STANDING ACROSS FROM each other at center court, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James shook hands.
The 2016 NBA All-Star Game was the first and only international All-Star Game in NBA history. And with Bryant participating for the last time in his career, he shared a playful message with the officials surrounding them.
“When I leave,” Bryant said, wagging James’ arm with a sturdy grip during the ceremonial captains meeting, “he’s the elder statesman.”
Three years after that moment in Toronto, and halfway around the world, Bryant’s words seemed prescient as James — now the face of the Los Angeles Lakers — addressed the players congregated in a Ritz-Carlton ballroom in Shanghai, China.
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey had tweeted and then deleted his support of protesters in Hong Kong just days earlier. As the Lakers and Brooklyn Nets arrived in China, confusion and uncertainty spread across the players and staffers. James was embarking on his 17th season, and some of the players there were still in diapers when he entered the league. Both in stature and seniority, James was leaned upon as a guiding voice.
It didn’t make sense, James reasoned, for the players to speak to the nearly 200 reporters assembled in the hotel lobby several floors below when Morey and NBA commissioner Adam Silver had yet to do so.
“What he was most vocal about was,” a source familiar with the meeting told ESPN, “‘How can you ask us to do media when you yourselves are not?'”
Events were canceled. Promotional appearances — some lucrative opportunities, worth upward of seven figures for some players — were scrapped. Sightseeing was out. Team practices and media sessions were nixed too.
That left the Lakers with a ton of time and nowhere to go.
The Lakers had executed a blockbuster trade in the offseason to acquire Anthony Davis, turning over their roster in addition to hiring a new coaching staff, and the suddenly wide-open schedule allowed for bonding opportunities. The Ritz-Carlton is connected to the Shanghai International Finance Center, which features a high-end mall and a Morton’s steakhouse. With the entire team in attendance, dinners at Morton’s lasted for hours. If it wasn’t a meal, it was a shopping trip to the mall or a group workout in the hotel gym.
“It was interesting,” a team source said. “They were in a bubble. They started the season in a bubble, and they’re going to end it in a bubble.”
Over a nine-month span, the Lakers were mired in an international situation, dealt with daily life, death and a pandemic. The Lakers were on the road in New York City the day of former NBA commissioner David Stern’s memorial at Radio City Music Hall. They had to figure out as a franchise how to carry on after the unexpected death of Bryant. And as the season came to a halt in March, the Lakers were coming off a weekend in which they beat both the presumptive Eastern and Western Conference favorites in the Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers.
After a failure to launch in the first year with James, the Lakers rose to the top of the Western Conference as one of the title favorites in Year 2. What happened in the time between those bubbles was unlike any other in franchise history.
COACHING THE LAKERS for Frank Vogel meant taking the job only after the organization couldn’t land its first two choices. It meant Jason Kidd getting assigned to the coaching staff by the front office. And it meant Lea Thompson from “Back to the Future,” one of Vogel’s favorite movies, asking for a selfie. On his first flight to Los Angeles after being named head coach, Vogel was delighted to converse with the actress but was floored by the request for a photo.
“I would have never, never in a million years thought … I would’ve thought it would be the other way around,” Vogel says.
It was an intersection with celebrity that the newly minted Lakers coach never really considered. After all, the Jersey Shore native’s biggest brush with Hollywood to that point was as a 10-year-old brushing his teeth with a basketball spinning on the end of his toothbrush as a guest on “Late Night with David Letterman.”
“For me it was just, they were the cool team out West,” Vogel says. “I didn’t really leave the East Coast, I didn’t travel much as a kid or anything like that. So, it was like a foreign country thinking about California. And they just had palm trees and sunshine, just had a flare to them that was celebrity like, you know? And the way their team played represented that. It was a show on the basketball court, it wasn’t just a sporting event.”
That show followed the Lakers wherever they went in 2019-20.
After a 101-96 win in Atlanta on Dec. 15, the scene was a spectacle. James and Davis took off their jerseys while still on the court to give to rapper Boosie Badazz, who was sitting courtside.
“Game jerseys, b—-!” Boosie said on Instagram, displaying the haul on social media after leaving the game that night.
Back inside State Farm Arena, the visitors locker room was packed. Former Lakers forward Lamar Odom waited by the door to get a moment with his old team. There were so many reporters surrounding James’ locker that they couldn’t hear one another’s questions, causing James to be asked twice about the play where he threw a between-the-legs pass to a trailing Dwight Howard for a dunk. “We already got that one,” James politely replied.
