LOS ANGELES- The second Los Angeles Lakers game lifelong fan and 23-year-old Los Angeles native David Nwaba attended was in November.
D'Angelo Russell set off fireworks in the first quarter with his three-point shooting before the Lakers eventually cruised to a win over the Brooklyn Nets, and at halftime, Nwaba wandered the concourse at Staples Center, buffeted by the intermixing smells of McDonald's, beers and air conditioning.
Bumping into a reporter he knew, he approached with a smile, chatting for a few minutes before asking with a mixture of disbelief and awe only a true fan could muster.
"Wow, you get to come to these games for a living? You have the coolest job in the world!"
Nwaba had a different job then, and he's since traded that gig in for one at STAPLES Center. His new seats for Lakers games are just a few rows closer than they were in November, and he no longer has to stand in line at the concession stand when he wants to grab a bite to eat.
Plus he gets to play for the team, with a real Lakers jersey that has his own name on it and everything.
"That's the first thing I looked for and I took a quick picture. It's a dream come true just to see that [jersey] and to be given this opportunity,” Nwaba told Silver Screen and Roll.
Nwaba's winding road to an NBA call-up started with a winding road trip. After going undrafted out of Cal Poly in 2016, Nwaba had made the D-League’s (now G-League's) Reno Bighorns as a tryout player.
About halfway from Los Angeles to his new job, he received a call from D-Fenders general manager Nick Mazzella. His hometown team had traded for him. He needed to turnaround.
Unabated, Nwaba turned around and drove straight back to Los Angeles, where he drove into the lane throughout training camp and onto the D-Fenders final roster.
"It's crazy. I was trying to go overseas, just trying to find a job, and the D-Fenders gave me an opportunity to play the game. It wasn't all about the money. I just used the opportunity,” Nwaba said.
“I was aware of the call-ups and stuff, but I was just competing every opportunity that I got,” Nwaba continued. “I slowly saw improvement and I had the confidence. Later on I started realizing it was possible, as long as I keep competing."
Despite almost universally being named as the breakout star of training camp by members of the team, Nwaba still started the year on the bench.
Eventually, how much better the team’s metrics were with Nwaba on the floor could no longer be ignored, and head coach Coby Karl moved him into the starting lineup. 39 games into their season, the D-Fenders (29-10) have the second-best record in the league and were 17 points per 100 possessions better when Nwaba played versus when he sat before he was called up.
The Lakers finally couldn't ignore the versatile, athletic defensive specialist with a knack for getting to the rim while finishing 64.5 percent of his shots sitting right under their noses with the D-Fenders any longer, calling Nwaba up on a 10-day contract after waiving veteran guard Jose Calderon.
D-Fenders head coach Coby Karl called Nwaba into the team’s practice facility, and when the rookie told Karl he was at home, the coach asked him how quickly he could make it over to the facility.
"I was like 'oh, maybe he really just wants me to work the Boy's and Girls Club' because I was told about it earlier,” Nwaba said. “A lot of things were floating through my head, like being traded, but the call-up didn't really cross my mind.”
Instead of a trade or volunteer work, Nwaba would sign his first ever NBA contract just months after having to try-out for the D-League.
Contract signed, Nwaba had to let his parents know. He chose to call each of them separately, trying to play it off like his dream coming true was just another day at the office.
"I just said 'oh by the way, I got a 10-day contract with the Lakers,’” Nwaba said. “They were extremely excited and happy for me."
As for his own celebration, Nwaba kept things low-key.
“I haven't bought anything. I made a trip to In-N-Out I guess,” Nwaba said. “I just got a double-cheeseburger and some fries. I'm not that type where I got money so I'm just going to go out and spend it. It'll probably just go straight into savings and I probably won't touch it."
Cash in hand and cheeseburger in stomach, it was time for Nwaba to live out his dream. The only problem? It’s hard to dream if you can’t sleep.
"There was a lot of nerves right before the game. It was tough to get sleep,” Nwaba said.
Nerves or no, Nwaba was thrown into the mix right from the outset. Lakers head coach Luke Walton inserted the team’s newest addition for his first taste of NBA action with 10:51 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ game against the Charlotte Hornets amid cheers for the local product.
"That was a great feeling, just to know they know I'm only here for a 10-day but that they're very supportive of me,” Nwaba said. “I just want to go out there and play hard and see what I can do. There was definitely a lot of nerves, but I did the best I can while I was in there."
