EL SEGUNDO — The Lakers hosted a holiday party for kids at their practice facility Saturday, and for most of the day, it was hard to tell which group was having more fun.
It’s clear that this team’s competitive instincts don’t go away when the players step off of the basketball court. Whether they were playing games among themselves or with their young guests, every Laker wanted to show out, at least a little.
The kids, players and Laker girls got to decorate gold ornaments and gingerbread cookies, as well as play a variety of games like ones you see at the pier in addition to corn hole, Connect Four, and NBA 2K — but every event inevitably turned into a serious contest.
Tyson Chandler, a 18-year veteran who still delights in being able to spend time with kids and bring joy around the holidays, said, “The games are the best part because you get to really interact with the kids.” The Lakers took full advantage of that opportunity.
Moe Wagner and Josh Hart got into a competition decorating Christmas ornaments, and Hart hogged all of the large stickers so that Wagner would have a tougher time filling his out. Hart and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope later got in a shooting contest in which KCP fouled Hart every single time he took a shot.
Kyle Kuzma tried to decorate the prettiest gingerbread cookies. He ended up being most proud of a likeness of one of his teammates, sharing it on Instagram.
Rajon Rondo held court at the Lakers-themed giant Connect Four game. Rondo is famously a Connect Four savant who told me he has lost to kids, but never to adults. A few older attendees tried to beat him to no avail, including Lance Stephenson, who claimed Rondo was cheating due to some inconsistent patterns on the purple-colored chips.
The kids fared no better, and instead were treated to a showcase of Rondo in full concentration, pacing back and forth as he analyzed all the possible permutations and went undefeated during the afternoon.
Wagner and a young boy named Matthew played a game that involved throwing a softball into a large vase. Wagner was so intent on only attracting serious competitors that he said whoever completed the throw would force the opponent to do pushups. Poor Matthew had to do five pushups and never extracted any punishment of his own from Wagner.
For Wagner and Svi Mykhailiuk, playing games with the kids was a perfect way to get into the holiday spirit, particularly since the weather was so incongruous with how they are used to celebrating Christmas. Svi in particular seemed to really miss the snow after years of spending the holidays in Ukraine and then in Kansas.
“It doesn’t feel like Christmas,” Svi said. “I’m used to cold and snow and everyone in big coats.”
The holiday weather was perfectly normal for Chandler, who couldn’t be happier to be spending the season in his native Los Angeles. He signed dozens of shirts and posters, and took even more pictures, though the one request he would not fulfill was when a boy named Maxwell asked if he could get a picture of Chandler dunking on him. Chandler denied his proposal and instead gave him some advice: “You ain’t supposed to let no one dunk on you.”
The Lakers’ notorious inter-team roasting also doesn’t take holidays off. Brandon Ingram had an opportunity to deliver holiday cheer as a makeshift Santa, but after having a personal sit-down with Santa, Hart complained that Ingram was probably the worst possible choice as the skinniest Laker.
Ingram had no rebuttal for that comment, and just said, “Josh Hart is definitely the biggest kid out here.”
Even though few of the kids at the party could actually identify the Lakers in attendance, the excitement they had to share the afternoon with them could not have been more palpable. The team still has a job to do during this time of year, but the effect the players have as messengers of holiday spirit was more meaningful than watching the Lakers play basketball. The fact that the players acted like children themselves made it possible for everyone to have a great time.
Around this time of year, Ingram said the best present is “seeing the smiles on (the kid’s) faces,” and on a day when the ever-competitive Lakers players went out of their way to make some things more challenging, bringing smiles at least proved to be an easy task.