The Los Angeles Lakers traveled to China yesterday for the first time as a team. It’s a pretty big deal on a lot of levels. As part of the NBA Global Games, the Lakers will play two matches against the Golden State Warriors. The first takes place in Beijing on Tuesday, October 15. The second will be in Shanghai, three days later. There will be ample time to take in the sights and culture, including of course, the Great Wall of China. Many of the players will be accompanied by family. The NBA represents big money in China as well as a genuine love of the game.
Kobe Bryant knows China well, having traveled there on behalf of Nike for eight consecutive years. He was also a member of the U.S. gold medal team in Beijing in 2008. The team’s head physical therapist, Dr. Judy Seto, offers a nice perspective, not only on Bryant’s immense popularity but on the country itself.
Trips like this can serve as important bonding opportunities. With the on-court chemistry displayed so far in the young preseason, it may be icing on the cake. The team certainly doesn’t have the superstar panache of last year’s edition. They also don’t have the divisiveness that arrived with a player who could have been the future of the franchise. The franchise may have dodged a bullet when he continued on his way.
Despite the enduring presence of Pau Gasol, the current Los Angeles Lakers may not seem like a multicultural juggernaut. They are long removed from the days of the linguistically challenged Slava Medvedenko. And, the second coming of The Machine never came to pass.
Still, an international flavor does exist. It starts at the top and I don’t mean Jim Buss.
Mike D’Antoni began his pro basketball career in the NBA as a point guard. He moved to Italy five years later, leading Olimpia Milano to five Italian League titles and two Euroleague titles. He transitioned to seven successful years as a coach in the Italian league. He also met a kid named Kobe while playing alongside Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant in Milan. As D’Antoni recalls, young Bryant used to shoot baskets on court during halftime and “we’d have to beat him off the court to start the second half.”
Pau Gasol of course hails from Spain. He’s a bit of a national treasure there. He’s also pretty well liked in the states. We all know about last year’s challenges. The relationship between Gasol and D’Antoni has mellowed since then, with the coach recently making it clear that he considers Pau to be a better post player than the guy who drifted through last season. Gasol played for FC Barcelona Basquet for three years before joining the NBA. He has also played regularly with the Spanish national team, including three Olympics.
Representing the pacific northwestern soccer and hackysack contingent, Steve Nash grew up in British Columbia by way of Johannesburg, South Africa. The northern province may not exactly evoke Euroleague vibes but it does offer rainy mountainous fjords and over 6,000 islands. Nash is the oldest active player in the NBA at the moment. Most basketball fans would like to see him healthy and playing well again – a Steve Nash no-look pass is a beautiful thing.
What about the rank and file players? Robert Sacre is the other guy from British Columbia, by way of New Orleans. Sacre moved to Canada at age 7 with his mom Leslie, a Canadian who played college ball at LSU for the Lady Tigers. His father, Greg LeFleur was a tight end in the NFL with the Eagles, Colts and Cardinals. Sacre, one of two Gonzaga products for the Lakers, was the last pick in the 2012 draft and has managed to stick.
Xavier Henry was a nice surprise in his first two preseason games. Since then, not so much. Henry was born in Belgium due to the fact that his dad was playing pro basketball there at the time. The Henry family eventually returned to their Oklahoma roots – Xavier was a prep superstar and would eventually be selected as the 12th overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft. He’s one of several lottery draft busts seeking redemption, or at least a spot on the roster.
Elias Harris represents a different kind of draft prospect, as in the kind that didn’t get picked at all. Growing up in Speyer, Germany, his first love was soccer. He was steered toward basketball by his father, a 6-4 wing who played pro ball in Europe. Elias Harris played for the German national team and came to the U.S. to play for Gonzaga. He’s an athletic hybrid forward and plays hard, but is only averaging 11.3 minutes a game in preseason.
There’s also the guys who didn’t grow up internationally but have spent some time overseas. Chris Kaman has played for the German national team, including the Beijing Olympics, through some teutonic bloodline. Jordan Farmar grew up in Los Angeles but spent the past two seasons playing in Israel and Turkey. Darius Johnson-Odom played for Spartak St. Petersburg of Russia and Marcus Landry will be revisiting familiar territory during the Lakers’ China trip – he spent part of last year with the Shanghai Sharks.
As far as I know, neither Steve Blake, Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams or Ryan Kelly have an international basketball story. As of today, they’ll be spending some quality time in China, the world’s most populous country, often referred to as the cradle of existing civilization.
By the time a player makes it to the NBA, he’s been a star somewhere. There’s only so much room at the top of the pyramid however, success is often a matter of fitting in. Kobe Bryant will be back in action at some point and will no doubt take his rightful place – he’s one of the game’s true giants. As for the team on whole, they’re arguably entering their most transitional period in a generation of basketball.
Regardless of expectations, the Lakers enter this season with an unfamiliar narrative – nobody seems to be talking conflict, or at least it’s not coming from the players. Basketball is a melting pot, regardless of whether you come from Belgium, the Berry Capital of Canada or downtown Memphis. On the floor there are only the painted lines and players, one ball to be shared or fought over, the sound of whistles and shoes and the swelling noise of the crowd. You find your home on the court and that means the road as well.
17 players will enjoy their week in China, all the way from El Segundo. When they return, there will be another roster cut and a couple more exhibitions. And then the season’s clock resets.