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Newsletter: What winning the NBA championship meant to each Laker

Guard Rajon Rondo and his son, Rajon Jr., celebrate on the court after the Lakers won the title on Sunday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Hi, this is Tania Ganguli, Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, here with your Lakers newsletter.

The Lakers are NBA champions, as you might have heard.

We have so much coverage from the championship run. From the Lakers’ social justice messages, to the mental health aspects of being in the bubble and what executive got to bring pets. There’s also my story on Jeanie Buss and what she went through to get to this point. She and I talked about how she handled the last two years, why she stood by Rob Pelinka and, yes, the sexism she sees still.

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All of that is in the above ‘Lakers are champions’ link.

And now it’s already time to look forward, starting with Anthony Davis. He was asked about his future while still covered in champagne. My outstanding colleague Broderick Turner examined why he is likely to opt out of the final year of his contract and re-sign with the Lakers.

Rather than do a bunch of links to stories at the end of the newsletter, I’ll share notes about each player who isn’t LeBron James or Anthony Davis. There are so many stories of redemption, of human emotion or even just quirky notes about these players and what winning the NBA Finals meant to them.

But first …

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You just don’t know

Frank Vogel said that again and again about James.

“He’s the greatest player the basketball universe has ever seen, and if you think you know, you don’t know, OK, until you’re around him every day, you’re coaching him, you’re seeing his mind, you’re seeing his adjustments, seeing the way he leads the group,” Vogel said. “You think you know; you don’t know.”

I asked Vogel if he could share an example that taught him that.

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“It literally happened every day,” Vogel said. “Every day we’re in film and we’re talking about our team. Every day I talk to him before practice or before a game, this is what I’m feeling about the team, this is the direction I think we can go, I think we can move the needle some in this direction.

“You know, decisiveness is an incredible quality to have, and to have his mind and be able to use him as a resource to, partner with him, the things I’m seeing on tape, believing in, with his mind, to collaborate with the decisions on how to move forward with our group, it’s just — I don’t know if there’s one or two instances that you can point to. But just every damn day.”

What this title meant to the Lakers

Danny Green — On Sunday, Green became one of four players in NBA history to win championships with three different teams, joining James, John Salley and Robert Horry. Green won a championship with the San Antonio Spurs, then another one after the Spurs traded him and Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors. In the summer of 2019, when Leonard chose the Clippers, Green chose the Lakers and started every game he played this season. He took a lot of heat while in the bubble, particularly for one shot he missed in Game 5 of the Finals that might have won the game. None of his teammates blamed the loss on him but some others did. Sunday night he posted a photo of himself smoking a cigar with the words: “What they gon say now?”

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — It was true that signing Caldwell-Pope gave the Lakers a chance to show James’ inner circle — the two have the same agent — what their organization was like. Caldwell-Pope handled that conversation with grace, just as he did at the start of this season when he took criticism. But Caldwell-Pope also proved his value to the team and was critically important during their postseason run when he started due to Avery Bradley opting out of the bubble. “It was just all about having a clear mind and a clear head space to go out there and play, not worry about what everybody else was saying about me,” Caldwell-Pope said. “Because I know my job and I know I do my job very well.”

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Alex Caruso — Postgame, he watched James and Davis be interviewed while standing on the court with his parents, who had been in the bubble for more than a month. He couldn’t help but think about his journey. “I was holding back emotions on the court,” said Caruso, who was a two-way player last season before landing a two-year deal this season. “I worked so hard and been to so many different workouts, practices, arenas and flights. I just kept grinding and believing in myself. People may have doubted me. Maybe even teams doubted what I was capable of, but at the end of the day, I know what I’m capable of. Coach put me in the starting lineup tonight and I was ready.”

Rajon Rondo — His presence and his mind were missed dearly when he left the bubble in July to deal with a hand injury. After Sunday’s game, Rondo sat on the court for a while, surrounded by confetti, with this son, Rajon Jr., next to him. The kid drank apple cider straight out of the bottle while the dad drank champagne. Neither father nor son slept well after their Game 5 loss. “I think the first question he asked when we won, he was like, ‘When do I get my ring?’” Rondo said. “I’m extremely excited to be able to get his size, his ring size, and order him one, as well.”

