DENVER — Nearly hundreds of passionate supporters arrived two hours before tipoff in hopes to see their favorite player. They rocked his jersey. They patiently stood in line for a meet-and-greet with him. They asked him for his autograph.
Sounds like Kobe Bryant continuing his season-long farewell tour to commemorate his 20th and final NBA season. Except it wasn’t. The hoopla before the Lakers hosted the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday at Pepsi Center all centered around rookie forward Larry Nance Jr., the former University of Wyoming standout whose alma mater is two hours away from here.
So who had more fans before and after the Lakers’ 111-107 victory over the Nuggets on Tuesday at Pepsi Center? Bryant or Nance Jr.?
“Oh no, I had more fans than him,” Nance Jr. cracked before providing the split. “I would say 90-10, 90 my way.”
Nance Jr. left the 980 Cowboys fans that attended happy.
He signed countless basketballs and pictures. He signed a few baseballs. He even held of the baby of Wyoming sports publicist Amil Anderson. All of which left Nance Jr. “shocked,” mindful that the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie, Wyo. is what he called “a treacherous drive” that lasts about two hours.
“That meant a lot to me that that many people would come out and support me,” said Nance Jr., whom the Lakers drafted 27th overall. “If I had the time, I would’ve sat, taken pictures and signed every single thing for every single person that came out.”
Nance Jr. made up for it in another way. In what he called a “regular game,” Nance Jr. continued his season-long progression by posting 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting, two rebounds and a block in 19 minutes as the Lakers’ starting power forward. It also cemented Nance Jr’s value in a season he described as a “whirlwind” in which he morphed from seldom-used reserve, rotation player and regular starters.
“I really am just trying to do whatever the team needs me to do to win, whether it’s chasing loose balls or locking my man up and locking up and rebounding,” Nance Jr. said. “Whatever I need to be at. That’s what I’m going to do.”
He did that in different ways.
Nance Jr. fed off the energy from the partisan crowd, while the Cowboys crowd fed off of his. He threw down two dunks and even blocked Denver forward Kenneth Faried from behind.
“He’s finishing like a beast,” Lakers forward Julius Randle said. “They’re amazing. He brings the team spirit up and everything.”
Nance Jr. also nailed a pull-up jumper, catching the eye of both Lakers coach Byron Scott and Bryant amid their season-long pleas to add that to his game. Although Nance Jr. said he takes about 200 to 300 jumpers per game, he has become mostly hesitant in shooting those in games. Still, Bryant said Nance Jr. is “playing phenomenally well for us.”
“He did some really good things on both ends of the floor,” Scott said. “I was proud of the fact that he shot the ball when he was open. That’s the one thing we’ve been telling him to be a little bit more aggressive when he has open shots to take it. He can make them. Tonight he did a good job of knocking those down.”
But the “coolest moment” for Nance Jr. did not happen until it all ended.
“Kobe walked past and everyone was like, ‘Oh my god Kobe!’ Rightfully so. Then I walked past and there were hundreds of Wyoming people still there wanting to see me,” Nance Jr. said. “That was really special to me that they would stay around and stay that long after the game with the two hour drive they have.”
But it turns out the wait was worth it for every autograph Nance Jr. signed and every energy play he made.