Have to admit, I don’t sit courtside when I go to Lakers games in Staples Center. I suppose I could once a year, if I find two tickets, but it would lighten me a month’s salary, so I sit up about twenty rows and that isn’t cheap either but is doable a few times a season. In Las Vegas, at the NBA Summer League, I do sit next to the court. Costs about a hundred bucks online or through contacts. Couldn’t believe who was sitting by me for the Lakers first game, against the Minneapolis Timberwolves. At first I thought it was a cheesy imitator, some guy in shades trying to look cool. Then the guy turned to me, smiled like a devil, and said, “What do you think?”
“The Lakers’ three young guns – D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle – are ready to be the core of a playoff team, and maybe even a contender this year.”
“Someday, probably, but they’re still too young. Russell’s nineteen, Randle twenty, Clarkson twenty-three.”
“Maybe they’ll only need a year. Look how much Clarkson improved during his rookie year.”
He extended his hand and said, “Jack.”
“Tom,” I said, shaking a firm hand. It seems like most guys, even older ones, have hands stronger than mine.
D’Angelo Russell started like Magic Johnson, Jr., pushing a fast-break and pass for an assist and hitting a jumper, and Jordan Clarkson nailed a three and a jumper and a two-handed rebound jam and on the way back smiled and pointed at Jack.
“The kid’s an athlete,” he said.
While Julius Randle appeared out of sync, having broken his leg in the first game of his rookie season and not returning to game action until today, Russell looked like a leader. His hands demanded the ball and that’s where it wanted to be. Meanwhile, the only player taken before him, Karl-Anthony Towns, after starting with an air ball, hit a jumper, spun baseline for a basket inside, and made a jump hook. Minnesota led by six at halftime.
People descended from the stands and surrounded Jack, chatting, backslapping, asking for autographs, and I retreated to a concession stand. I don’t want much attention but also dislike being ignored, even by stargazers, and was glad security had shooed them away before I returned.
Russell converted a drive and a jumper early in the third quarter and Randle, who had scored on a power move late in the second, hammered a two-handed tip dunk.
“I think Julius is shedding his rust,” said Jack.
“He’s an all-star when healthy.”
So is Jordan Clarkson. Like D’Angelo Russell, he yearns to control the ball, and dominated Laker scoring the rest of the quarter, going dunk, dunk, driving and drawing a foul and hitting two free throws, driving and being goaltended, and stealing the ball to pass to rookie Anthony Brown for a score. The game was tied at the end of three.
Julius Randle revved up in the fourth quarter, plowing baseline into a crowd and dunking, aggressively seeking other shots and drawing three fouls and converting four free throws. Clarkson led the Lakers with twenty-one points, Randle had eleven, and Russell six. Towns had ten points and a summer-league-special eight fouls during Minnesota’s win.
“I still think these guys are ready to contend,” I said.
“Then why’d they lose to a ragtag group, excepting Towns?” Jack asked.
“Who wins in summer league isn’t any more important than who wins a scrimmage.”
“You think Magic, Kareem (Abdul Jabbar), and (James) Worthy would lose to this Minnesota team today?”
“No, but that’s an extreme example,” I said.
“That’s the standard in L.A.”
“Kobe’s coming back. That’ll help. I see him playing a lot of small forward.”
“If Kobe’s willing to pass more and shoot less, he’ll work well with these guys,” Jack said.
“They may need three basketballs until Clarkson and Russell, and especially Kobe, learn how to share the rock.”
“There’ll be some tension in practice, but it’s the same on movie sets. Creative people have to be aggressive to express themselves.”
“It’s been a pleasure,” I said, standing and shaking his hand.
“Here’s my business card.”
“Thanks,” I said, promptly placing it in my pocket and sliding through the gathering admirers.
After walking through a hot Vegas summer evening, I entered my car and only then looked at the card. It said: “Jack Donaldson, International Celebrity Impersonators.”