San Diego: There was barely any room to move around in the Lakers’ locker room at the Valley View Casino Centre in San Diego.
LeBron James wasn’t even at his locker, but a crowd of camera operators encircled it anyway, snapping photos and videotaping the space where a sweatshirt that read “More than an athlete” hung.
“Excuse me, get away from my locker, please,” James bellowed as he strolled into the room.
The crowed receded a few feet. When James reached his locker he shared a laugh with Joel Berry II, an undrafted rookie who sat two seats away.
The LeBron James era for the Lakers began more than 100 miles south of the team’s arena, with Magic Johnson sitting courtside, relishing the opportunity to finally see the team he built on the court.
“It was great to get back on the floor and start a new journey for myself,” James said. “Hearing the Lakers fans that we have here in San Diego, it was a great feeling to go out there and hear the roar from the fans here so I very much appreciate that.”
The Lakers lost to the Denver Nuggets 124-107 in their first preseason game of the season. They will play the Nuggets again at Staples Centre in Tuesday’s home debut. JaVale McGee led the team with 17 points in 20 minutes. Rajon Rondo dished 11 assists.
James played 15 minutes 20 seconds, more than he expected. He scored nine points, making both of his three-point attempts and two of six shots overall with four assists and three rebounds.
San Diego is a place with some meaning for James. He got married here five years ago. When he emerged from the Lakers tunnel onto the court for warm-ups, the sold-out crowd of 13,565 crescendoed. One fan yelled “at least the eight seed!” to the team in general, referencing what it will take for L.A. to return to the playoffs this year after a five-year drought.
The start of the game gave the crowd a glimpse of the capability of the Lakers roster. When the opening tip came to James, he flicked it over to Rondo, who threw it ahead to McGee for a dunk.
James sat at the end of the Lakers’ bench for most of the game, atop a wedge that elevated his torso so his head peeked about a foot above the rest of his team. He clapped and chuckled after a Lance Stephenson hesitation move that led to a basket. He groaned at foul calls conjured by the league’s new points of emphasis for officiating.
The Lakers don’t yet have a plan for exactly how many preseason games in which James will play.
“The more he can get out there with the guys and get continuity going the better,” coach Luke Walton said.
Together, they all began the process of forming a team — of learning how to play with James.
“I mean just opening your ears and listening,” McGee said. “It’s definitely amazing to be able to say after I retired I played with the greatest, and some of the greatest teams. It’s just a blessing and every one of us is keeping open ears and being a sponge in terms of paying attention to LeBron.”
Just as James’ teammates are getting accustomed to playing with him, James is growing more and more familiar with his new reality.
“It always feels different for me anytime you change uniforms,” James said. “It felt different when a I changed from a Vincent-St. Mary jersey to a Cavs jersey, from a Cavs jersey to a Heat jersey back to a Cavs jersey, and now being a Laker, so ... It definitely feels different and it’ll take a little bit of time getting used to.”