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Win or lose, the LeBron James Lakers will be a cultural powerhouse

If all this excitement occurred in San Diego, imagine the insanity of the Lakers’ home opener

SAN DIEGO — LeBron James doesn’t play games. LeBron James orchestrates cultural events. And Sunday night’s game was the beginning of a societal whirlwind that will define this Los Angeles Lakers season.

As we arrived in the city Saturday afternoon, the energy was unavoidable. LeBron James is all people were talking about in sunny San Diego, from the beach to the streets to the bars and the hotel bars. James jerseys were part of the fashion statements that fans wore to the CRSSED Music Festival (featuring Duke Dumont and Kiiara) in town during the weekend. Each time James scored points (nine) or logged a rebound or an assist, a roar washed over the arena. As a franchise, the Lakers have always worked best when celebrity drove its success — and there’s not a bigger household name in basketball than No. 23, the three-time All-Star Game MVP.

But before we get to all of that, let’s iron out some facts after the Lakers’ 124-107 preseason-opening loss to the Denver Nuggets.

  • The Nuggets only made 13 3-pointers, but during the flow of the game, it sure felt like 50.
  • After threatening to make the playoffs the past two seasons, Denver could very well make it this year. If nothing else, the law of averages has to work in the team’s favor at some point.
  • Point guard Jamal Murray can absolutely shoot the leather off the ball.
  • Just imagine how much more anticipated Sunday’s game would’ve been had rookie forward Michael Porter Jr. (back surgery) played.
  • The Lakers preached defense all week in training camp. Turns out they’ll have to take that sermon a bit more to heart in the coming weeks.
  • It’ll be interesting to see what the Lakers do to add shooters to their squad.
  • Knowing all that, let’s not get into midseason form and overreact off not just a preseason game but the first preseason game. For both squads.

The Lakers are a team with endless possibilities in the youth movement quartet of Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball. There’s also the spontaneity of Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley. Not to mention the fearlessness of Rajon Rondo. But it’s the celebrity of James (among other qualities) that will make the 2018-19 season, and beyond, a part of Laker lore unique.

As expected, the crowd in San Diego’s Valley View Casino Center (capacity 16,100) was overwhelmingly pro-Lakers. The lines to get in featured fans in a dizzying array of jerseys, T-shirts and other purple and gold ensembles, and there was an irrefutable excitement not felt since the final days of Kobe Bryant’s 20-year reign. The expectation of a championship, even if many don’t expect it this season, is a feeling Lakers fans haven’t felt in half a decade. And that’s an eternity in the franchise Jerry Buss helped transform into a pop culture stalwart.

Every time James even dribbled the ball, people stood up. Kids with phones raced to the aisles to record the moment.

“Western Conference finals this season,” said Uber driver and lifelong Lakers fan Kassey, en route to the arena, “or it’s a disappointment for me.”

The season is still two weeks away and chants of MVP roared from pockets of the arena — although one guy from the upper deck made it a point to chant, “KOOOOOOOOBBBBEEEEEE!” throughout the first half. Every time James even dribbled the ball, people stood up. Kids with phones raced to the aisles to record the moment.

“Western Conference finals this season,” said the Uber driver, “or it’s a disappointment for me.”

This is the spirit James brings with him wherever he goes. It also makes you wonder. If all this happened in San Diego, then imagine the insanity of the Lakers’ home opener, 18 days away, against a legit title contender. Celebrities will pack courtside and settle to be peppered among the rows closest to the floor. Rabid collectives of Lakers fans from near and far will make the trip to their revitalized mecca.

Beyond that, though, the Lakers will of course struggle at many points — it’s a team that was largely pieced together on the fly. They’ll have their chapters of dominance and of controlled chaos, but regardless, Staples Center will be the vibrant cultural hub that, at its foundation, it has always been. Both scenarios can and will be honest representations of an evolving Western Conference powerhouse.

The ride has officially commenced. About the only thing left to do is win.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.