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Column: Unlike others in NBA, Lakers start strong by embracing COVID vaccination discussion

Lakers teammates Russell Westbrook, left, and Anthony Davis chat during media day in El Segundo.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Lakers put on their most impressive media day performance in years Tuesday by displaying a dazzling array of shots.

Not shots taken, but shots received.

While much of the rest of the NBA ran from the COVID vaccination discussion, the Lakers embraced it, the league’s oldest team acting like its most mature team, revealing the sort of collective wisdom befitting a group favored to win a championship.

Basketball boss Rob Pelinka earlier said the team was going to be 100% vaccinated by opening night Oct. 19, indicating a level of understanding not consistent throughout a league that is 90% vaccinated. Sure enough, when the Lakers took the stage on the gym floor of their El Segundo practice facility Tuesday, most of them answered the vaccination questions like a public service commercial.

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They came out firing. They came out connected. It was a strong start.

I asked LeBron James whether he was vaccinated, and, for the first time, he acknowledged that he was.

Lakers media day has started this morning at their training center in El Segundo. Join Dan Woike and Broderick Turner for updates.

“I know that I was very skeptical about it all,” he said. “But after doing my research and things of that nature, I felt like it was best suited, not only for me but for my family and my friends. And that’s why I decided to do it.”

James, who said he doesn’t openly campaign for the vaccination because it’s a personal issue, noted that in becoming fully vaccinated, the Lakers literally took one for the team.

“I think at the end of the day, you always are trying to figure out ways that you can always be available and protect one another and put yourself in the best possible chance where you’re available to your teammates, available to what we need to do on the floor,” he said. “And the ultimate goal is to, obviously win a championship, and it starts with being, obviously, health is the No. 1 thing. … We’re excited to know that we’ve given ourselves another opportunity to be available to each other, and that’s what it came down to.”

This Lakers culture of unselfishness was also addressed Tuesday by Anthony Davis, who had earlier acknowledged he has been vaccinated and was now explaining why.

“I just wanted to make sure I always protect my family, and that’s first and foremost, and myself and everyone else around me, and I feel like everyone else on the team feels the same way,” Davis said. “That’s the main focus for us, making sure that our organization is doing everything we can to help the world, help the community and do our part.”

To stubbornly anti-vaxxer players such as Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving and Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins, players who are selfishly dividing their team while harming their communities, are you listening?

Media day for the 2021 Los Angeles Lakers included Anthony Davis and LeBron James, and newcomers Russell Westbrook and Dwight Howard.

Kent Bazemore used to be one of those players. While playing for Golden State this past spring, he declared he wouldn’t get the vaccine. Now a newly signed Laker, he said Tuesday that he recently received the first dose, with the second dose coming in a couple of weeks. The reason for the change of heart? He was actually convinced by Pelinka.

In an NBA filled with league officials who are unable to impose the toughest non-vaccination restrictions and team executives who refuse to release vaccination rates because they wrongly believe public health should be a private matter — Clippers, we’re looking at you — Pelinka’s behavior is as unimaginable as it is laudable.

The Lakers not only publicize the shots, they push them.

“When the vaccine first came out, I felt like it was kind of forced on me, and I’m not a person who responds well to that and it just kind of put this shell around me. … I’m a big energy person. I didn’t really feel the right energy toward it,” Bazemore said. “But I had a good call with Rob Pelinka, and he laid it down to me in the most fairly honest way that I ever heard.”

Hmmm. Honestly, is there a chance Pelinka intimated, implied or just hinted he wouldn’t sign Bazemore if he didn’t get the shots?

“No, no,” said Bazemore, whose ensuing answer screamed yes, yes.

“I made a decision to go through with it because at the end of the day … one thing you don’t want to have is regret,” Bazemore said. “If I go to another team or miss this season because I didn’t do it, or I got to watch these guys probably with the Larry O’Brien Trophy, I’m going to be pretty hurt. … This is a situation I can’t pass up. I’m glad I’m putting it behind me.”

Where many other players in the NBA have awkwardly and painfully refused to discuss the vaccination this week, especially after officials in San Francisco and New York said unvaccinated players couldn’t play or practice indoors there, Bazemore spoke with an easygoing smile.

“I got one big monkey off my back, especially pertaining to my job and what it would cost not being able to play in a gym inside of the whole state of California or New York,” he said. “I can sleep well at night knowing that I don’t have to deal with that.”

One Laker apparently still dealing with the subject internally is noted anti-vaxxer and anti-masker Dwight Howard. In keeping with the stated team percentages, it is reasonable to believe that Howard has been vaccinated, but he still couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge it.

“I don’t even want to talk about, I’m sorry, I just want to keep it personal. That’s not anybody’s business to know what we do with our bodies,” he said, although it’s clearly the public’s business if you’re going to use that unmasked body to run up and down a basketball court in front of 19,000 witnesses.

Howard added: “I don’t think it should be anybody’s business what shots you get, what vaccines you get. Because there’s a million vaccines out there that people have gotten, and I don’t think we all talk about which vaccines we’ve gotten besides this one.”

Fine, you don’t need to say it. The statement has already been made. Unlike some other teams in the NBA, the Lakers aren’t going to allow unfounded fears and selfish priorities block the attainable destination of this potentially wild ride of a season.

They’re old, they’re creaky, but, as Tuesday proved, they’re committed. They’re together. They’re vaccinated.

“Our goal and what we’re trying to accomplish, we don’t want nothing compromising that,” forward Carmelo Anthony said. “I know we can’t control a lot of things. We can’t control … COVID and things like that, but we can do what we have to do to try to prevent it.”

When asked about the vaccinations, Anthony proudly smiled and repeated a statistic that runs far deeper than the numbers.

“We’re 100%,” he said. “We’re 100%.”

Practice has not even started, and already their shooting is perfect.


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