Media day for the Los Angeles Lakers has come and gone, signifying the start of a new NBA season. It was reminiscent of the first day of school, with players dressed in their new uniforms and fresh haircuts, looking forward to the blank slate before them. The day was filled with hustle and bustle as massive athletes intermixed with writers, radio and TV hosts, and of course, Vic “The Brick” Jacobs.
Despite the overwhelming nature of the day, it was an incredible experience filled with memorable moments, highlighted by one player in particular who blew away all expectations.
It was my first opportunity to attend media day with the Lakers, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. After all, this was the Lakers, but Kobe Bryant is gone and the team is in an uncharacteristic rebuilding phase. Still, the history is inescapable. As I walked onto the practice court in El Segundo I was immediately greeted by the sight of none other than the legendary James Worthy, who easily towered over the half a dozen people he was politely chatting with.
It was an instant notification that I had passed out of the normal world and into a new land; this one ruled by giants.
The court, normally regulation size, had been cut down by about a third through the use of makeshift dividers made out of thick black cloth, with the goal being to somewhat contain the swarm of people filling the room. The larger portion side of the room was filled with media members, with two championship trophies brought down in individual cases to adorn the Spectrum SportsNet set.
Photo stations were set up along the walls of the room, with each player expected to visit them one by one and get their picture taken in a variety of poses. Plenty of Lakers staffers were around to ensure that each athlete ended up in the right spot at the right time, which sometimes proved to be a difficult task with so many people on the floor to visit with. Media members gave the players their space during picture time, but when they ventured into the middle of the room they were fair game for questions.
Balancing taking photos and speaking to media was like a game, and each athlete played it his own way.
Some, like D’Angelo Russell, used the photo stations strategically, mostly staying behind the no-go zone and venturing out into the deep waters of the center of the room sparingly, knowing that he would be instantly swarmed by microphones and cameras.
Rookie center Ivica Zubac largely stuck close to a Lakers staffer on one side of the room. He lacked the media day experience to play the game the way Russell did, instead opting to do his best to simply stay out of the way.
Timofey Mozgov, on the other hand, displayed his veteran savvy, taking his photos and somehow getting out with hardly anyone noticing, an impressive feat for the largest man in the room. Larry Nance Jr. and Zach Auguste roamed the room wearing nearly identical Cheshire Cat grins and bouncing from one station to another. If this were the first day back to school, Nance, in particular, was the social butterfly.
Still, each player had their own method to navigate the crowd, but one truly stood out: Tarik Black planted himself nearly dead center in room, refusing to shy away from the crowd of reporters or seek the shelter of the photographers.
As I made my way around the room I chatted with numerous Lakers players and media members alike. I discussed position and role with Auguste, the transition to playing as a reserve with Jose Calderon, and the coaching change with Anthony Brown. I made sure to stop and say hello to color commentator Stu Lantz, who was every bit as friendly and warm in person as he is on the air.
Through it all, Black was still there, owning the room with his arms behind his back and a smile on his face. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone so obviously comfortable in their own skin.
Questions came from all angles about all topics, but Black never flinched nor retreated.
As the day grew longer I eventually made my way to him, catching the massive center after he had finally vacated his spot in the middle of the room to take a few pictures. Nearly two hours had passed and almost every player had left the court, but Black actually stepped away from a conversation with his agent to make more time for myself and a few other reporters.
The standard question posed to every player was, “What have you been working on over the summer?”. Almost invariably the answer was a physical skill– Brown worked on his jumper, Zubac the sky hook(!), Thomas Robinson on finishing, and so on.
However, when my Lakers Nation colleague, Ryan Ward, posed the question to Black, he went a different direction. Without hesitation, Black replied, “My mentality, man. Getting more confident and more comfortable on the floor. Getting more comfortable with myself and my talents regardless of what people believe.”
Keep in mind, this was coming from the only guy in the building who spent the day looking so at ease he might as well have been in his living room.
Still, the response fit the man. Black is an imposing figure with a muscular, tattoo-covered physique, but he is as smart as he is strong, possessing a Master’s degree in African-American studies and a keen eye on life after basketball.
Throughout the day I had purposefully avoided battle questions. This wasn’t the time or place to challenge anyone, but it was clear that I could test Black a bit and it wouldn’t phase him.
During his stint with the Lakers, the main criticism of Black has been that, at 6’9” he is simply too small to be a center in the NBA, which is probably the only place in the world where a man his size would face such a problem.
So I asked him, point blank, what he thought about that notion. He paused for a moment, taking a breath, then said with determination, “…you know, talk is one thing but action is another. I don’t have anything to say against it, but go look me up, go look up how I fared against my opposition and go look at my numbers (compared to) my opposition. That speaks louder than what anybody can say[…]I’ve shown I can switch. I’ve shown I can play the four. I’ve show I can play the five. I’ve shown I can switch on screens and contain the point guard.”
Black’s response spoke volumes. It struck me that, while he didn’t reference it directly, he is very aware of the fact that he was statistically a plus defender both in the paint and on the perimeter last season. He may not have the size or wingspan of a shot-blocking terror like Hassan Whiteside or Rudy Gobert, but his mobility allows him to partially make up for it, though it may not be obvious to the untrained eye.
As our conversation continued, I thought about some of the reactions when the details of Black’s contract hit the news cycle in July. At more than $12 million over two years (second year not guaranteed),it seemed like a lot for a reserve center who spent a good portion of last season in the coach’s doghouse. Many questioned whether or not it was a wise decision for a Lakers team that has no margin of error.
Talking to Black, though, even for a few minutes, made the rationale clear. He deeply believes he will succeed, and exudes the confidence and leadership qualities that the young Lakers badly need. It’s hard not to bet on him.
As things began to wrap up, Black was asked about his free agency, and what led him to return to the Lakers. He spoke briefly about Luke Walton, and how the two had a solid relationship from Walton’s time coaching Black in college at Memphis. He also mentioned that other teams had expressed interest, but the Lakers were the first to come forward with a real offer. He then summed up his thoughts with a statement sure to warm the hearts of Lakers Nation:
“I want to be a Laker, man. It means a lot wearing this jersey. A lot of legendary people have come through here, and if you’re someone who is pursuing greatness and you want to be great, you want to leave your name in this place. And that’s something that I want to do.”
Before we said our goodbyes, I decided to press him one last time and asked if he still would have returned to the Lakers if Byron Scott was the coach. True to form, Black firmly replied, “…I don’t run from challenges, man.”
We departed, but not before Black looked each of us dead in the eye, shook our hands, and said, “Thank you for the opportunity.”
As I made a reluctant walk to my car, I thought about all the great stories I had heard that day and the people I had met. I quickly scribbled a few notes for story ideas before they left my mind, out of fear that I would forget an important detail if I waited until I got home.
I didn’t bother writing down anything about Tarik Black. There was no need, the impression he made on all he met was simply unforgettable.