The fans didn’t know this man. This 7-footer who would be recognizable to most seasoned NBA fans was near invisible to this crowd, even when his name was announced.
This wasn’t Staples Center.
Instead, JaVale McGee stood before video-game fans at the Blizzard Arena, a TV studio-turned stadium in Burbank that hosts the Overwatch e-sports league, during halftime of a playoff game Friday between the Los Angeles Valiant and the London Spitfire. Fans clapped, but it felt more out of courtesy than genuine excitement, a world away from the reception he’s likely to receive when his name is announced as a member of the Lakers on opening night.
The fans did get rowdy when McGee was asked about the major differences between his chosen sport of basketball and the Overwatch League, a 12-team league that’s close to concluding its inaugural season.
“At first I thought there were differences,” McGee told the crowd. “... But it’s a sport. There are basically no differences.”
Thunder sticks echoed through the ears of the hundreds in attendance when McGee finished that thought, which he justified with all the similarities between basketball and professional gaming, from the arena to the nutrition programs to, most importantly to him, the dedication to the craft.
McGee signed with the Lakers in early July and is coming off consecutive NBA titles with the Golden State Warriors. He said the biggest lesson he hopes to impart to his new team is the commonality he emphasized Friday: Championships arise, he said, from hard work more than anything else.
He hopes he can help instill that mentality in some of the younger Lakers, but being a veteran presence for such players as Moritz Wagner, Svi Mykhailiuk and Josh Hart isn’t the only reason he chose the Lakers. He said he signed with them because of their brand and history, but also for the opportunity to build and make his own brand and history.
That started with the announcement by LeBron James that he would sign with the Lakers.
McGee said the Lakers reached out to him a couple hours after James’ announcement to gauge his interest. He quickly decided he wanted to be a Laker. His one-year deal is for a reported $2.4 million.
“It’s extremely exciting,” he said. “I think about all the time how I’ll be able to say that during my career, I played with the greatest players of my era. Hopefully, I’ll be able to say I won championships with those players.”
His playoff numbers (6.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game) are modest, but the Lakers are hoping his experience, coupled with that of James and fellow veteran acquisitions Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley, can help the team end a five-year postseason drought.
McGee, Stephenson, Rondo and Beasley have made the playoffs a combined 24 times. That experience could be helpful, although McGee said he’s already impressed with the team’s less-experienced players.
“The young guys here are really focused on their brands, and they’re focused on getting into the gym and getting better,” he said, “and you can just see it from the summer league experience and how everybody’s playing.”
He also described his former Bay Area home as “a little bit more chill” than Los Angeles, where so far, he hasn’t experienced a moment of boredom.
Whether that means his trip to the Blizzard Arena, his private business ventures or events and practices with the Lakers, McGee said that, at least for now, he’s enjoying the bustle.
That bustle contributed to L.A.’s allure, but so did his child-like desire to play for the Lakers, and with James.
“As a kid, you always wanna play for either the Lakers or Boston just for the rivalry alone,” he said, “so to have the opportunity to come into a winning situation with LeBron coming also, you can’t deny that. And then to have the opportunity to actually contribute to this was even better.”
Follow Ethan Bauer on Twitter @ebaueri