Before LeBron James got announced to the roar of a home crowd for the first time as a Laker on Saturday night, the man with more points than anyone ever to play in the NBA walked down the aisle between the first and second rows to his seat.
Phones were in the air, snapping photos and filming videos as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar strolled by, but hardly anyone was thinking about the 38,387 points he scored in his career. No, the Lakers fans at Staples Center were more peeved with the big man’s most recent block.
Even though Abdul-Jabbar is immortalized in a statue outside of Staples Center, he was just a large, moving barrier between those cellphones and LeBron James, who was on the court, merely warming up.
This was something special, something memorable — LeBron James’ first real game in front of his new fans. He was no longer on the other side of Kobe Bryant in the “Who’s Better?” argument. The No. 24 jerseys? They stayed on the hanger in favor of those new gold No. 23 ones.
Whether or not the Lakers won Saturday night, that was secondary. This was all about the newest Laker legend, one with just a single game under his purple waistband.
Think Los Angeles isn’t a wildly patriotic place? Just show James’ face on the scoreboard during the Star Spangled Banner and you’ll hear quite the support for America.
The fans were seated full well before pregame introductions. Jack Nicholson was back sitting courtside. Jimmy Iovine was in the front row. Two other people with statues outside of Staples Center — Elgin Baylor and Magic Johnson — made sure to be in the building.
And when the Lakers and James walked off the court for the first timeout with the score tied at 14, the crowd reacted like the team had just taken a lead early in Game 7. This night, more than most, was all about him. The souvenir stand fans first saw when they walked into the arena sold nine different shirts or jerseys with James’ name, number or likeness.
The surface-level enjoyment of it all can’t be understated. There are 82 games in an NBA season; Game 2 shouldn’t feel like the playoffs. But that was the word Rockets’ staffers were using to describe the anticipated atmosphere before the seats even filled in.
Let’s ignore the basketball issues that the Lakers face. Saturday wasn’t a time to stress about how close the Lakers are to not having someone capable of being a center if JaVale McGee were to get hurt. Let’s ignore that the Lakers made only a quarter of their three-point shots in the first half.
There’s a reasonable amount of faith that over the course of the year, James will fix all of this because, well, he’s James. At every stop along the way, the shortcomings have been overshadowed by all the things a team can do because they have the best player in NBA history.
Before Saturday’s housewarming party for the Lakers’ new King, Lakers coach Luke Walton talked about all the “hubbub,” as one reporter put it, in front of the largest media contingent he’d ever faced as a coach.
He wanted it to bring his group together to focus on the positive energy that comes from the excitement around his basketball team and to block out the negatives, like the potential for added criticism. But on the whole, Walton said he views the attention to be a good thing.
Whether the Lakers are winning, whether the Lakers are struggling to find their rhythm, everyone will be excitedly watching, focused squarely on James and his new team.
Just ask Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.