EL SEGUNDO — On Saturday afternoon, before the Lakers began to trickle out from within the glass-paneled UCLA Health Training Facility in El Segundo, approximately 100 kids from Boys and Girls Clubs around the greater Los Angeles area loaded up on sugary hot chocolate, cookies, and marshmallows, a small appetizer before getting the chance to hang out with some of their favorite players in person.
The first Laker to amble out of the building in socks and slides was the youngest member of the squad, Talen Horton-Tucker. As he patiently waited his turn in a game of pop-a-shot with some of the kids, onlookers designing ornaments at one of the arts and crafts tables thought they may have caught a glimpse of one of their heroes.
“That’s Anthony Davis!”
Immediately, a second munchkin with at least slightly superior knowledge of the Lakers’ roster corrected her, “That is not no Anthony Davis.”
But this wasn’t enough for Ornament Crafter No. 1, and so she persisted, tasking an expert to settle the matter definitively. Enter Avery Bradley, who gently explained to the kids that no, Talen Horton-Tucker was actually not Anthony Davis.
Avery Bradley explaining that Talen Horton-Tucker (off-screen left) is actually not Anthony Davis and that AD is in fact “this tall” pic.twitter.com/SrLMp4FlCL— Cooper Halpern (@CooperHalpern) December 4, 2021
Bradley generously explained that although he and Talen were considerably taller than most adults, and especially the children, the 6’10 Anthony Davis was quite a bit larger. He also consoled the loser of the argument, offering, “[Talen] does kind of look like [AD].”
The afternoon offered a few fleeting moments of levity in what has otherwise been a stressful and often unsatisfying start to the season for these hopeful contenders. When Davis did finally exit the training facility to join the party, he cast a shadow over the event with the size of his literal frame and celebrity (especially among the population of minors in attendance), bringing clarity to the debate regarding his personage.
The vast majority of the kids — who, in addition to spending time mingling with the Lakers, also all received holiday gifts and goodie bags from the team — rushed to surround Davis upon his arrival, stranding older vets like Rajon Rondo and Carmelo Anthony to perhaps draft their Hall of Fame induction speeches, or ponder the fashion choices they’d made for the event.
Rondo arrived in the foam Yeezys that look like designer Crocs below some purple sweats a Laker staffer complimented him on, while Melo donned a Jackson State hoodie that he said came from one of the collaborations Chris Paul did with a number of HBCUs. Always eager to mentor, Anthony actually gave a talk to some of the student-athletes from the same Mississippi school a couple of months ago over Zoom.
As two of the lesser-known Lakers — at least to the little ones far too young to have witnessed their primes — Rondo and Melo found new ways to occupy themselves when their company departed for the undeniably physically larger star.
Rondo hovered around the hot chocolate station with Bradley and Horton-Tucker, though they all refrained from partaking in the libations set out for the kids. I asked THT if he was waiting to grab a hot chocolate, but he declined. Later, he looked at me sheepishly and shrugged when he did end up grabbing one of the sweet beverages meant for the children he was closer in age to than any other Laker.
Melo went back to pop-a-shot, but couldn’t keep his competitive fire from impacting his performance.
“I always let the kids win the first game so we can run it back,” he explained. “Then I can tie it up, then I can win.”
Anthony wasn’t the only Laker to flex his basketball prowess on the mini hoops just a stone’s throw from the real ones the Lakers use inside the building; Wayne Ellington decided to surprise a small child by spiking his attempt into the adjacent parking lot with a swipe from behind, a defensive play so ruthless some of the kids could have mistaken him for Anthony Davis next. He proceeded to ice out his junior competition with the kind of display he usually saves for pregame warmups, but Ellington decried any notion that his shooting skill translated onto the micro basket, stating the two athletic actions were “a little different.”
Wayne Ellington told me he thought shooting on NBA rims was “a little different” from pop a shot. The results say otherwise pic.twitter.com/Wy2EOdapDc— Cooper Halpern (@CooperHalpern) December 4, 2021
Austin Reaves also partook in the action on the arcade basketball hoop, albeit with less success than the Lakers’ two best 3-point shooters by percentage this season. When I asked him who the best pop-a-shooter on the Lakers was, to which he replied, “Definitely not me ‘cause I just got killed!” Reaves added that he’d been beaten 10 times in a row, but cried foul, citing uneven conditions.
“AD was over there being a defender against me which wasn’t fair,” Reaves said. “I might have to give it to Rondo. He looks like he’s good at something like that.” Although Rajon acquitted himself reasonably well on the miniature rim, unfortunately, he was unable to show off his greatest purported non-basketball talent, his mastery of Connect 4.
The Lakers present weren’t just taking an opportunity to pad (unkept) stats against lesser competition, though. They also spoke to the pleasantly cathartic nature of spending a couple of moments away from the game as we approach the holiday season. DeAndre Jordan, in a Lakers Santa hat, admitted that he was “looking to get [his] win column up,” but added, “It’s super exciting to put smiles on kids’ faces... They make us smile too.”
Melo, the Lakers’ elder guardian of positive energy shared a similar sentiment with DeAndre.
“We get so consumed with basketball and practice and traveling and we get a chance to come out here and just relax and do something non-basketball related, especially with kids, all of us, most of us have kids, so we know what that’s like,” Anthony said. “It’s just good to be out here man, good vibe, good weather, good feeling.”
The newest Laker, Reaves, also appreciated to the moment of rest in a chaotic schedule the rookie is only just starting to get the hang of.
“95% of the time, basketball’s what we do. Even if we’re home, we’re watching film or doing stuff like that,” Reaves said. “So just getting out here and just playing around with the kids... just seeing everybody’s joy out here is really special.”
All quotes obtained firsthand. Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.