The event Lakers fans were looking forward to since May 19 — the date it was determined the team would not only retain their top-five protected pick, but also leapfrog two teams all the way to the No. 2 pick in the draft — came and went in seemingly the blink of an eye.
The NBA Summer League in Las Vegas is over. Now, we have entered the stage of the offseason that’s actually true to the term. There will be no more Lakers basketball until the NBA preseason begins in October.
As towering expectations mounted on the youth and future of the franchise to compete for this year’s summer league crown, the young, but talented squad mustered just a single victory in five games. They displayed flashes of brilliance, whether it was D’Angelo Russell’s innate passing and vision, Julius Randle’s freight train of a body driving to the basket with a full head of steam or Jordan Clarkson obliterating guys like Jack Cooley with dunks carrying enough ferocity to lift people out of their seats.
Overall, however, they lost. They disappointed. They failed. But yet, everyone — even non-Laker fans — wanted to watch.
Narratives have run rampant over the past few years as the Lakers have continuously swung for the fences in free agency, only to strike out the last three summers. You may have heard things like, “The Lakers have lost their luster and allure,” or, “The Laker brand isn’t what it used to be, and it only keeps fading.”
It was the first summer league experience for the three of us, so we had no idea what to expect. They both drove in from their California homes, while I flew from my hometown of Boise, Idaho to Salt Lake City, Utah, before a short flight to Sin City. That plane ride provided me a glimpse of what to expect, as there happened to be a handful of fellow Lakers fans on the flight.
They donned their purple and gold apparel, proudly letting it be known who their favorite team was.
When we arrived at Thomas and Mack Center later that day, we encountered a sea of purple and gold. The percentage of people in the mob crowded in front of the will call and ticket booths who were Lakers fans had to be around 80. Lakers jerseys were absolutely everywhere.
Coming off the worst season in the franchise’s illustrious history, the fans were still excited, almost as if it was opening night already, even though it was over three months away.
As Harrison went off to cover the game for Silver Screen and Roll, Anthony and I entered the arena, where as soon as we stepped inside, Julius Randle was walking our way. Mind you, this is roughly twenty minutes or so before game time, so it was rather bizarre that he was anywhere but the locker room, waiting for the matchup slotted before Los Angeles and Minnesota to wrap up.
He was heading for the exit. Why? It was never abundantly clear. What was evident, however, was that he would have gotten there much quicker if it hadn’t been for the swarm of people begging for his autograph or simply trying to snap a decent picture.
Randle finally made it to the door and exited the arena, forcing Anthony and I to rapidly search our Twitter timelines to see just what exactly was going on. Surprisingly, we found nothing.
After we luckily managed to find two empty seats just a few moments later, the crowd roared and hurriedly whipped out their phones to get a photo of Randle, who had immediately returned and was making his way down to the floor level through the stands to reunite with his teammates. To put the ovation into perspective, we later saw James Harden and Damian Lillard, among a small group of people, walking to the tunnel behind one of the baskets. The attention and cheers they received from spectators didn’t even compare to what Randle gathered.
As both the Timberwolves and Lakers emerged onto the floor for their pregame warmups, the crowd was electric. I glanced around, soaking in the atmosphere while “Let’s go Lakers” chants erupted, before turning to Anthony and saying, “This is a damn home game.”
Sure, Minnesota had some supremely promising young players such as No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine on the floor, and some people were obviously there to see those guys. But make no mistake about it — the packed house was because of the Lakers.
If you showed up just minutes before tip-off, you weren’t finding a seat. Initially, the upper level was closed off with giant black curtains, covered with banners of each respective team participating in this year’s event. Those banners and curtains lasted about five minutes before the stadium’s staff were forced to pull them back and make more seats available because the concourse area was filled with people attempting to get any sort of view of the action.
I spoke to a number of media members and fans who have either covered or attended this event for several years, and their statements all alluded to the same thing: They had never seen that before.
12,422 people filed into Thomas and Mack for a summer league basketball game, breaking the attendance record for the event.
Once the game was over, a noticeable portion of the building cleared out. Lower level seats instantly became available for the two teams up next, which happened to be the franchises who battled in this year’s NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. Some of those seats remained available for the rest of the evening.
The theme was constant through the weekend and into the early stages of the following week, before a lot of people returned home for work. The three Lakers games before the actual tournament started always filled up the lower level, forcing some later-arriving fans to sit up top.
The second contest, against Jahlil Okafor and the Philadelphia 76ers, featured numerous chants for the most hated first name in Lakers history, thanks to Larry Nance, Jr., springing off the hardwood for put-back dunks and a vicious block of Okafor that sent a booming noise throughout the arena after the ball slammed against the backboard with a ferocity that led Nance to yell at the bench, “I think I broke my hand!”
While Lakers fans clearly let their collective voice be heard in these games, the moment that truly encapsulated the impact of the franchise for this event was actually presented to me from a person that wasn’t a fan at all.
Sitting directly behind us for the third and final game we were able to witness in person, was a fan of the Denver Nuggets. The same Denver Nuggets, with No. 7 pick Emmanuel Mudiay, that were scheduled to start at the same time as the Lakers, only they were next door at Cox Pavilion.
Instead of watching his favorite team play in literally the next gym over, this fan chose to show up early and grab a seat to watch Los Angeles take on Kristaps Porzingis and the New York Knicks. He was there to root against the Lakers and mock them whenever an opportunity presented itself, and in his spare time, he’d check the score updates on his phone to see how his Nuggets were doing down the hall.
While the Lakers have failed to rack up the amount of wins in the past two seasons that they are accustomed to, fans have often times asked, “Why are they on national television so much?”
That’s why. The general consensus of NBA fans either want to see the Lakers succeed, or watch them fail, with no in-between. The shared element between them: They want to watch.
The 2015 NBA Summer League was no different. Fresh off the worst season in the history of the sixteen-time NBA champions and a similarly disheartening beginning to the free agency period, fans (and naysayers) of the purple and gold were out in full force. Proving once again that despite the product on the court needing to be rebuilt, the brand off the court remains unscathed.