The Lakers were 24-3, but Vogel was listless, unimpressed by the marginal win over one of the league’s doormats.
“We have to tighten some screws,” he said to reporters afterward.
Dec. 16: JoAnn Buss, mother of Lakers’ governor Jeanie Buss, dies after a long-term illness.
Dec. 17: Davis misses loss in Indiana because of ankle sprain.
Dec. 19: Bucks beat Lakers, the first consecutive losses of season.
Dec. 22: James misses first game of season, Lakers lose to Nuggets.
Dec. 25: Clippers defeat Lakers for fourth straight loss.
Dec. 28: James plays through groin injury as Lakers win in Portland.
AS THE 16TH most populous city of the 28 NBA metropolises, Portland, Oregon, doesn’t have the same bounty of luxury hotels as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.
So when the Lakers rolled through town in late December with James and Davis combining their superstar power with one of the most recognizable brands in sports, fans fiending for a glimpse of the latest iteration of the Lake Show didn’t have to dig too hard before descending on The Nines.
Located on the edge of Pioneer Courthouse Square, the hotel — whose 331 rooms take up the top nine floors of the Meier & Frank Building — has become a preferred outpost for former Lakers coach Phil Jackson and remains a staple on the team’s annual travel itinerary.
Enjoying a renaissance season, the team was the hottest it had been in years. Throngs of hoopheads braved the winter cold, huddling by The Nines’ main entrance to catch a glimpse of the then-No. 1 seed in the West.
With the thoroughfare in front of the hotel already congested by Portland’s light-rail line and the fans providing an extra obstacle for the team buses to make the mile and a half trip to Moda Center, the Lakers called an audible. Rather than leave out the front, the Lakers headed down the service elevators, through the hotel kitchen and out a street-level auxiliary exit.
“It’s something I haven’t experienced for a while,” says veteran Jared Dudley, remembering his time on the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns for comparison.
For starting guard Avery Bradley, seeing the hysteria up close reminded him of grainy black-and-white footage from the 1960s.
“We felt like The Beatles,” Bradley says.
AS A TRAINING camp invitee for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015 and a late-season addition of the New Orleans Pelicans in 2016, Quinn Cook was already acquainted with James and Davis when he joined the Lakers for the 2019-20 season.
Those connections were a part of his career, but his relationship with one of the Lakers’ all-time greats in Bryant was something different.
“I grew up wanting to be just like him,” he says. “Idolizing him. I took pride in being the biggest Kobe fan ever.”
Cook’s Lakers fandom was passed on from his dad, Ted, who died when Quinn was 14. Lakers fans quickly embraced Cook after he shared a photo as a teenager wearing a white Bryant uniform surrounded by dozens of Lakers jerseys, shirts, jackets and hats. When the Lakers retired Bryant’s Nos. 8 and 24 in December 2017 when L.A. hosted the Golden State Warriors, Cook watched as a member of the opposing team.
“Just to see [not just] the love that obviously the Lakers show him, but just the basketball world. Like the entire world,” Cook says. “I remember, like, the world stopped that day when they retired both his jerseys.”
He had the same feeling when Bryant attended Lakers games in November and December. “Everybody would watch the game and then, just watch Kobe,” Cook says. “Even the players. I caught myself … I hit a shot and I wanted to see if Kobe was looking at me.”
The Lakers heard of Bryant’s death while flying back to L.A. The night before, James had passed Bryant for No. 3 on the all-time scoring list during a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in Bryant’s hometown.
“The entire week, week and a half leading up to that, we just saw Bron and Kobe highlights,” Cook says. “And Bron just speaking on how great Kobe is and how much he means to him and how much Kobe gives to him. And we were celebrating him. And obviously for Bron to pass Kob, it wasn’t a Bron vs. Kobe thing — it was Bron and Kobe. And they’re both Lakers.”
Cook stepped off the plane at LAX in his Nike Zoom Kobe 4 Protros, in the same black and white “Del Sol” colorway that Bryant wore to the Lakers’ championship parade in 2009. They were an intentional choice. “I was wearing Kobes that whole East coast trip,” he said.
