Desiree Engle spotted Roger Rodriguez and his Boston Celtics sweatshirt from a block away.
“Lady Mamba,” as Engle’s friends and 1,100 followers on her Lakers-devoted Instagram account know her, had driven from Newport Beach for every Lakers home game this season, even when COVID-19 restrictions prohibited fans from watching in person.
The season ticket holder of more than 20 years wanted players to know their fans still supported them, even if they could not play in front of them. And so she and a handful of fellow obsessives would stand on the corner outside Staples Center’s loading dock to jeer the opponents’ buses and cheer the arrival of her favorite players.
She took her place at Georgia Street and Chick Hearn Court again Thursday. The crowd booed as a Celtics bus passed, with All-Star Jayson Tatum glancing at the dozen-strong crowd in Lakers jerseys. Minutes later, there was excitement when they thought guard Dennis Schroder drove past in a luxury SUV (false alarm).
Unlike this season’s 27 previous Lakers home games, they were no longer alone. The relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions in L.A. County this month cleared the way for a limited number of fans to watch pro basketball in the city for the first time in 13 months. More than two hours before tipoff, the first of the more than 2,000 fans permitted to attend in person had begun to trickle into L.A. Live, where arena workers awaited the first home game in front of paying spectators since March 10 of last year.
It brought Rodriguez from Oxnard, in Celtics-green clothes that stood out amid the crowd of purple and gold.
“Boston sucks!” Engle yelled at him, leading a chant. “Those clovers don’t work!”
Would-be ticket scalpers walking L.A. Live asking for extras and Lakers fans bashing their historic rivals all meant one thing — slowly, the familiar rhythms of a Lakers home game had returned. Outdoor patios at Yard House and Wolfgang Puck’s Bar & Grill at L.A. Live were lightly attended 90 minutes before tipoff before business grew as the game's start approached.
“It should be amazing,” Rodriguez said. “It’s going to be quiet, pretty much. It hasn’t really hit me yet, not until we get inside.”
Rodriguez and his cousin, Beto Rojo, a Lakers fan, each paid $300 per ticket. Before he stepped inside, Rojo called the price well worth it. It was half the cost of his ticket to watch Bryant’s No. 8 and 24 jerseys retired in 2017.
The Lakers and Clippers were among the last NBA teams to welcome a limited number of fans at home games and the few who claimed tickets were required to wear a mask and show proof of either being fully vaccinated or a negative test within the previous 72 hours. Among those to arrive clutching a vaccination card was Guadalupe Mendoza and her mother, Guadalupe.
Mendoza said the arena’s protocols, which also prohibit bags and touchless concession ordering, made her feel safer to take her $250 seat in the front row of the upper deck. Then again, it would have been hard to keep her away at all. Her parents dressed her in a Lakers outfit as a newborn. Her family, including her brother and father, watch virtually every game together.
“The Lakers are the constant in my life,” the younger Mendoza said, wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey, as her mother nodded by her side. “I was really happy when they were able to go back into the bubble so seeing them in person after winning a championship means a lot.
“I’ve never really been afraid of being loud and stuff so it’s almost, I have to overcompensate because I know that there’s not going to be any fans, especially being the fact that it’s against the Celtics which is our biggest rival. … I’m just excited for the fact that we can be the ones who are representing other fans who can’t actually be in the building tonight.”
Engle was among those left on the outside looking in for a 28th time this season, frustrated she was unable to take her usual place in Section 313. Dressed in a black Lakers jersey, she passed the time by cheering for Lakers television announcers Mychal Thompson and Bill Macdonald as they left a nearby parking garage.
She scrolled through her phone, replaying videos of her many encounters in Newport Beach with Bryant, the late superstar to whom she presented a jersey every year for his birthday. On her mask was the image of her presenting a smiling Bryant a final retirement gift — a jersey with “Legend” on the back.
Engle said she relied on Bryant's “Mamba Mentality” following brain surgery in 2016.
She hopes to be inside Staples Center again on May 12, when the Lakers raise their 2020 championship banner.
“We want to be in the house so badly,” she said. “How do we get in?”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.