LeBron James sat on the bench wearing a Lakers sweat suit with the hood pulled up over his head. He looked into a camera in the nearby media seats and grinned. Then he started to sing “God Bless America.”
“My hoooome, sweet hooooome,” James sang, finishing up his performance.
It was almost time. He hadn’t been home since Monday, but mere hours remained until he would board a return flight.
The Lakers concluded a bizarre week abroad Saturday with a 91-77 loss to the Brooklyn Nets before extracting themselves from a potential geopolitical maelstrom. And they didn’t get out unscathed. Anthony Davis left the game after the first quarter with a sprained right thumb and did not return. It’s unclear how serious the injury is, but Davis had black tape wrapped around his thumb afterward.
Davis, who returned to the court after he injured his hand blocking a shot, and James each played 12 minutes and scored six points, making two of seven shots each. They both had three steals and James contributed four assists. Davis will undergo further evaluation of his sprained thumb after arrival in L.A.
Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and Danny Green started alongside James and Davis. The lineup was smaller than the starting groups in the first two preseason games when either Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee started. Of that group, Bradley played the most, with 25 minutes in the game and scoring eight points with two assists and four rebounds.
Their week began with a 13-hour flight during which relations between the NBA and China disintegrated from the fallout over a tweet sent by Houston Rockets general mangaer Daryl Morey that supported Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.
Consequently, the two games in China became the first two NBA games abroad that included no media availability. The teams spent most of their time in their hotels, gathering for meals every so often. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver held news conferences in Mumbai, India, and Tokyo earlier in the month, but never spoke publicly in China. He left the country before the Lakers and Nets played in Shenzhen.
The arena sold out with an announced attendance of 17,396 people. Perhaps because of the time that had passed since the start of the controversy over Morey’s tweet, the environment around Shenzhen felt less tense than in Shanghai. Advertisements for the game remained present in the airport. There was still a heavy police presence in the arena, and some fans wore Chinese flag stickers on their cheeks, but the presence of the national banner was much less thick.
Just as with their game in Shanghai, the crowd in Shenzhen hung on James’ every move.
Across the way from James, just after his singing performance, a fan yelled his name. James acknowledged the voice in the crowd, then others started shouting for him and James good-naturedly jerked his head from side to side, trying to see them all.
Everyone on the bench, including James, leaped to their feet moments later when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope elevated for a dunk attempt. The ball violently bounced off the rim and plopped into a container filled with gum and candy on the scorers’ table but the crowd barely reacted to it. Instead their focus was on James. A thundering chant of “L-B-J” suddenly erupted.
There will be little time for recovery — the team is scheduled to play three preseason games against the Golden State Warriors this week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
But they’ll do so in a more familiar place.