Fans' return to Staples Center a welcome sight for the Lakers
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
LOS ANGELES — For the first time in 13 months, fans were allowed to return to Staples Center on Thursday, imbuing the building with a pulse that had been sorely lacking.
The crowd's cheers and boos represented a fraction of the indescribable roar that can overcome the building when it's at full capacity, but it was still glorious for a team that had gone 401 days without its life source.
Since March 10, 2020, the Lakers hadn’t played a home game in front of their fans.
They broke a six-year playoff drought while isolated in a bubble in Florida, then celebrated their first championship in a decade with sterile, pumped-in crowd noise instead of being surrounded by a palpable tidal wave of genuine euphoria.
It was something that never became normal.
Even though they played 27 games at home this season without any fans, they never really got used to it.
Of all of the arenas around the league, nothing was eerier than an empty Staples Center during Lakers games.
Gone was Jack Nicholson in his courtside seat and the regular cast of A-list celebrities who would greet players at halftime, a dizzying array of multimillionaires that could include Jay-Z, Beyonce, Denzel Washington, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Cruise on any given night.
Gone were the Laker Girls, the brainchild of former owner Jerry West, who wanted to add sex appeal to games in a city known for its seductive Hollywood glamour.
Gone were the women in stilettos and the men in T-shirts that were too tight. Gone were the people who would spend entire games staring at their phones. Gone were the fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and friends. Gone were the die-hard fans who were too cool to show their emotions everywhere else but would leave Staples Center hoarse.
Gone was the vibe.
On Thursday, the Lakers got some of that back.
Sure, the game didn't go as planned. It could've been poetic for fans to return for a game against the Celtics, who, historically, are the Lakers' greatest rivals. Both franchises have won 17 championships, tied for most in league history.
But the Lakers were a shell of themselves without superstars Anthony Davis (right calf strain and tendinosis) and LeBron James (high right ankle sprain), not to mention important role players Markieff Morris (left ankle sprain) and Andre Drummond (right big toe contusion).
The Lakers never led and trailed by as many as 27 points, but behind a lineup of Talen Horton-Tucker, Ben McLemore, Alfonzo McKinnie, Devontae Cacok and Kostas Antetokounmpo, they rallied in the final stretch to cut the deficit to five with 1:18 left.
During that time, most of the fans at Staples Center were on their feet cheering whenever the Lakers had the ball and chanting "defense, defense" whenever the Celtics had possession.
But there was no storybook ending. The Lakers couldn't complete the comeback or point to their fans as saving the day.
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That said, they know that having fans around will change things for the team.
"Especially with us, we have a lot of guys that are banged up, a lot of guys that have played a lot of minutes, and there are a lot of guys that are out," said Kyle Kuzma, who had 13 points in 29 minutes. "So having fans is really going to help us down the stretch just figure out some energy."
It has already shifted things for Lakers coach Frank Vogel, who felt a distinct sense of excitement as he drove to Staples Center on Thursday.
One thing that hit Vogel was that in their previous games this season, there was never any applause after the Lakers were introduced as the defending champions. He acknowledged that hearing fans scream after longtime PA announcer Lawrence Tanter uttered those words had an effect on him.
"It just feels good," Vogel said. "I don’t really know any other way to say it other than it feels good to have that support and that energy from the crowd. We love our fans. There’s no place in the NBA like playing at Staples Center with the Lakers."
Lakers fans are a different breed.
So much so that James acknowledged that even he had to earn their respect when he joined the team in 2018.
That's something he divulged when the Lakers were one win away from a championship in their NBA Finals series against the Miami Heat in October.
When asked what he had learned during his time with the franchise, he didn't hesitate in his response.
"Well, one, what I've learned being a Laker is that the Laker faithful don't give a damn what you've done before," James said before Game 5. "Until you become a Laker, you've got to do it with them as well."
He accomplished his goal, but he never got to celebrate it with the fans.
There was no parade — just a deafening quietude in a giant arena.
Now, things are starting to change.
Not only are fans back, but also Davis has been cleared for on-court activity and got shots up before the game.
And James will be back, too.
The defending champions have time to get their groove back before the regular season ends, and they’re going to get their due from their adoring fan base in the process.
For this Lakers team, that's a deeply meaningful development.
Instead of feeling eerie, Staples Center will start feeling like home again.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.