Last October, before the start of the regular season, the Lakers and Nets took a trip to China as part of the NBA’s preseason overseas tour. Instead of getting to promote the league and their own brands, hold clinics, and interact with some of the most passionate basketball fans in the world, the Lakers were largely holed up in their hotels, unsure of how to proceed after Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of protesters in Hong Kong rocked the NBA’s relationship with the Chinese government.
Most of the events were canceled, including media availabilities and sponsorship appearances, and the players met to discuss potentially canceling the games themselves before ultimately going through with them.
It was a tenuous situation for the players and the league, and Frank Vogel remembers being uncertain of what could happen. He told Zach Lowe on “The Lowe Post” podcast that the Lakers felt as though they were enemies of the state, and they just wanted to make sure they got out okay:
“I remember feeling cautiously safe, but a little bit afraid, because obviously in a communist country, if you’re on the outs with the government, they don’t have to let you leave. I didn’t think it would go in that direction, but none of us really knew... The NBA through Daryl Morey and his tweet, (and) not the support of the message from Adam Silver, but the support of freedom of speech — which is what our country is all about — really put Adam Silver and the whole NBA on the outs with the Chinese government. So we felt like we were enemies of the state, and in some ways that it could go in a really bad direction.”
Although the time in spent in China was nerve-wracking for everyone involved, there was an unexpected benefit for the Lakers. Because they were stuck indoors, they all had to spend excess amounts of time with one another, and they started to build relationships. Jared Dudley said this was when he first really got to know LeBron James because they woke up at the same time every morning.
Vogel felt a bond develop between him and his players at this point as well, one that was essentially forged by fire. It became clear to him just how strong that bond was when he and Nets coach Kenny Atkinson were asked to address the media on behalf of the league, and his players refused to let him be the NBA’s punching bag. As Vogel told Lowe, the Lakers said:
“No, we’re not letting you do that. We’re not going to let the league throw you to the fire. We appreciate it coach, but no, it’s not happening.”
The Lakers had a year full of unexpected challenges, but they stayed the course together. Rather than letting those difficulties tear the team apart, this group grew closer because of them. That chemistry was visible every time the players took the court, and it was a key ingredient to their success.