Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond had a vexing question about Alex Caruso for former Lakers center DeMarcus Cousins as the two big men faced each other in last week’s NBA 2K Players Tournament.
“So what’s the hype about Caruso,” Drummond asked. “Why does everyone love him so much?”
The stern-faced Cousins, who was getting blown out at the time, quickly flashed a smile.
“Man, he the GOAT,” Cousins said. “A.C. the GOAT, dog. That’s it. He the GOAT.”
Drummond nodded his head. The answer was now crystal clear to him.
“Nothing else needs to be said, he’s just the GOAT,” Drummond said. “I heard that. Alex Caruso, the GOAT.”
A nickname such as the GOAT, an acronym for “greatest of all time,” is normally reserved for a superstar like LeBron James, but it was actually James who first called Caruso that after fans referred to the follicly challenged Lakers 26-year-old backup point guard as Bald Mamba and Bald Eagle.
“It’s funny,” Caruso said. “Every time it comes up, it’s funny. It has kind of lost its pop to me because everyone on the team says it now, but when it first started happening it was funny and it was a good laugh. Everyone still enjoys it and they’re still saying it.
“The outside world might be taking it in basketball terms but I think when my teammates say it, they’re just speaking to the kind of teammate I am and the kind of guy I am. I’m just another one of the guys who happens to be really good at basketball and don’t look like I should be.”
Caruso and the Lakers should be preparing for the start of the NBA playoffs this weekend but instead, like most everyone else, they remain stuck at home. After failing to make the postseason the last six years, the Lakers were one of the championship favorites going into the stretch run this year. When the NBA season was suspended March 11 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lakers had a 5½-game lead atop the Western Conference.
“It’s disappointing not being able to continue playing basketball and get ready for the playoffs and chase our goal of winning a championship,” Caruso said. “It’s crazy. Everything is so unprecedented and no one has any answers. I’ve tried my best to take it day by day, but it’s hard.
“Everyone wants to see this season through. We want to win a championship but even teams that are playing for the eight seed want to see it through because they’re trying to make the playoffs and see what can happen. It’s also just about the love of the game. We all love playing basketball so much and we want to go back out there and do what we love again.”
Caruso considered going home to Texas — he was born in College Station and attended Texas A&M — after the season was suspended but he wanted to avoid airports so he decided to stay at his South Bay home near the Lakers’ training facility, which has been shut down as well.
While he has been unable to train and play basketball there, the Lakers sent their players equipment to work out at home.
“We do group workouts on Zoom and we all got a little care package of weights, bands and yoga mats and we’re going through a normal workout that we would go through with our trainers but with minimal weights obviously,” Caruso said. “We’re doing the best we can with the home workouts, I got a treadmill, I’m riding a bike and running. It’s been a struggle not having access to our facility but we’re trying to make the best of it and be ready to go when it’s time to come back.”
The hardest part of the season’s suspension, Caruso said, is being away from his teammates, who had become an extension of his family after he signed a two-year, $5.5-million contract last summer. After bouncing back and forth between the Lakers and their G League affiliate his first two seasons, he had finally settled into a stable role.
“It’s been so hard being away from everyone because we had so much fun playing together and we were really starting to find our groove before the season stopped,” Caruso said. “To be able to have a group of guys like we do that clicked so easily and just enjoy being around each other was special.
“We have a group text that we started even before the season and that’s still going on right now. Even though we’re not seeing each other face to face we’re sending each other funny videos and we’re chopping it up and catching up and seeing how everyone is doing.”
Caruso has kept in touch with many of his friends and family through video games and even started a Twitch channel where he streams himself playing “Call of Duty: Warzone,” “Fortnite” and “FIFA.” He sighed before one of his first streams and said, “Oh man, I’m really about to be a pro streamer for a month.”
It looks like that may be the case for at least another month or more as the NBA discusses various options to continue the season, possibly at a neutral site without fans.
“I set it up a week after our season got suspended,” Caruso said. “It was something I thought would be a good idea because I’m playing games regularly online with my buddies from back home, so I might as well stream it for people that want to watch. A cool part of it is the fans get to interact with you. They get to ask you questions and they get to know you as a person rather than just what they see on TV.”
The chats on Caruso’s stream have enabled him to connect with many Lakers fans, who embraced him the moment he signed the team’s first two-way contract in 2017. It was the fans who placed him fourth among Western Conference guards when the All-Star vote totals were tallied, ahead of players like Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker, who actually played in this year’s game.
Caruso said it would be hard to imagine playing games without fans but knows that may be part of a new temporary normal that he said, “definitely won’t feel normal.”
“It’s been a fun journey with L.A.,” Caruso said. “I came here on a two-way contract and spent my first two years on two-way deals and Lakers fans have gone through this journey with me and for them to accept me as part of the Lakers family is so special. It’s nice to be able to connect with the fans and it makes my experience that much more enjoyable when I can go out there and hear them cheering for me. I can’t wait to do that again.”