In March 2004, UCLA lost to Washington in the opening round of the Pac-10 tournament, and after the game, head coach Ben Howland took his staff to a revolving restaurant on the top floor of the circular Holiday Inn that sits just off the 405 freeway at Sunset Boulevard. The Bruins had gone 11-17 in Howland’s first season and his assistants were obviously anxious. Howland was not known for dramatic gestures, but at one point during the dinner, he stood up and faced the window looking out over the 405. It was 11 p.m. and traffic was at a standstill.
“We’re going to be just fine,” Howland said, “and do you know why? Because there are people out there. A lot of people.” Among those natives who care about hoops, many grow up wanting to play for UCLA. All grow up wanting to play for the Lakers.
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Over the next several years, L.A. and its suburban sprawl cranked out Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and DeMar DeRozan, a stunning constellation of stars. Howland was replaced by Steve Alford and the Holiday Inn by the Hotel Angeleno. The city’s talent pool dipped, and then rose again, led by a telepathic point guard from Chino Hills who was 6 when he started throwing alley-oops to high-school kids and playing YMCA games against adults. Lonzo Ball enrolled at UCLA last fall, and by January, general managers were saying he’d be one of the top two prospects drafted.
The Lakers, then looking like upstarts, seemed to have no chance at him. But Ball’s friends and family kept following the hometown team, silently celebrating every second-half loss, each one inching their beloved baller closer to Staples Center.
Like LeBron James in 2003 and Derrick Rose in ’08, Ball was destined to stay local, an oversized floor general joining a team run by Magic Johnson and coached by Luke Walton. At the Finals, Warriors staffers wondered who the Lakers would select with the No. 2 pick, but they knew exactly who would fit best in the system Steve Kerr implemented and Walton studied. Other candidates had more quickness and athleticism. “Lonzo,” one of the Dubs coaches said, “has the feel.” The Lakers did not get distracted by Ball’s outrageous father or his exorbitant footwear. They focused on that feel, and took Ball with the No. 2 pick.
“We hope that by the way he plays,” Walton said Thursday night, “everybody else on our team becomes better.”
Some standouts prefer to get away from home, escaping all the ticket requests and dinner invitations, but LaVar Ball instructed his eldest son long ago to accept those burdens and consider the benefits. “When things aren’t going your way, you’re still somewhere you want to be,” LaVar told Lonzo before he committed to UCLA. “You can always just come back up the freeway and reboot.” Lonzo does not follow his father’s lead in every area — “I don’t think I say anything too crazy,” he muses — but he embraced that bit of advice. “I always play for my hometown,” Lonzo said, which brings us to another one of those prized Southland products.
The Lakers always have been able to attract talent with tradition, sunshine and commercial opportunities, but they now seem to be exploiting their significant home-court advantage with the current generation. Pacers star Paul George, in a style more understated than LaVar’s, has made clear that he too wants to be back in L.A when he becomes a free agent in 2018. After Jimmy Butler was traded from Chicago to Minnesota on Thursday, George became the specter hovering over draft night. While other teams debated how many assets to surrender for a superstar who might leave anyway, the Lakers wrestled with the opposite issue: how many assets to yield for a player who might sign anyway.
If the Lakers do not acquire George this summer, even as a preemptive strike, they are going to struggle badly again next season. Ball will elevate the group, as Walton expects, but he needs shooters around him and L.A. just parted with its two most prolific snipers: Nick Young, who opted to become a free agent, and D’Angelo Russell, who was sent to Brooklyn as the chaser for Timofey Mozgov’s contract. The Lakers have cited Russell’s immaturity, but he is only 21, and he was picked second two years ago. Pushed out of his point guard spot, Russell might have faltered, but he also might have flourished as a shooter and playmaker off the ball.
The Lakers did not take the time to find out, throwing their chips on Ball and Brandon Ingram, plus one blank space they hope will be occupied by George and another they dream will be taken by LeBron James. Of course, James is from Akron, not L.A., but he summers in Brentwood, so home court is again a factor. Before any long-term decisions are made, though, potential free agents will want to get a glimpse of Ball. No sooner had he been chosen Thursday than his father already was making playoff guarantees, followed by a Twitter plea from 76ers center Joel Embiid for teammate Ben Simmons to “dunk on him so hard that his daddy runs on the court to save him.”
Ball is used to the bull’s-eye, as is his new coach. In 2003, every Lakers veteran was allowed to co-opt a rookie, and they all wanted Walton because they were angry about comments his father once made on TV. Competition was so fierce they held an auction, with Karl Malone bidding $25,000, edging Shaquille O’Neal. “I had a target on my back from my dad,” Walton said, “and it worked out.” Once the Mailman met Luke, he realized he couldn’t haze him.
If anyone can temper LaVar, for his son’s sake, it might be Magic, L.A.’s biggest baller of all. Magic’s scouting acumen may be unknown, but his gravity and charm are legend. He will have much wisdom to share with Lonzo, another fast-break maestro, and perhaps some for LaVar as well. How Lonzo plays — pushing pace, finding cutters, launching awkward but accurate threes — is no mystery. How LaVar responds is anybody’s guess. “It’s going to be a surprise to you and me,” Lonzo said.
His L.A. basketball story, from Chino to Westwood to the Lakers, could be a fairy tale or a reality show. So far, it’s unfolding as he wanted, where he planned.