How a busted trade request got Anthony Davis to Los Angeles

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IT WAS SUPPOSED to be a quiet summer night for Anthony Davis.

With the rumor mill churning, he sought refuge with Keanu Reeves -- just another anonymous moviegoer watching bad guys get pistol-whipped in "John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum."

As the film came to an end, Davis closed out his check. (It was one of those luxury cinemas where orders are brought right to your seat.) In the dark of the theater, he slid his credit card back into his wallet and his wallet back into his bag.

The next morning, Davis left his home near Thousand Oaks, California, and stopped at a gas station. Standing at the pump to pay, he felt like he'd just taken a John Wick roundhouse kick to the stomach: He didn't have his wallet.

"It must be at the movies," Davis thought. So he called the theater and asked to speak to the manager.

"No, no, your wallet's not here," he was told.

Undeterred, Davis and a couple of friends drove to the theater, trying to retrace his steps. Again, they asked if a wallet had turned up. It had not.

They searched the theater, in and around his seat. No dice.

He called the next day. No wallet.

He called the day after that. Still no wallet.

Another day passed, and Davis returned to the theater, this time to see the Seth Rogen-Charlize Theron comedy "Long Shot." He wasn't optimistic but asked about the wallet one last time. They didn't have it.

Gone were both his Illinois state ID and driver's license. He arranged for a new medical insurance card and contacted credit card companies to issue new sets of plastic. And then came the issue of the actual wallet itself. Davis figured he'd never see the black and blue Goyard wallet again. In its place, he picked up an all-black Louis Vuitton pocket-sized valise to complete the swap.

This was not what Davis had in mind when he went to the theater for a reprieve. Then again, things hadn't exactly gone according to plan since a January trade request went public and submarined his season.

IN MID-APRIL, when the New Orleans Pelicans retooled their front office, hiring former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin as their executive vice president of basketball operations, Griffin inherited a quandary: whether to honor a preexisting trade request by Davis or attempt to mend fences as a fresh voice and risk the next season devolving into a high-stakes standoff.

The rub was two-fold: One obstacle, sources told ESPN, was Pelicans owner Gayle Benson's sour feelings toward L.A. -- a lingering disdain over how Davis' final season with the franchise had been compromised by AD's initial request.

"Clearly the process began at the trade deadline," Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka says. "But I think it's no mystery that there wasn't engagement in them wanting to do a trade at that time. I think that's just sort of fact."

The second problem? Despite all of that, the Lakers were their most viable -- if not their only -- option.

"Major NBA trades live on the edge of a dime. I think maybe the everyday fan doesn't know how the fulcrum is so razor-thin."
Lakers GM Rob Pelinka

"When I took over, there was some latent discontent, maybe with the way things had been handled," Griffin says. "We just talked about the fact that, look, in all likelihood the best package is going to come from this team, because it's the only team that AD's willing to stay at."

Acting on behalf of his client, agent Rich Paul had all but made the decision for the Pelicans. He signaled to any other interested trade partners -- i.e. the Boston Celtics, who sources say coveted the big man for years -- that Davis would walk as a free agent in the summer of 2020 if they dealt for him.

"The last thing you want to do is put a GM in a situation where he trades away an asset and then the guy walks out the door," Paul says. "Like, you can't do business that way. So it's not really a hard conversation to have.

"And I don't think it stopped Danny Ainge from trying. It's just that maybe he didn't have the deal [he wanted]. He wasn't willing to give up the young players, which I don't blame him. I wouldn't give them up either if the guy is not going to re-sign."

Griffin, who acknowledges that his preexisting relationship with Paul was likely a benefit when he was selected to replace Dell Demps, couldn't help but admire the agent's moxie.

"Rich had done such an effective job of smoking out all of the competition for the Lakers that we were left with the sense that the best deal is going to very likely come from them. And if we can get X-Y-Z, we have to execute the deal," Griffin recalls.

But if the Pelicans were going to part with AD, it wouldn't be for just X-Y-Z. They wanted the whole alphabet.

And on May 14, they'd get their chance.

