In all walks of life, it is not a given that you will like the people you work with. In fact, sometimes the opposite happens. Even a close working relationship is not the same as a real friendship.
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were never friends when they were teammates on the Los Angeles Lakers. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are unlikely to be hanging out together next summer. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are not texting each other after games.
However, for the current Lakers, two of their young stars, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, have become fast friends. It happened very quickly, like the person you unexpectedly meet in the dorm on your first day of college, who turns out to be your best friend for life.
For Ball and Kuzma, it happened when they met for Summer League last July. Yes, it was awesome watching Lonzo, time and time again, grab a rebound and throw the ball the length of the court to a streaking Kuzma who scored easily. But there was much more to it than that.
Ball went on to win MVP of the Summer League and Kuzma was named MVP of the championship game. But in the end they may have gained something much more valuable. It was obvious in their postgame banter and interviews that they had connected off the court as well.
Fast forward a few months, and even when they aren’t playing basketball, the friendship has grown to the point that it appears they are almost inseparable. Ball has publically acknowledged that Kuzma is his “best friend” on the team and that they are “very close.”
The friendship was not inevitable. Ball grew up in comfortable surroundings in Chino Hills, Calif., in a close-knit family with younger brothers who shared his passion for basketball and a father who, to put it mildly, took a keen interest in his development.
He was a highly-rated prep star coming out of high school, a high-profile player at UCLA, a first team All-American as a freshman, and the second player chosen in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Kuzma was raised in crime-ridden Flint, Mich., by a young, single mother, with whom he is very close. He stayed out of trouble by incessantly playing basketball at the local YMCA. Kuzma was not heralded coming out of high school and almost no one knew who he was when he declared for the Draft.
Ball and Kuzma both played college basketball in the Pac-12 last year, and each received first team all-conference honors. Yet Ball has stated that he didn’t even notice Kuzma when their teams played one another during the season. And when Kuzma was selected with the Lakers second pick in last summer’s draft, he barely knew who Kuzma was.
While Ball entered the league with a fever pitch of hysterical fanfare, not many paid attention to Kuzma or cared much about him. That all changed in Summer League, however, when Kuzma literally burst onto the scene and was phenomenal.
Whether Kuzma is poking fun at Ball’s Drake-like dance moves, suggesting the Lakers trade their rookie point guard, or Ball is commenting on Kuzma’s sense of fashion or lack thereof, the two are constantly ribbing one other on social media.
But their relationship extends beyond making light of a situation. Kuzma repeatedly defended Ball when he was shooting poorly earlier in the season and not meeting the lofty expectations with which he entered the league. Ball has been lavish in his praise of Kuzma’s success.
The Lakers hope that over time, the close friendship between their two prized rookies translates to success for the team on the basketball court. It has not happened yet, for multiple reasons.
For one thing, Ball has been hurt off and on all year and has missed a lot of time. He was hurt in Summer League, missed most of the preseason, and has had two long stints where he was hurt and unable to play during the regular season. Kuzma has been banged up too but managed to play with his injuries.
Thus, because Ball has missed so much time, the two have not been able to grow their on-court chemistry which started in Summer League.
The other issue is that, all season, the coaching staff has inexplicably shuttled Kuzma back and forth between starting and coming off the bench. Kuzma was at one time a strong contender for Rookie of the Year, but just when he was playing his best, he was yanked from the starting lineup and his minutes were dramatically reduced.
Ball is strictly a starter, but when Kuzma does not start, they do not share the court together for prolonged minutes.
Perhaps one day Ball will get and remain healthy and Kuzma will get another chance to start. Then they will be able to build on their basketball chemistry and hopefully it will translate into wins for the team.
They have very long careers ahead of them, but as the plights of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson can illustrate, things change and a player never knows where he will be from month to month or season to season.
For Ball and Kuzma, whether they remain teammates for the next 12 years or one or both are traded this summer or next season, their friendship is real and is likely to endure.
For those who believe there is more to life than work (and basketball), that would be a great success story.
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