This is what 401 days of waiting sounds like.
“Lakers, we’re back…we’re back…we’re back!” screamed Kevin Bravo from the middle of Section 215.
“We’re gonna be standing right here the whole game, we’re not sitting down, we missed this vibe, we’re getting it back!” shouted Trey Cobbins, bouncing next to Bravo, two dudes in Lakers jerseys and giant smiles.
This is what 1,915 purple-starved fans feel like.
“They won a championship and we couldn’t be there for them,” said longtime season ticketholder Jeff Haydel, his voice thick with emotion. “I’ve been counting the days until we could be together again.”
On a blissfully hopeful Thursday night at Staples Center, those 1,915 seemed like 19,000, filling the arena with a throaty noise and an unabashed joy.
For the first time since March 10, 2020, the Lakers allowed fans back in their building, and those fans leaped out of hibernation with a roar.
At 6:51 p.m., when the Lakers first ran onto the floor as a team, they were given a standing ovation.
At 6:52 p.m., the Celtics took the floor and were booed. And booed. And booed.
It was then that Staples Center sounded like Los Angeles. It was then that it sounded like home.
“This,” said Bravo between boos, “is a dream come true.”
The fans were scattered around the building’s various levels, with the notable exception of the non-existent courtside seats, which accounted for the non-existent celebrities.
But on this night, Hollywood wasn’t missed, and the die-hards quickly became one voice that had clearly been silenced for far too long.
They chanted “Dee-fense” even though the score was still 0-0.
They cheered when the Lakers called timeout trailing 11-2.
They chanted “Kuuuz” even as Kyle Kuzma was bricking a three-point attempt.
They shouted in outrage at every foul even though the step-slow Lakers were clearly fouling.
They screamed “LeBron” when James showed up in shorts and a baseball cap to sit on the bench early in the first quarter, almost as if they had never seen him before.
They howled, “Back-to-back,” even as the Celtics blazed to a 27-point lead.
In a true sign that this crowd didn’t care about Lake Show cool, when the loudspeaker screamed, “Everybody clap your hands,” everybody actually clapped their hands.
It was so corny. It was so wonderful.
Strict protocol required everyone to either be properly vaccinated or show proof of a recent negative test. There was even a unique ban on purses. Yet everyone seemingly embraced the new rules as the price of safety.
“We’re far away from being normal,” said Robert Ischinter, who drove in from Palm Springs and was one of the first in the seats. “But it’s a beginning.”
Through it all, in moments when the Lakers weren’t scrambling to find their footing while playing without three starters, they appeared delighted at the newfound attention. During a national anthem that was interrupted by the mandatory “Boston sucks” scream, the players even glanced at each other and giggled.
“To have people there cheering for us, we for sure need it,” said Dennis Schroder. “Laker nation, the fans are incredible, any one of them can help us and it felt great tonight.”
Make no mistake, they do for sure need it. They need the cheers. They need the buzz. They need the vibe. They will need it when James and Anthony Davis return, they will need it for the playoffs, but they especially need it while playing short-handed now.
“That energy,” said Kentavious Caldwell-Pope earlier this week. “I mean, we’ve been playing basketball for a long time, that energy that the crowds give you that you feed off of, that can be big, not even just me, but for the team and any individual player on the team. That energy could just fill you up.”
And, especially for a veteran team like the Lakers, a lack of that energy can drain you. Perhaps no NBA arena has been as disquietingly quiet as Staples, which has struck the Lakers as eerily vast and suffocatingly silent.
There is a reason they have better record on the road (18-10) than at home (16-12) this season. They just never adjusted to the loss of the love.
“We’ve been introduced every game with our PA announcer, we’re the defending world champions, and there’s been nobody there to scream or to celebrate or to really do anything with it,” Alex Caruso said.
The fans did all of that Thursday, as did the many Staples Center workers, most of whom were back in the building for the first time in more than a year. Ushers greeted each other and their familiar fans with as much warmth as social distancing would allow. Two workers stole a hug while telling each other, “Happy New Year.”
“We’ve been asleep for a long time, now we’re finally waking up and its incredible,” said longtime usher Raymond Lazard, who was back working Aisle 20 between Section 115 and 166 for the first time in 401 days. “I cried when I saw how empty this place looked all season long. Now my tears have dried.”
Lazard, who lived off his savings for the past year, was so excited that he wore a face shield over his mask to protect fans from his excitement.
“I have to be careful, because I’m talking to everybody I see,” said the 19-year veteran. “I have so much built-up energy right now.”
The building’s energy inspired the Lakers late in the game as they went on a 24-4 run and cut a 27-point lead to five in the final minutes, forcing the Celtics’ starters back on to the court to withstand the charge in Boston’s 121-113 victory.
“I did see them, I did hear them,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of the crowd. “It was great to have our fans back…it just gave us a different level of energy and juice.”
This night indeed wasn’t about the game. It was about the noise, the feeling, the connection.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.