Well, this is awkward…
There's nothing more uncomfortable than running into your ex when you're out with your new girlfriend. As difficult as that troublesome situation can be, that's exactly the position Anthony Davis finds himself in when his new team, the Los Angeles Lakers, take on his old team, the New Orleans Pelicans, on Wednesday Night.
The horrid homecoming is expected to be hostile inside the Smoothie King Center as the Pelicans fans are sure to greet their former superstar with boisterous taunts, sneers, and jeers.
Davis was drafted by New Orleans with the first overall pick in 2012. During his tenure, the Pelicans made the playoffs twice, won their first playoff series in franchise history, and built a solid foundation for the next generation of young players.
Unfortunately for Davis, all that built up goodwill turned sour faster than a Stephen F. Austin layup at the buzzer. Last season, Davis and his agent Rich Paul—who is also LeBron James agent and childhood friend—publicly demanded a trade that put the face of the franchise in a very unfavorable light.
The Lakers and Pelicans engaged in trade talks before the deadline, but the details of those discussions were leaked to the media and in turn, the deal fell apart. The aftermath was complete carnage.
All the rumors, rumblings, and back-stabbings sent both teams spiraling towards the bottom of the Western Conference standings during the second half of the season. Before the year began, both teams were expected to make the playoffs. But after the trade debacle, neither of them did. Instead they settled for top five draft picks and an opportunity to renegotiate the deal with two different executives running the teams.
Davis drew criticism for his handling of the situation, and with it came the ire of the fans. Davis was booed and heckled by those same fans that cheered him for seven seasons as he sat on the bench during the fourth quarter of the team's remaining games. The disgruntled relationship between Davis and the fans reached an apex when he flipped off a fan during the penultimate home game of the season, famously wearing a t-shirt that read "That's All Folks," as a parting shot on his way out the door.
Davis openly regretted how things were handled during that tumultuous time, telling Stadium's Shams Charania, that it was something he'd never been a part of before. In the same interview, he admitted he was feeling nervous and apprehensive about his return to the Big Easy.
"I know the fans are going to boo me," said Davis. "I just want to win the game. I never get nervous before games, but I'm probably going to be nervous that game."
New Orleans is a tough city. They've been through hell and back with Hurricane Katrina and they often rally around their sports teams when in need of a reprieve. Fans will most certainly adopt the attitude of "protect your own" when it comes to Davis on Wednesday. A once favorite son, fans feel like Davis deserted them when he demanded a trade out of New Orleans. It's analogous to the rats abandoning the sinking ship.
"My time here was great and they’re passionate about their team. So, I understand it. Even when I was here last year, I kind of understood it," Davis told reporters on Tuesday. "All the boos, I understood it. And I get why they do it. What they do tonight, I can’t control. I can control only what I can control and that’s to go out there and help my team get the win. Whatever they decide to do, there’s an understanding from my end."
Davis also admitted to feeling scared and having mixed emotions about his return. Which makes us feel for the six-time All-Star and wish he had someone to talk to that had been through something similar so he could lean on them for advice…oh wait.
Thankfully for Davis, if there's anyone whose been in his shoes before its his current teammate LeBron James. The King faced similar vitriol and backlash from fans upon his return to Cleveland after he famously went on national television during the summer of 2010 and announced that he was "taking his talents to South Beach."
"I talked to LeBron about this," admitted Davis, seeking out his elder for guidance. "I asked him what were his emotions and he said he was scared. That's the same thing with me. We talked about his first game and the stuff he was going through and how the game ended up. He ended up finding the game and just being comfortable within the game of basketball."
James scored 38 points and grabbed eight rebounds against the Cavs in that game, one of the best performances a player has ever posted in their first game against their former team in NBA history.
"He’s handled it as well as you can, as well as any human can, and he’s enjoying the process," James told the media. "He got some of it last year when the trade rumors started last year, and all those rumors started. Then the rumors were coming to fruition and everybody was bringing his name up, every talk show, every radio show if you watch that type of stuff, his name was being mentioned."
James will have Davis' back on Wednesday, as well the rest of the Lakers who enter the contest with the best record in the NBA at 15-2. The Pelicans meanwhile sit five games below .500 at 6-11, and still haven't seen their No.1 overall pick Zion Williamson take the floor.
Davis won't be the only one facing his former team for the first time on Wednesday. Current Pelicans Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart, each of which was included in the trade that sent Davis to the Lakers, will be facing off against their former teammates as well.
Davis' friend and former teammate, Jrue Holiday, is now the veteran leader of the young Pelicans squad, and he hopes that Davis is treated with respect and receives a standing ovation by the fans.
"I got an idea on how it will be," Holiday told Marc Spears of The Undefeated. "But hopefully, they treat him with respect, because he did a lot of the city and he did a lot for the Pelicans. He was one of the first Pelicans and stayed for a long time. He put his heart and soul here."
Everyone can expect the atmosphere inside the Smoothie King Center to be hostile and tense leading up to tip-off. If James' return to Cleveland, and Kevin Durant's return to Oklahoma City, are any indication of what to anticipate, there will be a chorus of raucous boos, anti-AD signs and shirts, and probably a ceremonial burning of his No. 23 New Orleans jersey outside the arena. But no matter what reaction Davis receives, he knows it's going to be an exciting environment to play in.
"That's a game of the year for me," he said. "New Orleans will always be a part of me."