The results of the draft lottery helped grease the wheels for renewed trade conversations, league sources told ESPN. The Lakers walked away with the No. 4 pick, despite having just a 9.4% chance of doing so; the Pelicans, bucking mere 6% odds, landed the No. 1 pick and first dibs at Duke's Zion Williamson.

"[Davis] wanted to go to two places: New York or L.A," Paul reflects. "After the draft [lottery], I was able to see where everything lies. The fact that [the Pelicans] were going to get the first pick caused me to understand that it softened the blow of losing Anthony Davis because the organization could still have some momentum.

"Now, where he would go was up to who was going to step up and give the best offer."

"For him to, in an instant, just say, 'Here. Here's 23. You can have it.' ... It was a cool moment."
Anthony Davis, on LeBron James offering his jersey number

The Lakers parted with the No. 4 pick, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart, as well as a 2021 first-rounder protected Nos. 9-30 (which becomes unprotected in 2022), first-round swap rights in 2023 and a 2024 first-round pick with the option to defer to 2025.

"Throughout the whole time, we were trying to gauge the value of the fourth pick," Griffin says.

Many pundits viewed a steep drop-off following the top three prospects in Williamson, Ja Morant and RJ Barrett. Unless there was a team that viewed another player worthy of that group, the fourth pick really wasn't all that much more valuable than, say, the 10th pick -- only more expensive because of the cascading rookie salary structure.

Playing out the hypothetical trade opportunities that could exist if the Pelicans did the deal with the Lakers, Griffin eventually found interest from the Atlanta Hawks, who ended up sending New Orleans the No. 8, No. 17 and No. 35 picks in the 2019 draft and a heavily protected 2020 first-rounder for No. 4 so the Hawks could take De'Andre Hunter out of Virginia.

"Major NBA trades live on the edge of a dime," Pelinka says. "I think maybe the everyday fan doesn't know how the fulcrum is so razor-thin, and something's close to being done and then it's far from being done and then you think you have it done and you start over.

"The day that it was completed, I remember there were a number of hurdles that seemed insurmountable that came up where we thought this just is never going to happen."

Griffin, who had parted ways with the Cavs just days before Kyrie Irving requested a trade out of Cleveland, had ruminated for some time on how he would have handled that situation. Now that he was in the driver's seat with Davis, he was intent on leveraging a killer deal.

"Literally the day that the trade happened," Pelinka says, "there were a couple points I was convinced that there would be no further conversations."

But the Lakers were too invested to walk away. They owed it, Pelinka thought, to LeBron James.

"When a player of LeBron's stature puts his trust in the organization," Pelinka says, "I think there's an implicit bilateral trust going back, saying: 'We're going to do everything we can to put you in a position to win more championships, because that's what you're about.'"

BACK IN 2015, NBA journeyman center Kendrick Perkins landed in New Orleans, where he would play one season alongside Davis on the Pelicans. On the road, the two would frequently break bread together, and their dinner conversations would often turn toward James, whom Perkins had played with on the AAU circuit as a teenager. They were also teammates in Cleveland during James' second stint with the Cavs. During those dinners, Perkins would gush about the four-time MVP's focus and preparation.

"I used to brag about Bron a lot with him," Perkins says. "He really didn't have to ask me [about James]. I was doing more of the talking."

In the summer of 2018, when word got out that Davis could be looking for a new agent, it was Perkins who introduced Davis to Klutch Sports.

"I thought it was the best thing for AD," Perkins says. "I thought he needed to be around that type of greatness."

Paul saw the star beneath Davis' signature synophrys and knew there was much more for the power forward to accomplish in the league beyond one second-round postseason appearance.

"He's just as talented as anyone who's ever played this game," Paul says. "Six-11, makes 3s, blocks shots. I think he's one of the better passing big men in our game. In my opinion, this is what makes him different from Giannis [Antetokounmpo].

"Like, if you put Anthony Davis on that Bucks team last year, they'd be playing in the Finals. He knows how to make guys better. That's not a knock to Giannis, but that's just what [I think]."

