When the Los Angeles Lakers returned from China, the whole team received their first opportunity to speak about what appeared — at least from the outside — to have been an incredibly tense situation abroad.
But whether it was a desire to get past the situation, or to not say the wrong thing, or even the way they genuinely felt, most of the Lakers were able to see a silver lining in the situation: Having to stick around the hotel together forced them to bond with their teammates in ways they otherwise may not have.
“I think the great thing about it is that we did get an opportunity to be together a lot more. A lot of individual appearances got canceled, and so it kept us even closer,” said LeBron James. “With the cancellation of so many different events and different appearances, it allowed us to be together. All of us, just our whole team. Obviously we’re missing one of our brothers, Boogie Cousins being here in L.A. He’s not allowed to travel just yet. But it allowed all of us to just come together even more.”
James cited all of the bus and plane rides to and from the games and practices the team had, the flights from the U.S. to Shanghai, then to Shenzhen and finally back to the U.S., as well as all being forced to be together in the meal room at the hotels as extra opportunities for the roster to bond. While his other comments over the last few days make it clear he didn’t see the trip as an unadulteratedly positive success, teammate Dwight Howard did seem to take almost solely good vibes away from the trip.
“I think it was great for us as a team to just get together. Despite not being able to have those events and stuff like that, I think that trip really brought us together as a team. We had some really good moments, and we’ll never forget those,” Howard said.
Wait... Really good moments? On a trip that got so diplomatically fraught that the NBA cancelled all media availability and people were unsure if the games would be played due to rising tensions between the league and China? What “really good moments”?
“That’s between us,” Howard said coyly.
Still, not everyone on the team seemed to share Howard’s happy-go-lucky view of the international jaunt.
“I mean, I just dealt with it,” said Lakers center JaVale McGee when asked about how he dealt with everything that happened on the trip. “What other choice did I have? I couldn’t leave. I dealt with it.”
But even with McGee revealing that not everything was fantastic about the trip to China, it would be hard to tell from most of the Lakers’ reactions that they just escaped from what at certain points seemed to be a brewing international incident, with some on the roster talking about their time in China like a college team that was excited about how their preseason exhibition contest in some vacation destination went.
“It was just a fun trip in general. Aside from all the outside noise, it was good to just be with the team and hang out. There was nobody there but us,” said Lakers guard Alex Caruso. “It was good to just be able to bond and hang out with everybody.”
“It was a long trip, but it was a great experience being around those guys, learning from them day in and day out,” added rookie Zach Norvell Jr. “It was a great trip.”
“It was fine to me. I mean, we got a chance to play two games and get better,” continued Lakers star Anthony Davis. “The more and more we get a chance to play in front of our fans, for me, I can’t ask for nothing better.”
And while the team was bonding in isolation, James said they also were still hoping to play the two games in Shanghai and Shenzhen.
“All we kept saying was ‘I mean, shit, we flew all these miles to come over to China. We would love to play the game of basketball in front of the fans,’” James recalled. “Coach kept harping on ‘let’s prepare ourselves.’
“We were just hoping that the game wouldn’t get canceled because we wanted to play.”
And as Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel was preaching that mindset of staying ready despite the uncertainty surrounding the Lakers’ situation, he said he learned something about his team.
“I think we have a lot of experience. A lot of mature, professional guys that really locked in. This is one of the most locked in groups that I’ve ever coached in terms of hanging on every word in film sessions,” Vogel said. “It really was on us to focus on what we can control.
“They were telling us that the game was still on, and as long as the game was still on we were going to study the film and prepare our team like we were ready to play, and really block everything else out. Our guys did a great job of that.”
Vogel said that he thinks all of the time together will benefit the team, but he also admitted he isn’t sure if those benefits will outweigh how much extra travel the trip created in the preseason. As he wrapped up his pregame interview on Monday night while getting asked whether or not he was still jet lagged, it was easy to hear the toll the trip took, even through the smile on Vogel’s face.
“I feel great. I mean, it’s really kind of minute-to-minute. You feel really good, and then 10 minutes later you need a nap,” Vogel said.
And even if the team collectively doesn’t want to admit that such fatigue has anything to do with factors beyond travel, after the week they just had, it would be hard to blame Vogel or his players for taking a few siestas to recover before the games start to count next week.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.