In 5:19 seconds of playing time, Nwaba registered a solitary rebound and field goal attempt in the box score. The latter, despite it being his first NBA shot attempt, is a moment Nwaba would rather forget.
“Nwaba, a bit too strong,” offered Lakers play-by-play man Bill Macdonald charitably, an assessment Nwaba agrees with.
“It definitely came off harder than I thought. Everyone gave me some motivational words and said 'you know, it happens,' and just to get out there and keep being me."
What he did was lead the team in net rating on the night, mainly due to the lineups he played with holding Charlotte to an average of 70 points per 100 possessions.
He initially thought his debut had gone unseen by his parents, who told him not to put them down on the list for comped tickets players receive because they couldn’t make it to their son’s debut.
Instead, they bought tickets and surprised Nwaba — like he surprised them with the news of his call-up — not wanting him to get even more nervous with the knowledge they were there.
It’s not just under the bright lights of STAPLES where the Lakers want Nwaba. Walton has continuously talked up his potential on the defensive end, something the coaches want him bringing to their practices.
"They just told me to be aggressive. Hound guys on the defensive end, and not frustrate them, but have them competing harder than they usually do,” Nwaba said. “I just tried to show that as best I can guarding D'Angelo and trying to pick-up full court.”
“It's not an easy task, but I'm just trying to showcase my defense as much as possible,” Nwaba continued.
It’s a benefit he’s brought to D-Fenders practices all season.
“He pushes us every day, he's one of the better defenders that I've ever played against and we make each other better,” said D-Fenders guard and the D-League’s third-leading scorer, Vander Blue. “I try to go at him, he goes at me, he's just perfect. He's the perfect guy to have on a team.”
Nwaba was in for significantly more minutes during his second outing with the Lakers. He checked in with 5:30 left in the second quarter, tossed in to guard Boston Celtics’ star Isaiah Thomas in his second ever appearance at the NBA level.
"There's a lot of good guys, so they're bound to get buckets. It's just doing the best you can,” Nwaba said. “I'm trying to be aggressive, get in them, help to contain them and get stops."
Nwaba shadowed Thomas all over the floor when the Celtics had the ball, chasing him through screens and picking him up in the backcourt, earning his coach’s admiration for how he handled the NBA’s second-leading scorer.
“I thought he was awesome, and he was a big part of the spark that got us back into the game,” Walton said. “He was fighting over screens, disrupting their offense, getting his hands on passes, contesting every shot, switching one through four and I thought he was really good tonight.”
Nwaba was part of a lineup that keyed a 22-7 run to close the period and would ultimately cut the Celtics’ lead to 13 in the fourth. In that span, he scored his first NBA point after his second free-throw of two attempts bounced around the rim before dropping through.
Less than 30 seconds into the fourth quarter, he would score his first NBA basket on a tough finish in the paint, followed quickly by another on a leak out in transition. Nwaba finished with seven points on just two shots, and the Lakers’ outscored the Celtics by 10.5 points in his floor time.
"That felt a little better than last game,” Nwaba told the horde of media encircling his locker.
Nwaba has gone from four rows of fans to thousands cheering him on, from practices with only occasional media coverage to the swarming throng of reporters enveloping every Lakers activity, from no interviews at all to having his video interview with Spectrum Sportsnet interrupted by Lakers legend and new president of basketball operations Magic Johnson wishing him well.
David Nwaba gets videobombed by Magic Johnson pic.twitter.com/xyncdYt9Td— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) March 2, 2017
Nwaba says he’s “getting used to” what is a surreal situation, but depending on whether the Lakers decide to offer Nwaba a second 10-day contract, sign him for the rest of the season or let him go back to the D-Fenders, Nwaba could wake from his dream in a few days.
He’s trying not to think about that. Instead, Nwaba is focused on living his Lakers dream, and he no longer thinks the reporters covering the team have the best job in the world.
"I definitely think I have the coolest job,” Nwaba laughs. “I mean your job is still cool too, but just being on the bench and going against great players, and being there to support them, it's just a great feeling to be courtside. It's a great atmosphere alongside a lot of great players."
All stats per stats.nbadleague.com, NBA.com. and Basketball-Reference.com. All quotes transcribed via Spectrum Sportsnet. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.