LOS ANGELES — After days of buildup for the Los Angeles Lakers’ home opener, there’s a groundswell of energy in the stands of Staples Center. And then came the fourth quarter.
Reigning MVP James Harden digs his shoulder into Brandon Ingram’s chest. Foul. Before the crowd can even properly boo, Ingram shoves Harden. Ingram wants an offensive foul, which he should get. But being MVP comes with certain in-game perks. Ingram’s reaction shocked even his teammates.
“He’s usually quiet,” Lakers center JaVale McGee said. “But, I mean, you poke a bear, you bound to get bit.”
This tête-à-tête, though, is just the appetizer.
“Hell, yeah, B.I.!,” a fan yells from the seats above the tunnel, pumping his Lakers No. 23 jersey. “Let’s go!” Until that point, it’s been a game of runs. Metaphorical body blows, before they become literal. The crowd is on its feet. Ingram steps to the referee. This is when things go from zero to 100.
But before getting to the brawl that has become the headline of a still infant 2018-19 NBA season, it’s important to understand the moment had been building to its hyperbolic finish via a series of events inspirational, hilarious and weird. This is Tinseltown after all. Showtime, baby. The buildup began before the first NBA player arrived for Saturday’s home opener.
Landing at Los Angeles International last week, the vibe was unavoidable. Jump in the Uber, and it’s on the radio: The Lakers’ regular season starts this week. LeBron’s in town. Downtown, gigantic billboards of LeBron James dominate the sides of office buildings and hotels. It’s only Thursday and more and more people wearing James’ No. 23 jerseys pop up downtown.
Watch parties for the Lakers’ season opener at Portland are happening around Los Angeles. Foot Locker’s House of Hoops hosts one at The Terrace at L.A. Live. Vintage sporting goods powerhouse Mitchell & Ness hosts a gathering at the landmark (yet troubled) Tower Records building in Hollywood.
And Twitter throws an invitation-only event at The Highlight Room of The Dream Hotel, also in Hollywood. A large projection screen is the focal point while private cabanas entertain more intimate groups. Servers walk around with tiny vegetable rolls, fish tacos and bruschetta. A shallow pool in the middle features inflatable hashtags — as the night progresses, it’s kind of amazing no one falls in.
A mix of journalists and NBA entertainment personalities comprise most of the nearly 200 people in attendance. In July, James’ The Uninterrupted hosted a post-ESPYS celebration at The Highlight — it’s the hot spot: The Migos’ Quavo performs cuts from his new Quavo Huncho between the third and fourth quarters. What may seem like an over-the-top experience for the first of 82 games is actually a typical night in Hollywood.
The Lakers lose in Portland, Oregon, largely because they are unable to contain one of the league’s elite backcourts in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. But that’s far from the point, at least on this weekend. What matters is that it seems an eternity since this kind of energy surrounded the Lakers. The expectancy for the 16-time champions is not only to be great, but to be showmen as they dominate.
It’s a commandment Dr. Jerry Buss etched in Hollywood stone. It’s a commandment Magic Johnson, Pat Riley and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spread to the masses during the 1980s, and what the odd couple of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal preach to a late ’90s/early 2000s generation. But the Lakers haven’t played in a must-see game since Bryant’s last in 2016. And they haven’t been true contenders since Bryant tore his Achilles in 2013.
On Saturday afternoon, the weather is a cooler-than-average 75 degrees. The Los Angeles Kings play in Staples just hours before the Lakers vs. Houston tipoff. The Dodgers are in Milwaukee for Game 7 of the National League Championship Series en route to advancing to their second World Series in as many years. Lakers legend and president of basketball operations Johnson is a part of the group that owns the historic baseball franchise. Festive is one word for Southern California sports fans, but on high alert is a better description.
Dodger Nation we are going back to the World Series! Congratulations to the players, Manager Dave Roberts and his staff, my fellow Dodger owners and all of Dodger Nation for winning the pennant and a World Series birth 5-1 over the Brewers! Let’s go @Dodgers!
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) October 21, 2018
The area around Staples is L.A. Live. There’s the JW Marriott/Ritz-Carlton tower where so many NBA teams stay when in town. There’s also the Grammy Museum, ESPN’s L.A. offices, a Lucky Strike and restaurants such as the popular Katsuya with patios spilling over with people. A sea of Lakers jerseys mills toward the 21,000-person arena. Most are new LeBron looks, but there are healthy amount of Bryant, O’Neal, Kyle Kuzma, Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Johnson, James Worthy and Abdul-Jabbar jerseys worn proudly as well. The potent aroma of marijuana makes everything from the indie vendors’ bacon-wrapped hot dogs to the Smashburgers smell even better. Call it home cooking. In L.A. Live’s open air common area, a House of Hoops activation sports a healthy line of fans. James’ newest Nike ad runs on a loop. Many happy people walk away with boxes of shoes.
It’s a town-fair atmosphere in the hours before tipoff. In one direction, there’s a woman pushing a Yorkie in a tricked-out stroller. She’s got spinning rims, and Drake’s “God’s Plan” is blasting. In another are the JR Smith and Tyron Lue doppelgängers holding signs saying, “It was just 1 shot” and “COME HOME.”
As lines swell, arena staffers announce every five minutes that a new entrance is opening with “No line!” Small mobs of men and women break into full sprints as if the game will start without them. But that’s the point. Everyone wants to be inside, a part of history.
Inside, it’s almost Showtime. Mobiles record videos. Photos are being uploaded to Instagram, Snapchat and group chats. It’s social media photosynthesis and the NBA benefits from it the most. Backstage, in the venue’s maze of hallways, media personnel roam around along with players. As cuts from Future and Juice’s new WRLD’s WRLD on Drugs play from a speaker connected to a laptop, Chris Paul stretches. Down the hall, Rajon Rondo runs back into the Lakers’ locker room. “I’m always ready, man,” he says.
By now, the arena is near capacity. Photographers crowd the baseline as James warms up. The game, once started, is as competitive as advertised. And while Lakers vs. Rockets is the main event, and James the main character, the world directly off the hardwood has always made the Lakers a pop culture entity unique unto itself.
There’s the fashion show: BAPE Lakers jerseys, iced-out chains, Off-White sneakers, custom LeBrons, plus all of the Givenchy, and all of the Supreme. Versace sunglasses indoors — because, why not. And the celebrities: Travis Scott. Floyd Mayweather Jr., Jonah Hill. Kendall Jenner. Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Adam Levine. Na-kel Smith. Nipsey Hussle. Miles Brown. Andy Garcia. Dick Wolf. Jimmy Iovine. Kate Beckinsale. Top Dawg Entertainment’s Top Dawg and Punch. Laker legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elgin Baylor. The Kings’ Jonathan Quick and and Drew Doughty, and the Dodgers’ Corey Seager. And, of course, Jack Nicholson and Jimmy Goldstein. Issa party.
As midnight came and went on the East Coast, and many went to sleep figuring to catch the highlights in the morning, things were approaching a boiling point. The crowd was emotional and the players were amped. Harden received a technical foul in the first quarter for shoving Lance Stephenson. James Ennius’ clothesline on Josh Hart seasoned the pot.
The weirdness of what happened next can be described in one sentence: Stephenson was the peacemaker.
Background on Rondo-Paul:
1) Danny Ainge tried to trade Rondo for Paul in 2009, but was uncertain CP would sign extension
2) Hours before Rondo agreed to extension with BOS, he and Paul nearly fought after 11/1/09 game
3) Paul called Rondo a “lucky guy” because he played w/Big 3
— gary washburn (@GwashburnGlobe) October 21, 2018
Outside of the professional ring, most fights don’t come with in-the-moment play-by-play. But at least in the seats, there was an immediate and profanity-laced storytelling.
“What the —-?”
Nipsey Hussle, seated directly behind the basket near where the fracas occurred, stood and hiked his pants up — which, as anyone vaguely familiar with this gesture knows, means but one thing. Go time. Nipsey stayed ready so he never had to get ready. On the opposite side of the baseline, Travis Scott couldn’t contain his excitement. Who could tell what he was saying, but Mayweather, seated near center court clapped, openly engaged with Paul.
The fouls, the shoves, the apparent spitting, hand on people’s faces, the left hook. This was all in the fourth with less than two minutes left in a tight game. As the crowd awaited the referee’s decision, a deafening chant of “Rondo” overtook Staples. This was the culmination of bad blood between two floor generals that dates back almost a decade. Yet, in that moment, Rondo made history. It took about seven quarters for the mercurial point guard to become a fan favorite — making him (along with O’Neal) perhaps one of the only two NBA players to be beloved in both Los Angeles and Boston. Former Laker Metta World Peace rose from his seat to speak with some of the members of press row who were crowding around TVs to see replays of the fight.
“That was a helluva left hand,” World Peace said jokingly of Rondo’s left as it that connected on dozens of monitors, squarely on Paul’s face.
It was the most bizarre basketball nirvana. World Peace commenting on a brawl? Stephenson — rushing to separate Ingram from the ref — playing peacemaker and voice of reason? James’ Lakers home opener overshadowed by a brawl? This was something straight out off a Hollywood film lot. It marked the league’s first major altercation since 2006, when Carmelo Anthony, then with the Denver Nuggets, was suspended 15 games for punching Knicks guard Mardy Collins at Madison Square Garden.
“Don’t suspend nobody!” a man standing outside a Staples tunnel yelled. “This the NBA I grew up on!” That’s as much a pipe dream as was the Lakers’ hopes of evening-up their record to 1-1. They lost all momentum after the fight.
The league swiftly handed down penalties Sunday afternoon. Though Houston submitted video footage reportedly supporting their claim that Rondo spit on Paul, he still received a two-game suspension (Houston was hoping for none). Rondo was hit with three. Ingram received the stiffest penalty with four games for what the league dubbed “aggressively returning to and escalating the altercation.”
The narrative of the game, of the entire night really, had completely changed. Instead of the Rockets victory or P.J. Tucker’s staunch defensive effort on James — “holding” James to 24 points on 22 shots is considered a win by any metric on the LeBron scale — all anyone could talk was about the fight.
“You don’t even see that in the streets,” Rockets forward Carmelo Anthony said of Rondo’s alleged spitting. “I don’t know what else to say about that.”
“I felt like we played amazing tonight,” McGee said in the locker room. “If it wasn’t for the fight, we probably would’ve won that game.”
On the street, on bar patios, or standing on curbs waiting for Ubers, the conversation is all about the on-court altercation. At the JW Marriott/Ritz Carlton, it’s the talk of the lobby as the television screens replay and dissect, replay and dissect.
The most important thing for the Lakers isn’t what happened Saturday night. Instead, it’s figuring out a way to defend better, shoot better from beyond the arc and — most importantly — win. Life in the Western Conference isn’t conducive to falling too far behind at any point in the season. They’re a new squad, pieced together on the fly in a conference that has already placed a target on their back due to James. The season is a marathon. Lots of games remain on the schedule, including the Lakers’ next game against the Rockets: Dec. 13, at Houston.
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