A two-story building encircles the practice courts at the Lakers’ training facility, and when the gym is empty, the two-story-high ceilings lend a theatrical element to the space. Team executives Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have offices with windows overlooking the courts, with the Lakers’ championship banners hanging directly in their lines of sight.
From his perch this summer, Pelinka looked down and saw LeBron James on a folding chair on the court while outside the sun just started to rise over El Segundo. Pelinka saw him look into the rafters for a moment.
“Who knows exactly what was going on in his head, but you have to think he was reflecting on the history of the Lakers and the great players and the championships and the respect he had for all of the numbers that are retired on the wall,” the general manager said. “And just thinking now it’s his turn to etch his name in this storybook franchise. So just the reverence for the game is unbelievable.”
James’ affinity for the Lakers has been well-documented over the years, and after he signed with the team he said he relished the chance to be part of its history. But the admiration the Lakers have for him surpasses his esteem for the franchise. Since James came into the gym, the men who ushered him into the organization have watched in awe.
“Just beautiful to watch him play,” said Johnson, the president of basketball operations. “It’s just fun how he rallies everybody. It’s just beautiful to see him think three or four plays ahead. You get to just see it.”
The Lakers will kick off their 2018-19 season Monday with media day, formally introducing James to the market for the first time. Starting Tuesday, practice will begin for one of the most anticipated Lakers seasons in years.
James signed a four-year deal worth $153.3 million July 9, after agreeing to the deal July 1, the first day of free agency. It was the Lakers’ first win in free agency in years and easily their best acquisition in decades.
Quickly after that, the Lakers signed veterans JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley to fill out their roster. They joined returning players Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Ivica Zubac as well as draft picks Moe Wagner, Svi Mykhailiuk and Isaac Bonga.
Although practices officially start Tuesday, the Lakers’ training facility in El Segundo has been open for months and unofficial practices have taken place for weeks.
Johnson saw that first hand Thursday morning. Hours later, he laughed at the memory, delighted by the competition he saw on the court.
First, Rondo, the veteran point guard, declined to be on James’ team. He wanted to play against James and take him on in the pickup game. Johnson loved that. He also enjoyed James’ presence.
“You see him on the court but also in the weight room he’s the same way, it’s just amazing,” Johnson. “So it’s been fun for me and I’m excited.”
Returning Lakers players had been in the training facility for months. The rookies and Hart were part of the Lakers’ summer league team. Kuzma spent any time he could in the facility. Ball was there, but limited as he recovered from two knee procedures. In different ways, they were all working on the things Johnson and Pelinka asked them to improve at the end of last season.
Kuzma has shown himself repeatedly to be unafraid of the stars around him. He was the only Lakers rookie last season to spend time with Kobe Bryant. When James signed with the Lakers, Kuzma called James right away.
From coach Luke Walton to Johnson, the Lakers have been impressed by Kuzma’s growth. James’ insertion into the gym gave Kuzma something else to which he could aspire.
One moment in particular stood out to Johnson. During a game Thursday morning, he saw James declare that he planned to take the ball right at Kuzma then shoot a three in his face. Sure enough, James drove right toward Kuzma, faked a shot and then pulled up for a three that sank perfectly through the net.
“That’s the greatness of LeBron,” Johnson said. “He’s going to rub off on Kuzma.”
It all reminded the allegorically inclined Pelinka of a story.
“I don’t know if it’s an ancient tale of old but of the young kitten that is running around the jungle and it sees a bobcat and says, ‘Well it’s a bigger cat, it must be a lion,’” Pelinka said. “And it starts mimicking the bobcat and thinks it’s become the king of the jungle. A year later, along comes a male lion and the little cat is like, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize what the lion’s roar was until I saw and heard it. Now I know how to become a lion.’ ”
In the story, the kitten represents the Lakers’ young core. As Pelinka sees it, they now have a lion to follow.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli