Two days after the Chargers used their first-round pick on safety Derwin James, he stood in the team’s media room, watching the club’s second- and third-round picks, Uchenna Nwosu and Justin Jones, conduct their first interviews as NFL players.
While they talked about their dreams coming true, James was caught in the back of the room in a daydream of his own.
James is a basketball fan, he said. Loves the game and wowed Florida State fans with a between-the-legs windmill slam while in college to help signal his knee was healthy.
So, while his future teammates talked football, he jab stepped. He bounced an imaginary ball between his legs, crossed over and stepped back.
He flicked the imaginary ball through an imaginary basket, scoring two points for his favorite team.
And that team?
When the Lakers reached an agreement to sign James to a four-year, $154-million contract, they didn’t just get the NBA’s best player, a workhorse, do-it-all athlete with unmatched skill, size, strength and speed.
They also acquired the army of fans who care more about the name on the back of the jersey than the one on the front.
“I never in a million years thought I would ever be a Lakers fan... [facepalm emoji] welp,” Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell tweeted. “y’all can call me a bandwagon all y’all want...lol where LeBron goes, I GO!”
If the Lakers fan base wasn’t already strong, it’s about to be invaded by people who have followed James from Cleveland to Miami and back to Cleveland as he pied-pipered them through the Eastern Conference.
One of those people, former UCLA basketball player Josiah Johnson, has been spreading the gospel of LeBron on social media for most of James’ career.
“LeBron is bigger than the NBA,” Johnson said. “Look at his Twitter followers, his Instagram followers.”
James has 41.9 million followers on Twitter. The NBA has 27.9 million. Another 39.1 million follow James on Instagram compared to 29.3 million for the NBA’s official account.
Johnson, the son of Los Angeles basketball legend Marques Johnson, co-created the Comedy Central show “Legends of Chamberlain Heights” and is a supervising producer of scripted content at Attn:, a Los Angeles-based media company.
A lifelong Clippers fan, Johnson shifted his allegiance to James before he even played in the NBA, with everyone in the basketball world talking about this high school phenom.
“The first dude who was super-hyped like that and more than lived up to it,” Johnson said.
He has followed James’ career in the East, and now he’s ready to join forces with a group of fans with whom he has argued about James’ relative greatness compared to Kobe Bryant for more than 10 years.
“It’s been over a decade,” he said. “It’s going to be very telling for Kobe fans, who have sworn hate on LeBron. … But Kobe fans and LeBron fans are at peace right now.
“You had guys in Kobe jerseys literally doing the chalk toss in front of Staples Center. It made my heart flutter. It’s a new day in Los Angeles.”
Had James told the Orlando Magic he wanted to bring them to glory, Johnson and James’ fans would’ve followed him there. Had he told the Memphis Grizzlies he wanted to grit and grind, his fans would’ve come. Even if he decided to team up with another Ball, LaVar, and his JBA league, people such as Derwin James, Le'Veon Bell and Josiah Johnson would be pulling for the “Dallas Ballers” or something like that.
James has earned fans through greatness, and now they’ll be sharing Staples Center with another group of fans whose loyalty has also been won by greatness, the combining forces a result of a free-agency signing unlike any other in NBA history.
A player this great jumping ship to an organization this storied? It had never happened.
And if he leaves, so will they.
“Really,” Johnson said, “we’re just here for LeBron.”