LOS ANGELES -- The locker was last full on April 13, when its longtime occupant closed out a 20-year career with a stunning 60-point finale. Champagne soaked nearby carpet, as if a championship were won. Teammates transformed into fans, snapping photos, recording video, asking for signed memorabilia. Then, at a late hour, Kobe Bryant left that space one last time and wandered to the court, where he autographed the hardwood, took photos with his wife and two daughters, shook hands with friends and said goodbye to Staples Center. He left through a tunnel just after midnight, when an unforgettable Wednesday night gave way to a surreal Thursday morning.
But that locker was never going to retire, not like Bryant. As custom dictates, it would be passed down, filled again with shoes, clothes, a crisp jersey and somebody new. Bryant’s ghost and all that he achieved would linger there too, perhaps indefinitely, so enormous is the shadow his legacy casts. And when Luke Walton entered the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room Friday night, well before his team fell to the Denver Nuggets 101-97 in a preseason game, the new Lakers coach spotted Bryant’s old locker, and he paused.
Walton walked up to its new owner and asked him if he knew who once resided there. Brandon Ingram, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft, replied that yes, he did know.
“I knew it was some big shoes to fill,” Ingram said.
Ingram faces plenty of pressure to help resurrect a historic franchise from the depths of rebuilding, but having Bryant’s locker at both the practice facility and at the Staples Center adds a little more. And Ingram knows that the fact he was given that locker is no mere coincidence. It’s a message from on high.
“It’s a message,” Ingram said, “that they’re looking for somebody to step it up.”
Ingram endured a few jokes from teammates, who mentioned how the locker to his left also once belonged to Bryant, who stored his suits there, a luxury granted to star players. For now, that space is filled by rookie center Ivica Zubac, though Ingram wouldn’t mind having it.
“We’ll talk about that in a few years,” Ingram said with a smile.
Ingram hadn’t played too well in his Staples Center debut, still rushing shots, still fighting “jitters,” as he said. He finished with six points on 2 of 8 shooting in about 17 minutes off the bench. After missing nine field goals through the Lakers’ first preseason game and into Friday, Ingram finally flushed home a dunk off an alley-oop pass, his first preseason basket. Later, he banked in a 3-pointer and found the Lakers bench going wild in celebration, just like Lakers fans, who were encouraging him even on misses.
“I was happy it went in,” Ingram said. “I was definitely needing a basket.”
He’s still finding his way, adjusting to the NBA after playing one season at Duke. He said he’s trying to learn the pace and when to shoot, as well as understanding personnel better on defense.
“He’s young," Walton said. “He still looks like he’s rushing his shot a little bit, which I’m not concerned with at all. The kid shoots lights out in practice pretty much every day. I think once the game slows down a little bit for him, he’ll be fine.”
As Ingram conducted his first postgame interview in the Lakers’ locker room, he stood in front of his locker and reporters swarmed around him, just as they did for the star player who once resided there. Ingram was asked about his performance, what he liked, what he didn’t like, about the differences between the NBA and college game, about what he felt he needed to work on. He was also asked about the locker, as odd as it might seem to be asked about such a thing, but he didn’t sweat it. He had a poignant response ready to go.
“I knew that [there’s] somebody different here after 20 years,” Ingram began, “and, of course, we talk about new era, and it’s definitely a new era for our guys to start a new journey.”
His answer respected the past while nodding to the future, which, as far as Ingram and the Lakers are concerned, is here and now.