NBA Action Returns To San Diego With A Local Spin

Posted: Oct. 21, 2016

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Lakers head coach Luke Walton

It was a battle of the locals on Wednesday night as Luke Walton and his Los Angeles Lakers took on Steve Kerr’s Western Conference Champs, the Golden State Warriors, for their second meeting in NBA preseason play. The Valley View Casino Center felt more like Staples Center South, where the sellout crowd made it very apparent who they came to see. After all, not only have many San Diegans adopted the Lakers as the closest thing to a home team in the absence of our own NBA franchise, but it was the first opportunity fans had to welcome Luke Walton back to his hometown in his new role as Lakers head coach.

Fans showed the love for the first-time head coach, who took the top spot this summer after two years as an assistant with Golden State. The return to L.A. was a homecoming of sorts for Walton professionally as well — he was drafted by the Lakers in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona, playing nine seasons in L.A. and winning two championships with the team. Following his playing career, Walton’s first job coaching in the NBA was with L.A.’s D League team, the D-Fenders. “I know I’m very lucky and blessed to be in the spot that I’m in, and it’s just a tremendous honor to be coaching the L.A. Lakers,” Walton said Wednesday.

Longtime San Diegans and NBA fans may remember coming to this exact spot over 30 years ago, when the San Diego Clippers called the Sports Arena home from 1978 to 1984. Walton’s dad, another San Diego native and NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton, was a member of the Clippers throughout nearly the entire duration of their time in San Diego. During pre-game interviews, the younger Walton said, “It’s nice coming back to a place where you grew up playing, and it’s the same building my dad played in with the Clippers, so it’s nice to be here.”

And yet another member of the Laker leadership, assistant coach Jud Buechler, is a native San Diegan. The Poway High grad and North County resident played for Golden State early in his career prior to moving to the Chicago Bulls, where he shared a spot on the roster of the legendary ’95-’96 team alongside Steve Kerr, and the two took an opportunity for a friendly chat before the game.

If that isn’t enough crossover, Laker legend and “The Logo” himself, Jerry West, was also in the house Wednesday night, not behind the L.A. bench, but as a member of the Warriors’ executive board, which he joined in 2011.

On the Warriors side, Coach Kerr also calls San Diego home, so a chance to “work from home” was a welcome opportunity, given the league’s grueling 82-game schedule. “It’s great to come back to San Diego and sleep in my own bed and play in the sports arena,” Kerr told us.

Despite the Lakers fan-heavy crowd, Warriors summer acquisition and former league MVP Kevin Durant created quite a stir when he greeted eager fans before official warm-ups. After play began though, the backlash from his move to Golden State from Oklahoma City — many fans feel he deserted his team and sold out for the opportunity to win a championship — was evident with boos during his possessions.

Warriors took the win with a final score of 123-112, despite a star performance by rookie forward Brandon Ingram, who led L.A. in scoring. It’s hard to know if the Warriors held off the gas a little bit in the preseason to give Coach Walton a break (Kerr himself said playing against his former assistant “felt weird” after working with him for the past two years), or whether Walton’s experience with Golden State offers the insight his team needs to give the Warriors trouble in the regular season. When asked about that, Warriors star guard Klay Thompson said, “They’ll play hard. They might give us trouble, but hopefully not too much.”

The 2017 NBA season officially begins Tuesday, October 25.     DEANNA MURPHY