LOS ANGELES — Seven teenagers spilled out onto Georgia Street as noon struck on Friday. They were armed with Lakers jerseys, signs spouting over-the-top sentiments, and looking for attention.
“Where’s the protest?” one of them asked, as they rushed toward the looming horizon of Staples Center.
They found what they sought under the statue of Elgin Baylor, storming a small demonstration of several dozen fed-up Lakers fans and taking over the spotlight of the media surrounding and outnumbering the actual participants. Cameras tend to gravitate toward those who speak the loudest, and the teenagers attacked microphones with youthful enthusiasm, albeit with confused messages. The drama ramped up when Darrell Bailey, best known as Clippers superfan “Clipper Darrell,” jumped into the fray to shout that the Lakers’ era was over – and was subsequently shouted down by the rowdy crowd.
But behind a hijacked “protest” outside the venue where the Lakers have underachieved in the last year, there was an authentic sentiment of frustration that is far more widespread than the small showing Friday afternoon. As the Lakers continue to seek a head coach and have no apparent plans to replace president of basketball operations Magic Johnson, there’s an undercurrent of concern that the team is lacking cohesion and direction at a pivotal moment.
It’s a sentiment perhaps best expressed by 37-year-old Julian Payton, who shook his head as he passed the Staples Center scene while pushing his nearly 2-year-old son in a stroller.
“Man, Clipper Darrell is trolling us now,” he said. “This is sad.”
Born in Maryland, Payton is a lifelong Lakers fan who came of age during the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal championship runs of the early 2000s. He wore a ballcap reading “MAKE THE LAKERS GREAT AGAIN,” and his infant son was sleeping in a Lakers hooded sweatshirt.
Payton was more spectator than participant, but he related to the feelings that would push people out into the streets – particularly a sense that the Lakers’ front office failed to assemble a playoff-bound roster around LeBron James, as well as constant leaks and rumors about the organization’s ongoing coaching search that have made them look fractured and indecisive.
“It’s a soap opera,” Payton said. “It’s been a soap opera all season, probably for the first time since Shaq and Kobe were fighting. But back then people still respected us because we had won. We’re more of a joke now.”
Many factors are feeding the fanbase’s unrest of late, perhaps nothing more than the dramatic dropoff from soaring expectations last summer when James signed with the Lakers. Fans such as 29-year-old Catherine Kim, a dedicated follower of the Lakers Reddit thread, assumed that James – who had fought his way to eight consecutive NBA Finals and won three – would provide an immediate lift to a franchise that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2013, a longer drought than any point in franchise history.
A 37-45 season has been deflating, which has colored everything that’s happened since: Johnson quitting his role (without notifying anyone beforehand), Luke Walton leaving the team, a coaching search that was set back when the Lakers couldn’t come to terms with Ty Lue. Kim, who is expecting to give birth later this year, said she wants to see some cohesion from her favorite team before her baby arrives.
“I’m really, really frustrated,” she said with an exasperated smile. “It’s sad to hear that nothing is really happening: It’s always drama.”
The plaza outside Staples Center hasn’t been the only venue where fans have voiced their disappointment: Social media has been rife with such sentiments. A Wednesday Instagram post by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea gained some traction online (more than 22,000 likes) when he vented about the failures of the past season, as well as the confusing direction of the front office while wishing for a competent and hard-working team over a star-studded one.
“Right now, the Lakers are making no sense,” he wrote. “Explain me this: They have LeBron James, incredible young talent, all the cap space in the world, yet they appear to be in the most dismal place in franchise history. This is inexplicable to me.”
That’s the picture many fans seem to have about the Lakers in their heads: a team with many assets and advantages that has been hamstrung by murky decision-making. At the protest itself, there wasn’t much consensus on who was the actual scapegoat of the organization: Some seemed to blame General Manager Rob Pelinka; some went after Kurt and Linda Rambis, who have been close advisors to the team in the last month; some directly challenged owner Jeanie Buss, who has yet to bring the team back to the playoffs under her stewardship since jettisoning her brother Jim Buss in 2017 along with longtime GM Mitch Kupchak.
That team itself hasn’t helped unclutter the sense of organizational power: No top Lakers official has spoken publicly on the record since the season ended on April 9, which was when Johnson left. Cris Lehman, a 32-year-old Lakers fan who lives downtown, said the trait he’d like to see with the Lakers is structure, which he believes Jeanie Buss could put into place unilaterally.
The discord he’s seen, particularly in the wake of the failed negotiations with Lue after which unflattering details leaked, doesn’t indicate that the team is working to instill that. He believes the Lakers can still recover that, given the presence of James, their cap space and their market.
“Now that we’re in that position to succeed, we’re falling all over ourselves,” Lehman opined. “Because we don’t have the right people in place to do the right things.”
What would sate many of the disgruntled is a clear sense of direction and established roles of influence. The Lakers’ muddled process has damaged confidence that the team can begin to bounce back this summer, when the NBA free agent market will include several high-profile players. Some concise decisions and direct messaging might put the Lakers’ faithful back into their ranks.
Until then, Bailey – who seemed to be nourished by the schadenfreude of the spectacle – had some advice for frustrated fans across the hall, drawn from his fallow years as a Clippers devotee.
“Hang in there and be patient,” he said, squeezing in words between breathless guffaws. “That’s the only message I can give them.”
Clipper Darrell is here pic.twitter.com/JORUmZi7Xo
— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) May 10, 2019
A look at some of the signs outside of Staples Center during the Lakers fans protest … pic.twitter.com/Nz7fXwqUD8
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 10, 2019
‘We want another superstar…we want to fire everyone’: Lakers fans protest outside Staples Center in frustration over direction of the franchise after missing the NBA playoffs yet again https://t.co/DyipWW4DLR pic.twitter.com/uKxQfkJc2t
— CBS Los Angeles (@CBSLA) May 10, 2019