Dwight Howard — Seven years removed from his first stint with the Lakers, Howard returned to Los Angeles humbled and ready to be a role player for another opportunity. He spent all season talking about how he had no ego (though he’d said that before) and saying that he’d visualized his team as champions. On Sunday his image came true. “I know a couple years ago I said I am a champion and people laughed,” Howard said after the game. “It wasn’t being a champion of a basketball game but a champion in life. Knowing that there’s many times that we all fail and I fail, but instead of folding and laying down, a champ gets back up.”

Kyle Kuzma — His NBA journey led him from being one of the older players on the team before the Davis trade to a younger player trying to find his place on a team with two superstars. After the Lakers won, he thought more broadly about his path. “It’s still setting in,” Kuzma said after Game 6. “I’m half-drunk right now from all the champagne, so I don’t know how to act exactly. But, man, just a kid from Flint, Michigan. It’s crazy. Crazy, crazy. I almost didn’t go to college. Wasn’t supposed to get drafted. NBA champion. It’s unbelievable.”

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Avery Bradley — Bradley watched the Finals from his home in Texas, having opted out of joining the team in the bubble because of family health concerns, but the Lakers wanted to make sure he felt included. He stayed in touch throughout the playoffs. His contributions were critical to the Lakers getting to this point. As Vogel tried to set the tone early that the Lakers would be a defensive team, Bradley embraced it immediately. His fearless defense rubbed off on teammates, and the Lakers became one of the league’s best defensive teams.

Markieff Morris — The showdown with his brother, Clippers forward Marcus Morris, in the conference finals never came. But when the Lakers needed to go small, Morris gave them the flexibility to do so. “The type of leader that LeBron is for this team is unreal,” he said after the game. “He keeps everybody’s spirits high. I knew this moment was going to come, just having a leader like that. Just playing behind him and Anthony Davis, I knew this moment was going to come. This is a dream come true. As a little kid, I was watching the Finals. This is a dream come true.”

JaVale McGee — Little-used in the playoffs, he impressed his team with his willingness to take a secondary role when they needed him to do so. McGee didn’t play at all in the Finals, but he was instrumental in the Lakers’ path there and won his third championship ring, the previous two coming with Golden State.

Jared Dudley — Around the bubble, Dudley could often be seen hanging out with Davis and James. Davis once mentioned Dudley as a person who helped him when he felt down after a game. Dudley’s relationship with Kuzma helped the third-year forward grow beginning last offseason. Dudley has had a long NBA career and at 35 won something many players never do — his first ring. Afterward he posted a photo of himself between James and Davis, with the tongue in cheek caption, “Name a better trio in the league.”

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Talen Horton-Tucker — The rookie didn’t get to even spend much time during the season with the big-league team while playing with the developmental team, but once he got to the bubble, his teammates developed an appreciation for him. Horton-Tucker saw playing time against the Houston Rockets and relished the task of guarding James Harden so that he could learn from that experience.

Quinn Cook — When Kobe Bryant died, Cook visited the memorials that had popped up around the city and even wrote on one that he was Bryant’s biggest fan. Cook’s father, who died while he was in high school, was a Lakers fan, so growing up in the D.C. area, Cook felt connected to the team. “Pops we did it!!” Cook posted on Twitter after the championship, along with a photo of him with his father in a Lakers shirt. “YOUR LIL MAN GOT ONE WITH YOUR MOB!”

JR Smith — He was a replacement player when the Lakers lost Bradley, and by the time the final buzzer sounded, Smith already had his shirt off, ready for the celebration. Famously, Smith was primarily shirtless during the celebration for the 2016 championship he won with James in Cleveland.

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Dion Waiters — Waiters didn’t play in the Finals and said after the game on Instagram that he had been dealing with an injury. But he did get to celebrate with his son on the court after the win.

Kostas Antetokounmpo — He draped himself in a Greek flag (his native country) and a Nigerian flag (his parents’ native country) for the celebration of the Lakers’ championship. He was a two-way player for the Lakers this year and spent most of the season learning. The bubble gave him a chance to spend time with his brothers, Giannis, the league’s two-time defending MVP, and Thanasis, who play for the Milwaukee Bucks. But Kostas will forever have family bragging rights as the first to win an NBA championship.

Devontae Cacok — Another two-way player for the Lakers, Cacok turned 24 last week, which meant he had not one, but two birthdays during this longest NBA season ever.

Until next time...

As always, pass along your thoughts to me at tania.ganguli@latimes.com, and please consider subscribing if you like our work!

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