Los Angeles D-Fenders players huddle during a recent practice session… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The players walk down the hallway to practice and see the pictures of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and the rest of the Lakers.
They step onto the practice court and see the retired jerseys of Magic Johnson, Jerry West, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers' other Hall of Famers. They also see championship banners hanging on the walls and the Lakers' championship trophies in an upstairs office window.
The setting has left many Los Angeles D-Fenders in awe and somewhat overwhelmed — despite the fact they are pro basketball players and, at the moment, the only active pro hoops team in town while the new NBA labor deal awaits a ratification vote by players and owners. The NBA probably will begin its season on Christmas Day.
The D-Fenders, part of the NBA's Development League, are owned by the Buss family and are playing their home games this season on the Lakers' practice court at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo.
For D-Fender guard Franklin Session, the atmosphere is even more surreal because he went to Jordan High.
"Sometimes I see myself staring at the walls and not even focused on what I need to focus on. It's so crazy," Session said. The 6-foot-2 guard played for Cal State Los Angeles last season, averaging 13.1 points a game. "I'm from Watts, so … for me to even be on this floor is like outstanding. I couldn't picture this in a million years."
Because of the NBA lockout, no player selected in the June NBA draft or anyone who played in the NBA last season was eligible to be on a D-League roster to start the season. As a result, the D-Fenders are a ragtag team of hopefuls, all trying to play their way into the NBA or attract interest from an overseas team.
The D-Fenders (2-1) won their home opener Monday over the Reno Bighorns.
To draw fans to the 24 D-Fenders home games, the Buss family is offering various Lakers incentives, including a chance to buy two tickets to a Lakers game every month and get a first crack at Lakers individual playoff tickets. A courtside D-Fenders season ticket costs $1,800. The El Segundo facility holds 365 seats and the game Monday was a sellout.
Plenty of NBA scouts are expected to attend the D-Fenders games.
It will give the players a chance to shine, as it will D-Fenders Coach Eric Musselman, 47, formerly a head coach in the NBA for three seasons with the Golden State Warriors and the Sacramento Kings.
"We've talked over and over how this is an advantage for them that they've never had before in the D-League like they will now," Musselman said. "They're going to be on the biggest stage that they've ever been on."
D-Fenders guard Jamaal Tinsley has been on the big stage before.
He played seven seasons with the Indiana Pacers and 38 games during the 2009-10 season with the Memphis Grizzlies, averaging 9.8 points and 6.6 assists during his career. Last season Tinsley kept working out, waiting for a call from an NBA team that never came.
"That's my goal, is to get back to the NBA," Tinsley said. "Right now, I'm an L.A. D-Fender and I thank them for giving me this opportunity. I'm here to win games for the D-Fenders and hopefully win a championship. If I get called up, I get called up."
Call-ups do happen. Last season 20 D-Leaguers played for NBA teams.
And it means a big pay jump. Salaries for D-League players range from $13,000 to $25,500, compared with the NBA minimum pay of about $473,000 for a full season.
Tinsley, at 33, is the oldest player on the D-Fenders, and Session, at 22, is the youngest. Others include Brandon Costner, a 6-9, 230-pound forward/center, who played in the D-League last season for Utah, and 6-6 guard Elijah Millsap, younger brother of Utah Jazz power forward Paul Millsap.
Musselman said those attending the games will see a D-Fenders team with players who give maximum effort because "they are fighting for survival."
"We want to try and be the best team in the D-League," he said. "And we also want to have more call-ups than any team."