Chris Chan and Abdel Assy might as well inhabit different planets. Chan hails from Melbourne, Australia. Assy is a Montreal native who lives in Dubai.
Monday, within minutes of each other, they visited the Team LA store at Staples Center with the same purpose: to buy a LeBron James Lakers jersey.
But they had different reasons for wanting one.
Chan is a James fan. Assy is a Lakers fan. Now, they’re on the same team — a reality that came true for legions of LeBron and Lakers loyalists the moment the sides agreed to join forces Sunday, bringing together two monolithic brands with international appeal.
“I have a Miami jersey and a Miami hat,” said Chan, 49, who like Assy was in Los Angeles for vacation. “I have a Cavs jersey and a Cavs hat.”
Chan will have to wait on the Lakers jersey — they were available only online Monday afternoon. But he bought a Lakers hat, affirming his fandom, which was nearly a day old.
Assy, 36, couldn’t recall how he became a Lakers fan growing up in Montreal. It just sort of happened. He loved Magic Johnson, and so it was natural for him to come downtown Monday and pose for photos and videos in front of Johnson’s statue, the day after the Lakers legend reeled in the “biggest fish,” as Assy put it.
As with many basketball fans, Assy’s feelings for James have warmed with time.
“He was pretty annoying when he was in Miami,” Assy said. “He was pretty hated. When he went back to Cleveland, now I think more and more people like him. They kind of hate Golden State and cheer with LeBron.”
As he took in the sights outside Staples Center, Assy scouted a spot for a statue of James.
“He was born to be a Laker,” Assy said.
Not many athletes have a following devoted enough to cheer the name on the back of the jersey over the name on the front, but that is what James has built. In living up to the incomparable hype put on his shoulders as a teenage phenomenon, he has become bigger than even his most passionate supporters could have fathomed.
For many fans, he is like his own franchise. They live and die with his fortunes and misfortunes, so they will root for purple and gold like Chan.
Monday afternoon, Ali Aouled wore James’ Cavaliers jersey as he walked the Venice Beach boardwalk with two friends. They traveled here from Belgium for vacation and were soaking up the scene.
Aouled watches a lot of NBA games and cheers for James over any particular team.
“LeBron is my favorite NBA player,” Aouled said.
Is he now a Lakers fan?
“Yes, yes, of course,” he said.
In this first day of the LeBron-Lakers marriage, it was harder for Lakers fans to embrace James than the other way around. After all, for a generation of fans, to love the Lakers was to love Kobe Bryant. And for some, to love Bryant was to loathe James, who inherited Bryant’s crown as the best player in basketball.
“For 16 years now, we’ve been hating him, and now he’s one of us?” said Devin Downey, a Lakers fan from El Paso, Texas who visited Staples Center on Monday. “I’m probably one of the biggest Kobe fans ever, but he’s coming to L.A., following in Kobe’s footsteps. There should be greatness behind it, supposedly.”
For Lucas Alvernaz, an 18-year-old Lakers fan visiting from East Providence, R.I., Monday was just plain weird. It was Bryant who brought him into the Lakers’ fold, and he wore his Bryant jersey to Staples Center to show his respect.
Alvernaz was not interested in switching to a James jersey.
“Unless he wins a championship,” he said, “I don’t think I’m getting one.”
The conflict is real.
Even among Angelenos, there are those who hold James above the Lakers.
Wesley Harris, 30, plays pickup at the iconic Venice Beach courts and is known as a LeBron guy. He moved here from Richmond, Va., as a boy, and something about James always captivated him — aside from the fact they were both born Dec. 30.
“I was a LeBron fan since he was in high school,” said Harris, who lives in Silver Lake. “I respect him because of what he does for people. He gives inner city kids a second chance [with his charitable work]. I commend him on that. And for him to not get in trouble, too, at that age, and to excel the way he did, people should really look at him as a role model. I believe he will give kids a lot of inspiration and be a great impact on the city.”
Harris owns James’ No. 23 Cavaliers jersey. He brightened at the idea of adding to his collection with the colors of the hometown team.
“Got to have the Lakers,” Harris said. “Got to have the 23.”