Luke Walton has often insisted he just hasn’t had the time to think about how cool it was to be the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Even just one hour before the Lakers played the Sacramento Kings in their exhibition opener Tuesday night, the butterflies hadn’t hit.
Then he walked out onto the court at the Honda Center in Anaheim with assistant coach Brian Shaw, and for a moment he let himself feel just how much this meant to him.
“It was awesome,” Walton said after the Lakers 103-84 win. “It really – once the game starts you don’t ever think about it again, but walking out there next to B-Shaw was a pretty special feeling tonight.”
The Lakers began the game with a statement. They locked arms during the national anthem to join nationwide protests of police brutality and social injustice. It was a sign of solidarity with protests during the national anthem that started with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Players expect to continue the protests, and they’ll do it with the team’s support.
“As a group, the players decided that was the way they wanted to show something needs to be done about what’s happening, and do it together,” Walton said. “That was their decision. I would expect it, yeah. But I don’t know the answer to that. We will continue to encourage them whatever they decide to do.”
As for Walton, the even-keeled demeanor that his players have come to expect returned almost immediately to Walton. He shared a laugh with former teammate Jordan Farmar, now a guard for the Kings, then turned his attention quickly to the task at hand.
An emotional moment turned into just the next step in the learning process, the next teaching opportunity he’d have for the young team he’s charged to revitalize.
“Luke is as cool as they come,” Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. said. “That’s something we all love about him. Whether the game’s going frantic or we need to pick it up he’s going to be that rock. Somebody we can look to, to keep us levelheaded. Whether he had butterflies or not, we couldn’t tell. He did a terrific job of hiding it.”
His demeanor didn’t change when the Kings opened with an 8-0 run against the Lakers starting lineup of Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng and Lou Williams. It didn’t waver when center Tarik Black’s defensive energy helped bring the Lakers back from a 19-point deficit, or when he gave the Lakers their first lead of the game with 10:34 remaining in the fourth quarter. Black and Lou Williams each scored 15 points for the Lakers.
“He’s a pretty poised guy,” Black said. “We’re not sure what goes on in his mind sometimes. He’s very poised which is a good thing. He sets the tone and sets the culture for our team. We’re very calm as well, but we still want to play hard, still want to get after it.”
While his player celebrated, Walton kept thinking about the fundamentals he’d taught and what remained to learn.
The Lakers will take Wednesday off, but return to practice on Thursday.
“We knew he was destined for something like this,” Farmar said. “He has a great basketball mind, and his ability to deal with people is amazing. … He is unbelievably charismatic, he cares about people, he knows the game, he’s fun to be around, and all that translates into being a good coach in this league.”