This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's November 14 Playing Through Pain Issue. Subscribe today!
Jordan Clarkson's brow furrows. "Let's get after it," he says. "You hear me?" "Yup, it's over," D'Angelo Russell replies, his eyes narrowing. "I'm gonna light his ass up." The "it" they're getting after? Uh, that's me.
It's a balmy evening at a paintball course in Bellflower, California, and the heirs of a Lakers backcourt relinquished by Kobe Bryant are armed to the teeth and feeling good. They've fine-tuned their craft over the past 12 months in regular games with teammates at Hollywood Sports Park, this world-class paintball facility 18 miles south of Staples Center. It's like a team-building exercise with high-velocity projectiles. And they're about to inflict their team-building all over me.
I owe all of this to former Laker Roy Hibbert, who introduced paintball outings to the team when he signed with LA in the summer of 2015. Now it's Russell and Clarkson, 20 and 24, respectively, who serve as torchbearers of the team's top pastime, which they believe will play a role in building chemistry on a remodeled roster of recent draft picks and league transients, among them free agent signees Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov.
"It gets us talking, trying to get to the same goal of beating the other team, so it all transfers over," Clarkson says. But mostly "it's us bonding, something where we can get away from the basketball stuff and have fun."
FUN HAS BEEN at a premium for the once-mighty Lakers, now division doormats coming off a franchise-worst 17-65 season. Further jangling their nerves last season: former head coach Byron Scott's tough-love brand of tutelage, which often led to pine time for a young core that included 2014 lottery pick Julius Randle.
But it's a new dawn in LA, and with it comes hope in the form of two offseason acquisitions: No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram, the gifted Duke swingman whom Kevin Durant has likened to himself, and new head coach Luke Walton. The former Lakers forward and Warriors assistant returns to LA toting a modern offense predicated on pace of play and ball movement-not to mention a reputation as something of a millennial whisperer.
"Coach's style of play is run-and-gun and try to make the right play," Russell says. "He wants us to learn from each other, play off each other, and he's always encouraging us in practice, whether it's to shoot the ball or to get a stop so we can have fun on the other end. Hearing that from your coach is the best feeling in the world."
Perhaps Walton's most pressing task will be to develop floor leader Russell, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, who has shown flashes of stardom (see his eight-game run of 18.3 points and 4.8 assists per game after the All-Star break) as well as questionable maturity (see his entanglement in teammate Nick Young's infidelity saga). Only a teenager last season, Russell appears to be a new man after strong performances in both summer league and preseason action, and his passing, penetration and shot from both outside and the midrange give the Lakers hope that they might have found their point guard of the future.
Meanwhile, a new team philosophy-and a Kobe-sized hole in the game plan-has Clarkson, at least, envisioning a Warriors South in LA. "We're all about playing together now," he says. "It's not about one guy anymore. It's about sacrificing for the team." Adds Russell, "Kobe deserved every bit of attention he got in his last year, but there's freedom in Kobe not being around." There's also a leadership vacuum that they plan to fill as a unit. "There's no one leader, no face of the Lakers," Russell says, citing the Spurs as the template. "When we traveled to San Antonio last season, I noticed that it's about everybody-they had all those household names, but the 15th guy got the same amount of attention as Tim Duncan, who's a legend. I feel like we're all buying into that concept. We're a team now. And that's exciting."
Interestingly enough, the Spurs had a favorite pastime of their own during their title run. That pastime? Paintball.
WE ARRIVE AT Cajun Terror, one of the facility's 11 courses, a dystopian hellscape of graves and Creole cottages. The contest: a free-for-all elimination game. The wager: First man out takes two shots to the backside with water-soluble missiles that travel at the alarming rate of 175 mph.
Anything else I should know? "Usually, you say 'All right, I'm out' once you get hit," Russell says. "That doesn't exist." Come again? "We don't play no outs," Clarkson explains. "So you'll have to run out the park."
Before I can file for a rule change, the players scatter. "Wait, don't shoot!" I yelp. Too late. Russell, in full backpedal, drills me. "I hit you in the head!" Russell bellows. He did, and it hurt. But I insist it doesn't count, and Russell relents.
Game on-for real this time-and I waddle through the course like a short, fat, terrified duck, scanning the field for my opponents as yellow paint drips from my aching head. I was expecting a high-volume offensive. What I'm facing instead is a disciplined game plan that is maddening to counter. What's worse, I can hear their chatter.
"D-Lo, I'm trailing! D-Lo!" "Finish him!" Russell barks back, in a tip of the cap to either Mortal Kombat's fatalities or Cobra Kai's John Kreese. In either case? Super unnerving.
Spotting Clarkson 20 yards away standing in plain sight, I gather my breath and aim over a headstone. Pop-pop. I miss, but I'm feeling good enough to send a message: "You're nothin'!" I speak too soon. Thwap-thwap-thwap ...
Pellets to the posterior! The scene was a setup, an ambush, Clarkson revealing himself only to draw me out as his fleet-footed friend sneaked around behind. Thwap-thwap-thwap ... and still they come like a hailstorm of thumbtacks across my back and neck.
"I'm out, I'm out!" I shout repeatedly, though it's possible that Russell can't hear me over his laughter. Plan B: scream like a baby and literally beg for a cease-fire. "No more, no more!"
Reminder: The Lakers don't do cease-fires.
New plan: run like hell. And so I do, dropping my gun and fleeing toward shelter. Clarkson shouts from ahead: "Run him out this way!" Engulfed in hellfire, I reverse course, sprinting through an exit door toward the parking lot. Game over.
As Russell will tell me afterward while I lick my wounds, "That's our chemistry right there."