From there, Cook didn’t know what to do. “I really wasn’t thinking,” he says. “I was just heartbroken.” He called his mom and his sister. He called his girlfriend. He called one of his college buddies, Jack Davis, who lives in L.A. and works in entertainment.
Davis drove to El Segundo, California, to meet Cook at the Lakers’ practice facility. They shared Kobe stories for an hour, and Cook, seeing on social media that fans were congregating at L.A. Live across the street from Staples Center to mourn, got the urge to go.
“Any time I thought of the Staples Center, I thought of Kobe Bryant,” he says. “And so I just wanted to go down there and just pay my respects.”
Cook borrowed a Bryant jersey from his friend Davis — a blue, scripted, throwback No. 8 jersey — and headed downtown.
“I just went into, really, just fan mode,” Cook says. “Just boy mode.”
Cook blended in with the sea of purple-and-gold grievers, and broke into tears as he stared at the black-and-white image of Kobe and Gigi displayed on the outdoor video monitor. Even though he was surrounded by strangers, he felt comforted.
“Fans were great,” Cook says. “It’s not like they were surprised to see me, really. They just patted me on the back. They gave me my space. They let me be. And it was good to be around that kind of love for that little moment.”
In the days that followed, Cook found other ways to honor his idol. He changed his uniform from No. 2, the number Gigi wore in her prep leagues, to No. 28, to celebrate both father and daughter. Teammate Bradley didn’t get a chance to make it to the gathering downtown, so Cook took Bradley to the impromptu memorial set up in El Segundo by Lakers vice president of facility operations, Lisa Estrada.
There were candles, flowers, basketballs, sneakers, jerseys and other mementos left in honor. And there were long white billboards set up for fans to write messages in remembrance of Bryant.
Cook picked up a pen.
“I love and miss you so much already!” he wrote. “You were the greatest basketball player ever and an even greater father. Kobe and Gigi will live through the entire world forever. My hero and idol Kobe Bean Bryant!! Love, your biggest fan, Quinn Cook.”
THE MAIN ATTRACTION is always LeBron and AD.
Davis, eight years James’ junior, toiled the first seven years of his career in New Orleans, yearning to win big on a grander stage. James, well into his back nine, wanted a final flourish in Los Angeles to cap a stellar career.
Davis readily took his cues from James, eager to fill in as his running mate — a situation a few others chafed at over the years.
“You know, I used to be so upset and so, like, down, when we lose a game,” Davis says. “And he’d be like, ‘I done lost in-season series to several teams. But when the playoffs comes, it’s different.’ … For a guy who’s done it year after year after year after year, eight times in a row [in the NBA Finals] … if he’s not worrying, then I’m like, ‘All right, we’re fine.’
“But once he starts getting a little upset, it’s like, ‘All right, we know it’s something that we need to fix.'”
Though Davis has been willing to take advice, he hasn’t shied from giving James the business at times. “I mess with him,” Davis says. “I’m like, ‘You getting old, man.’ Earlier this year, he had a dunk on a break, and it was like something so simple. And I told him, ‘Man, that’s a three.’
“And so when he did the same [dunk] that Kobe did, he came to me after the game and said, ‘Yeah, that was an 8.5, wasn’t it?'”
Confused by the number, Davis needed to be reminded of the needle he gave James months before.
“‘I’m not old yet,'” Davis says, paraphrasing James’ quip.
Sharing the story gave Davis a satisfied smile.
“I’m doing my job motivating him,” he says.
LAKERS ASSISTANT COACH Phil Handy has a distinctive entry into the “Battle for L.A.” that became a marquee matchup, with the league scheduling Lakers-Clippers on two of its premium calendar spots: opening night and Christmas Day.
He was an assistant in Cleveland under Tyronn Lue, whom the Lakers spurned during contract negotiations last summer by pulling their offer and eventually hiring Vogel — someone whom Lue had suggested to L.A.’s brass when discussing his potential coaching staff, sources say. Lue then joined Doc Rivers’ bench down the hallway at Staples Center.
Handy coached Leonard with the Raptors, giving him a relationship with the biggest acquisition in Clippers franchise history.
The Clippers won the opener by 10, with Leonard outscoring James 30-18. They won on Christmas too, roaring back from a 15-point third-quarter deficit to win by five.
