Staples Center stirred in anticipation as a thin 32-year-old rookie with taut cheeks and gray-speckled hair walked over to the scorer’s table to check in. The arena erupted when the part-time math tutor made his first three-pointer.
Later, in one corner of the arena an “Ingram” chant began, and they weren’t talking about Brandon. They were talking about the man who spent 10 years playing in tiny gyms or practice facilities, in far-flung towns in flyover states, hoping he’d get a chance in the NBA.
When the fans chanted “M-V-P,” they didn’t mean James Harden, who was also on the court. They meant Andre Ingram, and they were living his fantasy with him.
The past 10 years were all for this day. The times when he wondered if this was all worth it, when he made less than $30,000 a year to play basketball, living with roommates sometimes a decade younger than him, were for this.
“I just felt some electricity out there,” Ingram said. “The crowd. Just being here, the lights. It was once in a lifetime. It was awesome.”
In the first NBA game he has ever played, after 384 in the minors, Andre Ingram led the Lakers in scoring for the first half of Tuesday’s game and didn’t miss a shot until 5:02 remained in the fourth quarter. He finished with 19 points — the most in a Lakers rookie debut since Nick Van Exel had 23 in 1993 — and four three-pointers, the most in a Lakers rookie debut.
The Lakers lost to the Houston Rockets, 105-99. It was a game that meant little except that it made one man’s dream come true.
“He showed the basketball world what kind of shooter he is,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “The only three he missed he got fouled on.”
It started Monday morning.
No, actually, it started 11 years ago, when Ingram went undrafted out of American University. He could have found a job with his degree in physics, but he chose basketball instead. The Utah Flash of the NBA’s developmental league selected him in the seventh round. He played there for four years until the team folded, in a league whose players made between $18,000 and $24,000.
The Los Angeles D-Fenders, now the South Bay Lakers, gave him a shot next. Ingram spent four seasons in Los Angeles, even sometimes scrimmaging against then-D-Fenders assistant Luke Walton. A short stint in Australia preceded a return for the past season and a half with the Lakers’ developmental affiliate.
“Whenever we had a topic of discussion and we had two sides, we went to him and whatever he said was usually the tiebreaker,” said Alex Caruso, who played with Ingram for the South Bay Lakers while on a two-way contract this season.
Caruso has seen the G League break people.
“I have known guys that played a couple of years in the G League and they’re like, ‘Man, I can’t do this anymore’ and they went overseas and they are making good money, but they gave up on the dream because it wasn’t worth the fight,” Caruso said.
Ingram never felt that way — at least not for long.
Monday morning, Ingram thought he was going into the Lakers offices for an exit meeting with the South Bay Lakers. But as he walked into the room, he saw Magic Johnson, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka and Walton.
Ingram smiled brightly when South Bay Lakers general manager Nick Mazzella told him that this wasn’t just an exit meeting. The Lakers were calling him up. Finally.
Ingram called his wife in Richmond, Va., and she began screaming. His mother, there in Richmond, too, started screaming with her.
“They probably let out what I truly wanted to let out,” Ingram said.
When Ingram checked into the game, Chris Paul checked in with him. The veteran point guard told Ingram he was proud of him, he also noted they are the same age.
“I’ve been in the D-League, G League because I want to be in [the NBA],” Ingram said. “It was always that thought from the start, from graduating to now.”
The only time he considered leaving was when his first daughter was born. He wondered if he should try something else, if there was a better, more responsible way to make a living and raise a family. But his wife never wavered in her support of his dream and he never quit.
That daughter is 6 years old now. Her name is Maliyah and on Tuesday night, she was in Staples Center with her mom and sister. She saw her dad’s three-pointer cut the Rockets’ lead to three late in the fourth quarter. Then she saw 18,000 people leap to their feet to scream for him all because he never gave up.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli