basketball player?” one woman asked, gesturing to Lin and the two shorter, older men standing beside him. A dozen more skid row residents filed by without a backwards glance.
Finally, a woman shouted “New York Knicks!” and Lin smiled.
“Nah, we gotta root for the Lakers now,” Lin said.
Lin officially joined the Lakers on Thursday after a trade with the Houston Rockets. Sports pundits say Lin, who was born in Torrance, will help the Lakers tap the city’s huge Asian demographic - the largest in the nation, according to Nielsen data.
But on skid row, Lin’s fan base proved considerably thinner.
“Not sure who Jeremy Lin is,” said Reginald Monson, 55. “He’s one of those Oriental guys, right? He better be with it, cause Kobe needs some help.”
The Lakers organization partnered with the Midnight Mission to hand out a thousand gift bags containing soap, razors, toothpaste, deodorant and hand wipes as part of their charitable giving efforts. The Midnight Mission often enlists athletes, celebrities and companies to help hand out food at lunchtime on skid row, but Thursday marked the first time that the Lakers had gotten involved, said Chief Executive Larry Adamson.
“We’re right in their backyard, and it’s great that they are recognizing that they have a responsibility to this community,” Adamson said.
Lakers guard Nick Young and shooting guard Xavier Henry also appeared at the event Friday, though they left before lunch - a tray of baked beans, salad, meat stew over rice, and a greek yogurt that everyone kept trying to trade. Leftovers were shoved into plastic bags to eat on the go.
Young, a native of Los Angeles, said he’d driven by skid row before, but never been out on the streets. But like any L.A. neighborhood, there were plenty of Lakers fans, Young said.
“It’s still L.A., they’re Lakers fans,” Young said. “They still know sports out here.”
It’s tougher to follow the games without television or permanent housing, but some homeless watch the games at friends’ houses or catch the scores in the next day’s newspaper, Monson said. He even had some advice for the team.
“Kobe keeps trying to do everything by himself and getting injured,” said Monson, attacking the tray of food before him without pause. “He needs to get healthy and come back for real.”
Rosa Miller, 52, was also concerned about Bryant’s return. She’s bullish on Xavier Henry, and she encouraged Young, who gets heat for not passing the ball enough, to “keep up his swag.”
As for Lin?
“Yeah uh, good player. But you know what, I miss Gasol,” Miller said.
Lin was untroubled by the lack of attention. He had just returned from a trip to Taiwan, where his movements are heralded by front-page headlines and he is mobbed most places he goes.
“Nah, this is how it always is in America,” Lin said.
Lin said he had never been to skid row before. He was “keeping his eyes open” for new directions for his charity, the Jeremy Lin Foundation, Lin said.
Tina Biris, who along with her five daughters have been Lakers fans since Magic Johnson’s time, said she didn’t recognize Lin either.
“Whoever he is, I hope he’s good,” Biris said. “We need to play better this year.”