On March 8, days before the NBA would shut down, the Lakers put a tally on the board, beating the Clippers 112-103. James and Davis played Leonard and Paul George to a draw, both duos scoring 58 points, but Bradley put the Lakers over the top with a season-high 24 points.
“Me personally, I felt like we shot ourselves in the foot,” Handy says, looking back at the season series. “Look, the Clippers are a good team, man. They’ve got unbelievable talent. But I don’t feel that … I felt that, again, we shot ourselves in the foot in those first two games, and we should have won both of them.”
By the time March rolled around, both teams had established two things: They were championship contenders, and they liked pushing each other’s buttons.
“Me and T-Lue, we used to talk junk to each other during the timeouts across the floor,” Handy says. “Mess with each other. Or Kawhi would come down in front of our bench during a timeout or something, and I’d talk about his shoes. Just all of those things. I think those things are all part of the game and you try to gain an advantage wherever you can.”
The gamesmanship extended off the court.
This season, a massive black-and white Clippers billboard was plastered on a building adjacent to the 405-south/105-west freeway interchange near the Lakers’ UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo.
It’s the interchange James takes from his Brentwood home to punch the clock, along with many other Lakers players, coaches and staffers. The billboard, updated throughout the year, housed the Clippers’ new “L.A. Our Way” marketing slogans: “Streetlights over Spotlights,” “Driven over Given,” “Squad over Self.”
The intent was not lost on the Lakers. In a passing moment of pettiness, a Lakers staffer suggested the team hoard advertising space on buildings within eyesight of the Clippers’ billboard campaign and simply print the franchise’s 16 championship banners. No slogan. No tagline. Simply a reminder of their tangible accomplishments for the other team to stew on.
VOGEL WAS TOO close to the stand.
“Frank, if you could just step back a little bit, away from the mics, that would be great,” a Lakers spokesperson said.
It was Wednesday afternoon, March 11. The Lakers were trying to toe the line between normalcy and the new world created by COVID-19.
Vogel assumed his regular spot by the entrance to the court at the team’s practice facility and readied himself for the questions sure to come with a scope far greater than basketball.
Reporters placed their recording devices on a black rolling tray table — the kind you’d see carting around an overhead projector in a high school science classroom — and a Lakers staffer rolled the tray close to Vogel.
It was an effort, however nominal, to maintain some measure of safety.
The night before, Davis joked about the virus, mentioning a clip had gone viral of him appearing to lick his hand before celebrating with Bradley during a big win over the Clippers the previous weekend.
“Everybody was playing and goofing around and calling us the ‘Corona Boys’ because I licked my hand, but I didn’t. When we were out there, I never licked my fingers because I thought about that actually before I did it,” Davis said. “I actually thought about it and I was like, ‘Don’t do it.’ So I kind of, like, mimicked it … I’m cleaner than that.”
By Wednesday, speaking to reporters from the cordoned off corner of the practice facility, Davis’ tone had changed completely.
“You see people dying, and more and more people are getting affected by the virus. So that’s real for me,” Davis said. “People are losing their lives.”
MORE THAN A month into the shelter-in-place order in Los Angeles, Flea emerged from the water with basketball on his mind.
Following a morning surf at the foot of his Malibu estate, the bassist posed a question to Red Hot Chili Peppers bandmate Anthony Kiedis.
“Man, wait, would the Lakers be in the first round against, like, Portland right now?” Flea asked the front man.
At the time of the NBA’s hiatus, the Portland Trail Blazers were 3½ games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed in the West, but were anticipating the return of big man Jusuf Nurkic. Given full health for the stretch run, the Blazers could have caught the Grizzlies, and Flea, a Lakers season-ticket holder since 1997, fantasized about the postseason.
“Different players on Portland, we’d find reasons to hate them,” he says, imagining his mindset with the Lakers back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. “Just all this stuff, like, worrying about if Anthony Davis’ shoulder is OK. Like this whole thing, it just left this massive void. This massive hole in my life, like, this thing that’s so fun to be excited about. …
“It just left this massive hole in my life, and I miss it. I miss everything about it.”
Flea was courtside the last time the Lakers played on March 10 — a 104-102 loss to the Brooklyn Nets when Davis missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer.
“It was sort of like a hangover-after-a-victorious-weekend game,” Flea says, not letting the result mar what was a renaissance season.