After that fateful meeting manifested the three-team trade to form a new superstar duo, James and Davis shared a new dream of parlaying their duo into a trio. As free agency opened in July, Kawhi Leonard was indisputably the biggest free agent on the market.

The King and The Brow set their sights on The Claw.

Davis says he spoke to Leonard over the phone once in the first five days of free agency. Hardly a fervent flirtation, but as much as he felt comfortable engaging in.

"I don't really know Kawhi like that -- I don't think no one really knows Kawhi like that. But obviously we were hopeful," Davis says. "I definitely thought that it was a possibility that we could get him. ... I'm not going to be a haggling guy. Especially when he came and said he didn't really like the media [attention] and people pressuring him.

"But I think there was a time where all of us felt like we were really, really close to getting Kawhi."

So close that Davis and James started envisioning what the Lakers would look like with arguably the biggest Big Three of all time roaming the court.

"I think it [has] always been about the Big Three," Davis says. "We were talking like, 'Man, we get Kawhi, man, this is what we can do. We can do it like this, this, this, this. ...'"

On July 6, though, Leonard made his announcement: The reigning Finals MVP would forsake the Toronto Raptors not for the Lakers but for their Staples Center cohabitants, the LA Clippers. And Davis immediately flipped his mental switch.

"[I was] like, 'Wait, hold on,'" Davis recalls. "'We [still] got LeBron and Anthony Davis. Let's do it.'"

FROM THE MOMENT that Davis signed on with the Lakers, he found himself almost constantly engaged in player personnel decisions with his new GM. For Davis, who says he was consulted on major moves in New Orleans but never the minutiae, it took some getting used to.

"We were doing constant calls about, 'What do you think of this or this player?'" he says. "Rob was almost like a stalking girlfriend. He was an agent, so he's played both sides. He knows that in order for stuff to work, the players have to be involved. And he tried to make sure that LeBron and I were involved as much as possible. During free agency, every decision I got a text or a call, even just two minutes, 'Look, this is going on. ... How do you feel? OK, cool.'

"Every single decision. I [have] never been involved so much. No matter who the player was, he wanted to make sure. It was on everything. And it was like, 'Wow.' To the point where I was like, 'All right, Rob, stop calling me.'"

Pelinka, who says that treating "superstars like partners" is a mentality that front offices must adopt in the era of player empowerment, fully acknowledges that this is his approach. He estimates hundreds of three-way calls with James and Davis since the trade.

Such collaboration is enticing in the moment but also a plausible avenue for escape later. Case in point: Magic Johnson was blamed for being the architect of the Lakers' ill-conceived roster last season -- one that prioritized playmakers over shooters -- despite undoubted discussions at various points with others in the organization, including James, about the construction.

Still, being scrutinized is just part of the Laker experience, as Davis sees it. In fact, he says he relishes it.

"I think a lot of stuff that I did in New Orleans, people saw and heard about. But then again, people said, 'Well, it was New Orleans.' I think the big question is, 'All right, let's see what he can do on a big stage. Obviously the playoffs are the playoffs, but let's see what he does on 35 [national] TV games now," Davis says.

"Nobody was really waking up [for a game] in New Orleans. Every game now is like, 'All right, if we beat the Lakers [we accomplished something].' [With the Pelicans] we could lose games and people were like, 'OK, well, no one expected them to win this game,' or whatever. Now every night you have to show up. If not, the next day here comes your name through the tabloids."

It's a pressure the low-key Davis -- who admits that James already rides for not watching enough game film on his downtime, preferring to unwind by playing Madden -- says he embraces.

"I think having that for the first time is going to be fun," he says. "I'm looking forward to it. Just to show the world, like, 'All right, it wasn't a fluke for seven years in New Orleans.'"

WITH A WALL full of green cardboard pizza boxes folded up behind him and a vegetarian pie smothered in sheep cheese resting on the paper place mat in front of him, James basked in the warmth emanating from the open kitchen floor plan at Jon & Vinny's.

