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Dwight Howard grabbed the microphone at center court, a smile spreading across his face as he looked around at the packed Staples Center stands Tuesday night.
“Let’s get ready to rumble!” Howard yelled in his best imitation of famed ring announcer Michael Buffer, delighting the first sold-out crowd to occupy the arena since before the pandemic descended in March 2020.
“We want to welcome all you guys back. We missed you guys.”
The Lakers’ season-opening 121-114 loss to Golden State was part homecoming, part initiation, and entirely enjoyable for fans until the Warriors staged a fourth-quarter rally to take the game out of the Lakers' hands.
It was a night for hugs between fans who hadn’t seen each other in longer than they might have cared to remember, and for season-ticket holders to hug ushers they once saw regularly but had missed for many months. It was a night to embrace a new season — the NBA’s 75th anniversary season — and to embrace a team that was rebuilt over the summer by a series of high-profile signings and acquisitions.
Outside, on streets brought to life at mid-afternoon by the anticipation of the Lakers’ season debut, fans wore jerseys of Lakers past and present — and sometimes that meant the same thing. Among the Kobe Bryant jerseys (8 and 24), LeBron James jerseys (23 and his new 6) and the random Cedric Ceballos, Shaquille O’Neal and Larry Nance jerseys were new ones with the names of Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, prized offseason additions.
Inside, a gold T-shirt was draped over the back of each seat. In bright Forum Blue — the term former owner Jack Kent Cooke preferred over the word purple — was imprinted the number 18,997, the capacity for Lakers games at Staples Center. Above that were the words, “Opening Night 2021.” Below, in white, was “Strong,” with a Lakers logo replacing the “o.”
The fans were as strong in voice as in number, roaring when James’ alley-oop pass to DeAndre Jordan became the Lakers’ first points of the season, standing and cheering when Anthony and point guard Rajon Rondo, back for another tour of Lakers duty, each entered the game wearing his familiar headband with 5:40 left in the first quarter. A three-pointer by Anthony that sent the Lakers into halftime with a 59-53 lead heightened the buzz of a crowd that already was in a good mood after the Dodgers’ stunning comeback against Atlanta in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series a few miles north, off the 110 freeway.
The noise became a symphony, cresting during the wild fourth quarter. The swirling lights and colors were energetic, vibrant. Public address announcer Lawrence Tanter’s smooth tones were richly resonant, as they were meant to sound, instead of rattling around an arena left three-quarters empty because of COVID-19 restrictions.
It was an event as much as it was a game. Lakers games always have had a sense of occasion because of the star power so often gathered on the court and the megawatt stars who sit courtside, some of them more to be seen than to see the games. The electricity was back on Tuesday, along with a long list of celebrities that included longtime fan Jack Nicholson, actor Kevin Hart, and superstar singer Adele, who’s dating basketball agent Rich Paul.
The Lakers’ performance, after a good start, became far from perfect. After so many changes, so many players still figuring out their roles and their timing and playing time, mistakes and missteps were inevitable. Westbrook had two points at the half on one-for-seven shooting; he finished with eight points on four-for-13 shooting. Anthony had nine points on three-for-nine shooting. The Lakers likely will be inconsistent and sometimes disjointed for a few weeks, until they become more accustomed to playing off each other.
Coach Frank Vogel said before the game his biggest challenge during exhibition games was curbing the frequent turnovers. Part of that, he said, could be attributed to veteran players’ disinterest in preseason games. “Hopefully, that’s behind us,” he said. Not entirely. The Lakers committed 18 turnovers that the Warriors turned into 20 points.
But Anthony Davis had 33 points and James had 34 and 11 rebounds, so that much was as it should be. Along the way this season there surely will be shooting slumps and maybe some bruised egos. On the nights they look tired, the Lakers’ advanced age inevitably will be mentioned, and that’s fair. It’s up to them to prove their contention that their ages matter less than their will. James and Davis won’t play all 82 games. They shouldn’t.
This team is built to be at its best in the playoffs.
This is the team James wanted. These are the players he wanted around him. He has every incentive, at nearly 37 years old, to do everything in his power to make it work and win another championship.
The noise returned to Staples Center on Tuesday, but the Lakers will have to try again, so that the last thing they hear is cheers for a victory.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.