“I just really felt this connection that they like each other. There’s this great Dwight Howard redemption story. There’s these solid players like Danny Green and the fun of Alex Caruso really making it as an NBA player and looking like he works at H&R Block. There’s this really cool, fun team that like each other and support each other. And they’re winning. And then we have this weekend right at the end of the season where we back-to-back beat the Bucks and the Clippers.
“And it’s just the most exciting thing ever and then, boom, hoopus interruptus. The COVID virus hits.”
While he can dismiss the outcome of the Nets game, he can’t shake the circumstances around it. Four Nets players — including Kevin Durant — and two unnamed Lakers players, tested positive for the coronavirus in the weeks that followed.
He took basic precautions that night, which feel almost pointless in retrospect.
“I was going to the bathroom and washing my hands all the time and telling my wife not to hug people like she always does,” Flea says.
Meanwhile, he saw Nets players interact with fans in the front row. He saw his 80-year-old buddy, NBA superfan Jimmy Goldstein, congregating in the arena alongside 18,997 potential carriers of the disease.
“Looking back,” Flea says, “I was like, ‘Jeez, the coronavirus was flying all over the place!'”
He misses his Lakers. And, with the resumption of the season uncertain in mid-April, Flea can only imagine what it would be like for James to miss out on a chance at another ring.
“He could have won a championship this year and that would have been — for him to win it with three different teams and being like the leading guy — it would be amazing for him,” Flea says.
“And I wanted that for him. I knew how great he was, but to watch him closely the way that I did all season, it’s just, God, you can’t help but pull for the guy.”
May 12: NBPA president Chris Paul organizes a call with James, Davis, Leonard, Antetokounmpo, Durant, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook; the group comes to consensus endorsing a return to play as long as proper safety precautions are met.
May 25: George Floyd is killed in Minneapolis, leading NBA players to speak out against police brutality.
May 30: Lakers players, at Bradley’s suggestion, share a unified message on their social media accounts: “If YOU ain’t wit US, WE ain’t wit Y’ALL!”.
June 4: The league’s board of governors votes to resume the season with 22 teams in Orlando, Florida, at the end of July.
June 15: A player coalition, led by Bradley and Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving, holds a call with nearly 100 participants to gauge interest in finishing the season and determine what concessions the league would have to make.
June 23: Bradley opts out of Orlando, citing coronavirus concerns for his 6-year old son, who has struggled recovering from respiratory illnesses in the past.
July 17: The NBA sends memo informing teams that regular-season awards will be based only on games played through March 11 with votes due before the eight seeding games in Orlando begin. James, averaging a career-high 10.6 assists, becomes the oldest player in league history to earn his first assist title.
IT HAD BEEN 132 days since anyone outside of the Lakers’ organization had seen the team on the court together.
“1-2-3, Mamba!” they bellowed in unison as they broke from a pre-practice huddle on July 21.
Historically, this is the time on the calendar when James visits his vacation home in Cabo San Lucas. But now, the season is set to resume in what will be the longest road trip of his career.
“Every year is going to have some things that you have to adjust to that you may not be ready for,” James said, sporting a bushy beard as he stared into a flat-screen monitor just outside the court in The Arena.
“Everyone keeps asking, ‘How is the bubble?’ or, ‘How is it going?’ and I just say, ‘It’s 2020.’ Nothing is normal in 2020. Nothing seems as is, and who knows if it will ever go back to the way it was.”
The Lakers ended their first full practice in months on a makeshift court, sitting atop the Western Conference standings with an opportunity to contend for a title that was so tenuous just weeks prior. Nine months have passed since the Lakers first found themselves in a makeshift bubble in Shanghai.
As players lingered on the court, James went about his post-workout cool-down routine: sitting on a purple exercise ball as he chatted with Davis, fulfilling his media obligations, then peeling off his No. 6 practice jersey for an ice bag to be affixed to his lower back before sipping from a gallon jug of water mixed with Ladder hydration supplements as he exits the gym. The stop to the season threw off his meticulous training regimen, but there was little indication of rust as team activities resumed.
“Pretty consistent,” a team source says of James’ fitness post-hiatus. “Leaned up just a tad, but pretty even.”
Signs of his 17 years in the league — the most recent carrying more consequence than 12 months are equipped to hold — is represented on his face. That bushy beard is splashed with flecks of gray and two patches of white on either side where his jawline meets below the ears.
It’s a look fitting for the elder statesman.