Column: Tyson Chandler’s debut with Lakers was part agony and a bigger part ecstasy

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers
Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns, left, posts up Lakers’ Tyson Chandler during the first half at Staples Center on Wednesday.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

His legs were cramping. His back was aching.

Tyson Chandler felt his age.

And it was glorious.

“Honestly, I can’t describe it,” Chandler said. “It’s amazing.”

In the aftermath of his first game for the Lakers this week, the juxtaposition of his physical and emotional conditions was striking. As his 36-year-old body was in pain, the youthful spirit inside him was beaming.

Even after more than 1,100 games between the regular season and playoffs, even after 18-plus seasons in the NBA, basketball was still capable of transforming Chandler back into the boy from San Bernardino with a dream.

Chandler was an All-America center on Compton Dominguez High’s nationally ranked team during what was a particularly eventful period on the Southern California basketball scene. The Lakers were building a dynasty around Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

So when Chandler made his Lakers debut Wednesday night in a 114-110 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the memories flooded back, for both him and the Staples Center audience. Now an old man by the standards of his sport, the former preps-to-pros phenom was finally playing for his hometown team. He entered the game with 3 minutes and 8 seconds remaining in the opening quarter. The crowd welcomed him home, this time with the warmth reserved for a home player, not the hostility directed at visitors.

Chandler was reflective later when recalling the scene.

“It’s honestly all love,” Chandler said. “I love this city the way they love me. When you’re homegrown from here and going to high school and all of that and you’ve got these same fans that have been watching and now you represent the jersey that everyone’s been cheering for their entire lives, you kind of become one.”

He smiled.

“I’ve been on the other side and played the villain,” he said. “Now, it’s great to be on this side and actually rep them.”

Standing 7-foot-1, Chandler will provide the Lakers with some much-needed size, as his presence will allow coach Luke Walton to play with a true center when starter JaVale McGee requires a breather.

“It gives us more options, right?” Walton said. “It allows us to make some decisions based on how the game is going and what we feel we need most at that moment.”

Chandler can still play defense. He can still rebound. He has knowledge to share.

But there is more.

The Lakers are only 11 games into their season, but they already look and sound tense. Walton’s future has already become a subject of speculation. The team’s younger players such as Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are fighting to prove they should be considered part of the franchise’s long-term solutions. LeBron James has been spared of any criticism, but he has to know that’s only temporary. If the Lakers aren’t a contender by next season, questions will be directed at him, too.

Chandler has an opportunity to inject a measure of joyous enthusiasm into the locker room. His excitement extends beyond wearing a Lakers uniform. Equally important to him was playing alongside James.

The only other time Chandler played with James was during the 2012 Olympics.

“LeBron is the greatest player of our generation, so to be able to lace them up with him, it’s a great opportunity,” Chandler said. “Like I told him, I’m going to follow his lead. He’s an incredible leader. I’m looking forward to adding to that, trying to get this thing started.”

The more Chandler talked about James, the more the fan within him emerged.

“I haven’t played with a closer like that since Derrick (Rose),” Chandler said. “To be able to have him close out games, I know how special he is on both ends, defensively and offensively. I just want to take some of the pressure off of him. The more pressure I can take off of him, it will free him up to do all the special things he’s been doing his entire career.”

Chandler said he was fortunate to be waived by the rebuilding Phoenix Suns at this stage of the season.

“When things came up and I looked at the list of teams, I couldn’t honestly pass up this opportunity and be a part of something that’s going to be great,” Chandler said.

The outpouring of delight was somewhat of a surprise, as Chandler spoke with a sense of detachment when asked about what he could offer the team.

He said of his teammates, “They got young fresh legs so they fly up and down the court. My job is to help get stops and rebounds and get them out.”

He alluded multiple times to how he’s compensating for his diminished mobility with a know-how that was developed over nearly two decades in the league.

He collected eight rebounds in 23 minutes Wednesday, including a tap-out with 12 seconds remaining and the Lakers holding on to a one-point advantage. Of the final offensive rebound that helped seal the victory, Chandler said, “I’ve been in the league long enough to know where the opposing team is supposed to be when they’re trying to rebound to close the game out.”

Chandler also spent significant stretches guarding Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, who failed to make a field goal in the second half.

“He’s a champion for a reason,” Kuzma said.

Chandler won a championship with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011. But he shared how he experienced a surge of adrenaline at the team’s shootaround before the game Wednesday. And he acknowledged he was in awe of the jerseys hanging from the rafters at Staples Center.

“Being from here and watching the tradition over the years and then being able to be out here and see all the numbers up there, it’s pride,” Chandler said.

Chandler is the oldest player on the team by almost two years. But if he feels like it, it’s only physically.