The story, Saturday, was supposed to be about LeBron James. Instead it was about a brawl that marred the home debut of the Lakers’ new star, set the stage for some lengthy potential suspensions, and just might tarnish the reputation of one of LeBron’s new running mates if the allegations against him are indeed true.
Instead of writing about the electric atmosphere of LeBron’s first game in a home uniform for the NBA’s most glamorous franchise, all we’re going to talk about after this one was the fight between Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo, with Brandon Ingram throwing a haymaker or two to pile onto what was an ugly scene at Staples Center.
What looked like trash talking gone wrong just might turn out to be something grosser and so disrespectful that few could blame Paul for getting in Rondo’s face before punches were thrown.
Well after Paul, Rondo, and Ingram were ejected, well after it took the officials 10 minutes restore order, and well after the Rockets defeated the Lakers 124-115, word spread around the bowels of Staples Center that Rondo—allegedly, although ESPN reported it happened—spat in CP3’s face. Paul’s newest teammate, and close friend, Carmelo Anthony basically confirmed it in the locker room when he was asked directly if he had witnessed a spitting incident.
“You don’t even see that in the streets.” —Carmelo Anthony
“It was bullshit. Plain and simple. Unacceptable. What happened was unacceptable,” said Anthony. “You don’t do that to nobody. In sports or the streets, that’s blatant disrespect.”
With 4:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, tempers flared quickly after Ingram shoved James Harden from behind following a foul call the Lakers forward didn’t like. That’s when Rondo and Paul started jawing at each other. Paul stuck a finger in Rondo’s face, and Rondo quickly unloaded a few punches on CP3. When and where the spitting occurred is still a mystery, since it wasn't clearly visible on the video. Ingram will soon feel the wrath of the NBA after he tried to get in a few more shots before everyone eventually calmed down—including LeBron, hugging his friend CP3 and keeping him away from the fracas. Who knows how many games Rondo gets after the league does its investigation?
The film of the fight will be broken down frame by frame by the NBA, and suspensions—some lengthier than others—are assuredly coming. But Rondo wasn't able to confirm or deny if he did the dirty deed, since he was unavailable for comment after the game.
We expected drama in LeBron’s Hollywood debut, but nobody expected that. And Anthony, with his (technically) fifth squad in his 16th year in the league, couldn’t remember ever seeing something like that before on a basketball court.
“You don’t even see that in the streets,” he said.
Following the game, Paul, who was wearing street clothes, could be heard asking Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, “What are we doing?” over and over again.
Prior to the game, Lakers coach Luke Walton and James preached that LeBron’s home debut wasn’t going to be anything special. It was just another season opener for the franchise. There would be no speeches beforehand. No changing of rituals. It would be business as usual for Game No. 2.
But for a sold-out Staples Center crowd, it was a big, big deal. There were a ton of LeBron No. 23 Lakers jerseys in the stands, and attendees showered their new hero with rousing ovations every time he touched the ball in the first quarter and let out a few MVP chants when he went to the free throw line later in the game. James finished with 24 points, while Paul finished with 28. From a playing prospective, Harden was the story, balling out in the fourth quarter to end with a game-high 38 points and give the Rockets their first win of the season.
And there was a small army to document it all. The Lakers and the NBA handed out roughly 250 credentials, with 15 countries and territories represented. Writers who have covered the Lakers for years compared the hype and hoopla leading up to this one to Kobe Bryant’s last game three seasons ago.
ESPN, which televised the game, had many of its heavy hitters on hand, including Adrian Wojnarowski, Stephen A. Smith, Rachel Nichols, Brian Windhorst, and others roaming the Staples Center sniffing out their next scoops. Smith asked Harden in the locker room if Rondo had spit in Paul’s face.
“That’s what was said,” said Harden, who admitted earlier he hadn’t clearly seen the whole incident. “As a man, the only thing you can do is react and stand up for yourself. We’ll see how it plays out. It is what it is.”
“As a man, the only thing you can do is react and stand up for yourself. We’ll see how it plays out. It is what it is.” —James Harden
At least the fans who came out got their money’s worth. Tickets on the secondary market went for approximately 71 percent more than last year’s Lakers home opener. The average ticket sold for $526.73—and the stars predictably came out to see the action, including Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kendall Jenner, and Jack Nicholson. Asked after the game what he thought of LeBron’s debut, Nicholson grinned and said, “We lost.”
Shockingly, we didn't see Kendrick Lamar, who had spent part of his Friday talking to the Lakers for their “Genius Series.” The legendary lyricist was brought to the team’s practice facility the day after they lost the season opener in Portland. Asked at Saturday morning’s shootaround, hours before he had to be at Staples Center, why it was important for the Lakers to hear what Kendrick had to say, LeBron played it off as no big deal.
"He's a friend of mine, anyway,” said LeBron. “I can talk to him any day I want to. I don't need to have him come in here. But I think it was great to have him here. He's a local legend. What he was able to give us [Friday’ was pretty cool."
It was a subtle flex from LeBron, for sure, but the good vibes of the Pulitzer Prize-winning artist dropping knowledge on his squad must feel like ages ago after what went down Saturday. Whether the Lakers were charged up from the hard foul Josh Hart took earlier in the fourth or not, and that’s why things unfolded the way they did, they are likely going to be without two key rotation members for several games, and they need to figure out how to get their first win of the season ASAP. An 0-3 record could be staring the team in the face with the Spurs headed to Los Angeles Monday, and LeBron doesn't need any more plot twists this early in the season to ruin the story he's trying to author—the rebirth of the Los Angeles Lakers.