De’Aaron Fox has heard the stories — the horror stories — about the 2002 Kings-Lakers classic that, in the pro basketball bible, is one of the greatest series ever played.
But he was 4 years old then, barely out of diapers, his hands too small to even grip a basketball. How could he possibly relate to the pain and suffering Sacramento Kings fans endured during the ensuing 15 years, when the franchise almost moved away and, almost as insulting, the Los Angeles Lakers moved on from a compelling, if abbreviated rivalry.
Beware of the Fox, though. He is as sly as his name suggests. Amid all the hype preceding Monday’s meeting between the Kings and Lakers in the Las Vegas Summer League — the inaugural pro matchup between No. 2 draft pick Lonzo Ball and No. 5 Fox — the Kings’ prize rookie from Kentucky insists he is pushing for the rebirth of a rivalry, not obsessing about Magic Johnson’s snub.
“Magic and them were telling me they were looking at me hard, and I was hearing stuff,” Fox said. “When I see him around, it’s all good. We’re fine. The pieces fell where they did and they felt Lonzo was the fit for them. Everybody asks if I had a preference on where I went, but I really didn’t care.”
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But he doesn’t forget much, either. Nor is he unaware that the Lakers-Boston Celtics matchup attracted a sellout crowd Saturday at Thomas & Mack Center, that another large crowd is expected for Monday’s Kings-Lakers meeting, that the excitement in his adopted hometown is prompting Kings management to host a free-of-charge watch party inside Golden 1 Center. (As of Sunday, most of the lower bowl had been filled.
“I know everybody is pretty into it,” the Kentucky standout said. “It’s pretty cool. It’s all over ESPN. For me, though, I’m just trying to concentrate on playing well and learning.”
Seated in a lounge in the team hotel Saturday afternoon, surrounded by women sipping tea and eating delicacies in a formal European setting, Fox leans back on the couch and reveals more than a passing interest in Ball. He checks his cell phone repeatedly; he is awaiting a ride to the Lakers-Celtics tip-off at UNLV. Their tepid protests notwithstanding, each clearly has an eye on the other.
Fox, a slight 6-foot-3 speedster who grew up outside Houston, met the lanky 6-foot-6 Ball at an AAU camp in the summer following their sophomore year of high school. They were reacquainted at a Kentucky-UCLA regular-season game last December and again during the NCAA Tournament in March.
Asked about the initial matchup, Fox, 19, smiles and recites the game summary as if reading off a box score.
“They beat us (97-92), but I felt like I performed better,” he said. “I had 20 points and nine assists, but we lost, so it doesn’t matter. Lonzo had 14 points, seven assists, six rebounds — and six turnovers. Actually, I don’t have a photographic memory, but I remember just about everything about everybody I play against.”
As if on cue, he turns to the Wildcats’ 86-75 victory over the Bruins in their tourney matchup. With Magic Johnson in the audience and the television cameras frequently displaying his image, Fox blitzed his opponent and electrified the crowd with a career-high 39 points, four assists and three rebounds. Ball finished with 10 points, eight assists and four turnovers.
The battle for Magic’s heart and mind was playing out in earnest. That his old friend and former Lakers teammate Vlade Divac intended to draft whichever point guard was available only furthered the intrigue. In other words, at some level, the rivalry resumes.
Few in Sacramento need be reminded that it was Divac’s tapback that landed in Robert Horry’s hands, leading to the buzzzer-beating three-pointer that helped cost the Kings their first appearance in the NBA Finals in the Sacramento era and a probable championship. They were better than the Lakers in 2002 — so insists Kobe Bryant — and considerably superior to the Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets.
The Kings haven’t sniffed the playoffs in 11 years or performed like an ensemble since the Divac-Peja-Bibby-Christie-Webber-Jackson-Miller band broke up.
Is it any reason Kings fans are enamored of their dynamic rookie point guard and absolutely giddy about (gulp) a summer league encounter? These games are usually terrible, at times unwatchable, with an overabundance of one-on-one play. The rich talent level of this season’s draft class is proving to be the exception.
Ball bounced back from a poor opener with a triple-double against the Celtics. Fox was excellent in the Kings’ opener. Though 0-for-3 from beyond the arc, he contributed 18 points on a variety of breakouts, mid-range pullups and drives off pick-and-rolls, and created transition opportunities with five steals. Sunday night, in a loss to Memphis, Fox led the Kings with 17 points, made one of his trio of three-point attempts and contributed five rebounds, four assists and three steals to go along with five turnovers.
“My best asset is being able to make plays both defensively and offensively,” he said, “and anybody who saw me in high school knows I can hit the three. For some reason at Kentucky the shots didn’t go down. The other thing, I thought my speed would translate to this level. I get my hands on a lot of balls, deflections, steals, and I love turning nothing into something.”
Asked to describe Ball, Fox smiled again and obliged. His scouting report: “Great player. Great passer. Shoots it well going left, has a little step-back. Gets to the rim. In college, he hit shots from the volleyball line. He’s quicker than most people think he is. I know, because I had to play against him. And his best asset is getting people the ball.”
But Fox stops well short of placing his future duels with Ball above a few others, namely, those against his favorite player, Russell Westbrook. “Playing against point guards in the NBA, you’re going to have a tough matchup every night,” he added. “Everybody is a pro.”
There is one other early, notable contrast between Fox and Ball, this one pertaining to parenting skills. Fox’s parents will not be hanging around Golden 1 Center, marketing their son’s brand, conducting interviews or signing autographs. That’s LaVar Ball’s deal. Fox likes his space. He returns to Sacramento next week to look to buy a house within 15 minutes of the arena. Though aided by his mother, he plans to live alone.
“My parents don’t like to travel that much,” he explained with a shrug, “and all of my mom’s friends are in Houston. But they’ll come to games occasionally, and the games are on television.”
Monday’s contest? Hard to believe that a Summer League game is must-see TV. Something about those precocious teenagers ...
Sacramento Kings vs. Los Angeles Lakers
What: NBA Summer League
Where: Las Vegas, Nev.
When: 10:30 p.m. EDT
TV: NBA TV