James had become a regular at the West L.A. outpost of the trendy Italian restaurant. In fact, he ate at the spot so often the chef concocted the off-menu sheep cheese pizza to align with his dietary restrictions. With no entrée costing more than $26 and brown paper napkins complementing the white paper place mats on the tables, it was easy to feel comfortable.

But as low-key as the setting might have been, it was a special occasion.

Seated with him at the wooden booth on this clear summer night was Davis, the latest in the Lakers' long line of star big men and perhaps the key piece to James enjoying success in the latter stages of his basketball career.

"It was the end of the dinner," Davis says. "He pulled out a card. He was like, 'My wife wanted me to give you this.' I was like, 'Why is Savannah giving me a card?'"

Davis tore open the envelope and began to read the inscription.

"'Welcome to L.A.' such and such and such, 'bro,'" Davis says, remembering the note. "I stopped reading. I said, 'Wait, Savannah doesn't even call me 'bro.'"

He scanned to the bottom of the card for the signature: King James #6.

"Then he pulls the jersey out."

From inside the to-go bag the waiter had brought over, James whipped out a gold Lakers jersey with No. 23 stitched in purple numerals.

"He was like, 'This is yours.'"

Davis figured the gift to be one of James' own jerseys. That was until he turned the jersey around: Across the shoulders, stitched just above the No. 23, was the name "Davis."

"He was like, 'I know you wanted 23,'" says Davis, who wore the number at both the University of Kentucky and all seven seasons in New Orleans. "For him to, in an instant, just say, 'Here. Here's 23. You can have it.' ... It was a cool moment."

It ended up being the ultimate "it's the thought that counts" gift. While league sources confirm the NBA would have bent the rules to allow for James to swap his jersey number without meeting the deadline to file the paperwork a year ahead of time, Nike intervened. The official uniform supplier for the league -- and a company that James and Davis both represent -- cited tens of millions of dollars in potentially wasted inventory of James No. 23 gear, according to sources.

The moment was ironic -- in a what-a-difference-a-decade-makes sort of way. Davis had first met James nine years prior and some 2,300 miles away as a camper at the LeBron James Skills Academy.

Long before he would ascend to the No. 1 pick in the draft, Davis had folded a growing and near-7-foot frame into a Greyhound Bus for an 11-hour trek from Chicago to Akron, Ohio. There at the camp the 17-year-old Davis watched the TV special "The Decision" before James arrived at the gym later that week.

Davis donned a random camp-issued No. 44 jersey with "LeBron James" printed across the chest -- just another kid trying to stand out in a crowd of phenoms. When James arrived after announcing his intentions for South Beach, Davis was happy to just get a glimpse of him, dap him up, snap a photo. "It was just like, 'Man, this is LeBron,'" Davis recalls.

Now it was no longer Davis, the camper, hoping to meet James, the superstar. It was James, one of the greatest of all time, hoping to impress Davis, the superstar. It was no longer James shifting the balance of power in the league by going from Cleveland to Miami. It was Davis turning the Lakers back into contenders by going from New Orleans to L.A.

"It was like," Davis says before trailing off. "It speaks about who he is and how bad he wanted me to be here."

A FEW WEEKS after the trade was consummated, Davis settled back into L.A. life. Wielding his new, fully stocked wallet, he returned to the same theater to see another film: the raunchy, laugh-out-loud "Good Boys." As the screen flickered with images, an attendant approached his seat.

"I'm like, 'Excuse me, may I help you?'" Davis says. "They were like, 'Our manager told us to let you know that we have your wallet.'"

He couldn't believe it. "I said, 'What?!' It just had to be because I'm a Laker now. I mean, they had my wallet the entire time."

The manager apologized profusely and tried to make it up to him. "She gave me a whole bunch of vouchers -- like 25 movies I can go see," Davis says.

He doubts he'll ever cash in on the free flicks, though. Now a part of the Lakers, Davis has moved 30 miles east of Thousand Oaks into a mansion in Bel Air.

He found his old wallet. He found his new team. He hopes to find the Larry O'Brien trophy in his hands in June.

"I really feel like we can win it."