The air seemed to move differently when Luke Walton told the assembled media crammed into an El Segundo room that in fact basketball is joy. Knowing joy matters is one thing. But hearing it as a philosophy and a value, and having it instantly remind you of the harshness and edge of the last two years and the Byron Scott fingerprints was startling, even as it was true. Walton went on to explain that the foundation of the Golden State Warriors success was wrapped in a joy culture. That came first. Then attention to detail. Then accountability. Then being connected to one another as a group. If you don’t love the game you won’t succeed in the game, that was the Luke Walton message. It lingered in the room long after his introductory meeting with the media ended. Basketball is joy. Haven’t you heard?
“We’re going to put a stamp on the culture and it’s going to be joy. Our players are going to like coming into practice every day. We’re going to play a brand of basketball that the L.A. fans will appreciate. We’re going to compete.”
There has been nothing competitive nor joyous about the Lakers the last three years. Both Mike D’Antoni and Byron Scott, in different ways, discovered the very same thing. Los Angeles is a rough and hostile place as the pressure mounts and mounts with each loss and each game of deplorable defense. You are beaten to death with the past glory and are mercilessly compared. Everyone has something negative to say. It becomes infectious and a self-identity.
With all respect to Walton, it’s easy to have joy when you are the best team in the league. It’s hard to have joy when you are the worst. As Chuck Daly famously said, “You are your record.”
The fascinating thing about Walton is not just his fast rise from retired player to coach of the most popular and famous basketball franchise in the world, it is his humility considering his privileged background, son of a coach, NBA player, NBA champion. At one point he was asked how did he feel not having a coaching record. Yes, he guided the Warriors to a 24-0 unbeaten streak but he was not attributed one of those wins because he was the interim head coach, and interims aren’t burdened or anointed by wins or losses. Interims are placeholders. Walton laughed it off, said he had such a privileged life, he wasn’t going to stress about it. The world has been very good to Luke Walton.
Raised in San Diego by a famous basketball father and UCLA alum and Wooden disciple, Luke was coached by one of the greatest collegiate basketball minds in Lute Olsen and then was drafted by the Lakers and coached by Phil Jackson and won two titles and then learned under Steve Kerr and now here he is, heading up a young team whose potential to do anything is a question mark. Are the Lakers going to keep D’Angelo Russell or has the locker room been so damaged he has to go? Will Julius Randle come into next season with a jumper? If the Lakers draft Brandon Ingram, will he start and what is his upside and downside?
Walton seemed confident that the Kobe Bryant era ending has opened the door for free agents to come to Los Angeles and establish themselves as the franchise star.
“The future is bright. We’re going to play an up-tempo game. We’re going to bring in another top pick. We have salary cap space to spend.”
Bryant’s longest tenured teammate, nine years of the Bryant death stare, Walton was impacted by the infamous Kobe work ethic which Walton vowed to bring to this young team of developmental players. Unlike the fans in this city, Walton doesn’t have any idea how long this rebuilding will take and give him credit for even using the word rebuilding.
Walton, is in the honeymoon phase of his dream job which his wife had to agree to, so from where he is sitting on day one, despite his bleak misery after the Warriors NBA Finals loss, the Lakers world appears perfect, even as it is starting over.
Assisting Walton is his temperament. He can be tough and he can be relaxed. He develops relationships and he holds players accountability. He acknowledges fatigue of a long season and he believes in joy in those dog days of boredom.
Because without joy, why are the Lakers playing at all?
photo via llananba