Column: LeBron lights up San Diego arena in Lakers debut
Hear from LeBron James after playing his first preseason game as part of the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the San Diego arena where Queen played in the 1970s, the rest of the royalty finally arrived — more than four decades later.
LeBron James, King James to millions, jogged into Valley View Casino Center on Sunday as camera lights flashed a Midway District welcome.
James stepped onto a basketball court as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time in a preseason game against Denver. Nothing, however, felt preseason about it.
The crowd, building to its sellout size of 13,500, roared as the seventh leading scorer in NBA history, he of nearly 42 million Twitter followers, transformed a meaningless game into something historic.
“It always feels different for me, any time you change uniforms,” said James, who married his wife, Savannah, five years ago at the Grand Del Mar in San Diego. “It felt different when I changed to a Cavs jersey and a Cavs jersey to a Heat jersey, back to a Cavs jersey and then the Lakers. It definitely feels different.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time to get used to.”
Lakers coach Luke Walton, a San Diego native, already is growing accustomed to the view.
“It was awesome,” Walton said. “When you’re coaching the Lakers and you look out and see LeBron wearing your team’s colors, it’s a pretty good feeling.”
Teri Dorazil and her 13-year-old son, Roman, made the trip from Dallas just to see James log a few preseason minutes. The duo wore matching No. 23 jerseys as they peeked in and prodded at gaps along a fence, hoping to catch a glimpse 4 ½ hours before tipoff.
When he suggested James is the greatest player of all time, Roman shot-blocked a mention of Michael Jordan.
“Who’s that?” he said, grinning.
Inside, Valley View Casino Center General Manager Ernie Hahn wore a suit jacket … and Chuck Taylor sneakers.
Hahn expected to personally squeak his way across every inch of the court to ensure the surface with a San Diego-themed palm tree and surfer did not become an unexpected storyline hours later. In 2015, a Lakers-Warriors game was stopped in the third quarter because of wet court conditions.
When it was announced James would join the Lakers in July, Hahn said the arena sold out the remaining 5,000-or-so tickets in six hours.
Another sign of the import: The exhibition was carried nationally on ESPN.
“It’s kind of like Tiger Woods and golf,” Hahn reasoned. “Those kinds of people change the dynamic of their sport.”
The LeBron Factor impacted everything in a game that meant nothing.
When James loped onto the court, an out-of-season layup drill suddenly became an event in and of itself. When he pivoted for a baseline pull-up on his first shot, the crowd uncorked an audible, collective breath. When the shot rimmed out, they remained in sync with a deflated “Ahhh.”
Something to behold, honestly.
This is the Lakers, after all — the franchise of Kareem and Magic and Wilt and Kobe. This is Showtime, a purple parade of 16 championships in all. This, though, hasn’t been those kind of Lakers for a long time.
So when James found Brandon Ingram with a no-look, bounce-pass layup from 27 feet away in the first quarter, those in the arena imagined a dynasty re-imagined and rebuilt. When James confidently pulled up for a 3 from beyond the top of the key less than a minute later, they saw potential and possibility in the NBA’s most storied city not named Boston.
Fans cheered James … for an announcement that he would shoot free throws. Not make them. Shoot them. In an eventual 124-107 Lakers defeat, James played 15 minutes and 20 seconds — all in the first half — and scored nine points with four assists and three rebounds.
“I played a little bit more than expected, actually,” James said. “And I felt pretty good.”
The appearance, though, thrilled without a thrilling stat line.
The arena owned all kinds of history before James added a Lakers-tinged chapter of his own. Ali and Norton traded haymakers here in 1973, a Norton split-decision win that resulted in Ali undergoing surgery on his jaw. Elton John played “Pinball Wizard” here.
The Doors played here in 1970, just two shows before Jim Morrison’s last. The 1971 NBA All-Star Game drew more than 14,000 here to watch Jerry West, Willis Reed, John Havlicek, Connie Hawkins and more.
This, though, taught the old 52-year-old arena a few new tricks.
“When you have the best player on the planet,” said Lakers broadcaster Stu Lantz, who played his first NBA game in the same arena in 1968 with the San Diego Rockets, “it magnifies everything.”
Robert Horry, who won seven NBA titles with three teams, guided drills for a Hoops for Troops clinic before the game.
Horry played for 16 seasons, with stars ranging from Kobe to Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan.
“LeBron,” Horry said, “brings a different type of buzz.”
Why did a preseason game feel so oddly out-sized?
“Because it’s the first time we’ve seen LeBron in a Lakers uniform,” Horry said.
Nathan Moore, a 23-year-old Marine who lives in Oceanside, worked with Horry at the clinic. He sported a Cleveland tattoo on his upper-right arm that paid tribute to everything from the Cavs to baseball’s Indians.
How much did James inspire the artwork?
“Ninety-nine percent,” he said.
Moore once argued with a friend for 3½ hours about the best of all time, Jordan or James. When a sergeant called to remind him the Lakers and James would be the matinee to his clinic, Moore immediately pulled the car over to the side of the road.
“I couldn’t breathe,” he said.
Preseason game? Hardly.
9:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information. It was originally published at 6:35 p.m.
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