L.A. D-Fenders make every home game an experience to remember
LOS ANGELES -- To find the smallest venue in professional basketball, take the first-floor hallway past two ice skating rinks, duck into an alley, hang a right at the popcorn machine, and enter through a side door. Inside are the Los Angeles D-Fenders, the Lakers' affiliate in the NBA Development League, hosting what feels like a private party.
The D-Fenders' home court is the sports equivalent of a Hollywood speakeasy, with 380 seats, separated into seven rows and four VIP tables. Everybody here can act like Jack Nicholson. You could sit in the nosebleeds and still hear the trash talk.
L.A. is the basketball capital this season, with the Lakers and Clippers selling out Staples Center every night. The D-Fenders used to play at Staples, too, where they attracted about as many fans as they do now. Only then, they filled roughly 1 percent of the cavernous arena, a depressing smattering. To cut cost and build atmosphere, the D-Fenders downsized, moving this season into the Lakers' practice facility, where they are surrounded by championship banners and retired jerseys. Their tickets are not cheap -- $20 for general admission, $99 for courtside, $125 at the tables -- but the leg room is plentiful and the views unobstructed.
One night, half the tickets were bought by a local high school. Another night, more than half were bought by a group from Japan. Intimacy and exclusivity, catchwords for bars and bistros, are not usually associated with professional sports. But they are what distinguish the D-Fenders from their big-time brethren. "We want to be like that packed little restaurant around the corner you're always waiting in line for," said D-Fenders CEO Joey Buss. Most of the successful D-League franchises are in markets without NBA teams or even successful college programs: Sioux Falls Sky Force, Maine Red Claws and Bakersfield Jam, who also play in a practice facility with about 500 seats. But the D-Fenders have something those clubs do not: a kinship with the most recognized brand in basketball.
D-Fenders games are Lakers games in miniature, with public address announcer Lawrence Tanter introducing Elijah Millsap as though he's Kobe Bryant, and Jack in the Box awarding free tacos if the home team keeps the opposition under 100. Laker Girls try out new routines and take food orders from VIPs. Fans could shout Dwight Howard trade proposals to general manager Mitch Kupchak, sitting on a balcony outside of his office, and he would actually hear them.
Some D-Fenders joke that they played in front of bigger crowds in high school, but they appreciate their gym because it really is a gym, with the Lakers' weight room next to the court and a film room not much farther. This is the Development League, after all, and while it's nice that the D-Fenders are 27-10 this season, the best record in the league, it's more impressive that they've already sent six players to the NBA and have several others scouts are monitoring.
One is a relentless 6-foot-9, 230-pound power forward named Zach Andrews, who grew up in foster care in Sacramento, had no home in high school and was often left to care for his eight siblings. Andrews played the past four seasons in Spain, Bosnia, Turkey and Japan before arriving in L.A. "I'm everybody's story," he said.
Under the terms of the new CBA, players like Andrews are of greater interest to the Lakers, who cannot just horde expensive free agents anymore. They will need young talent to avoid harsh luxury tax penalties and they hired one of the league's best teachers, head coach Eric Musselman, to help cultivate it. When Orlando signed guard Ish Smith from the D-Fenders, Smith texted Musselman to thank him for everything he'd learned. Smith had been with the team one day.
The D-League remains a flawed farm system, in that players developed by one club can be signed by another, like the Yankees plucking the Red Sox's top prospects. But eventually, the D-League will become a true feeder, and every team will want a relationship with its affiliate like the one the Lakers are building with the D-Fenders. Even their season-ticket holders are viewed as Lakers fans in training, granted priority for Lakers season tickets.
The D-Fenders sold out their first game, when locals were starved by the lockout, but attendance has since dwindled to about 200 per game. Unlike the Lakers and Clippers, the D-Fenders have plenty of seats available, and you can't find a bad one in the house.