Lonzo Ball reacts to a play in preseason against the Denver Nuggets on Oct. 2, 2017.
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The Lakers' History With the Inland Empire

by Joey Ramirez
Digital Reporter

Before he was the young face of the Lakers franchise or even an All-American at UCLA, Lonzo Ball was a kid who loved hoops in Chino Hills.

Born in Anaheim, Ball was raised in the Inland Empire and began playing basketball at age 2. Destined to star for local Chino Hills High, Ball took over the starting point guard spot on day one.

It only got better from there, as Ball and his two younger brothers turned their local high school into a national phenomenon.

In particular, Lonzo’s senior season in 2015-16 became something of a rockstar tour, as hundreds of fans regularly packed the gyms they played in during their 35-0 run to the California state title.

Lonzo was the alpha of this team and, essentially, high school hoops as a whole. He finished the year averaging a triple-double — about 24 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists — and earned a heap of national honors, including Naismith Prep Player of the Year.

#tbt

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Three days before Ball’s 11th birthday, the Lakers made their first trip to the Inland Empire.

On Oct. 24, 2008, Citizens Business Bank Arena held its first-ever event. It was only an exhibition, but 10,316 people packed Ontario’s brand-new stadium, and the Lakers did their part, defeating Oklahoma City, 105-94.

That preseason finale led into a regular season run that saw the Lakers go on to win the 2009 NBA title. Since then, they have returned to Ontario for at least one preseason game every year — other than the lockout-shortened 2011 season.

The Lakers have treated Inland Empire residents to plenty of preseason memories, winning their first three games in Ontario on their way to a 7-3 overall record.

Prior to Ball’s arrival as the 2017 second-overall draft pick, the Lakers carried two Inland Empire natives on their roster over the years.

The first was 12-year veteran Sean Rooks, who played on the purple and gold from 1996-99.

The Fontana native led Fontana High to its first league title in over 40 years during in 1987 and had his No. 51 jersey retired by the Steelers in 2015 — just one year before his unexpected death at 46.

A seldom-used center, Rooks averaged 3.4 points and 2.4 rebounds during his three years with the Lakers, though he did leave his mark off the floor.

"We are shocked and terribly saddened by the news of the death of Sean Rooks,” Lakers President/Governor and co-owner Jeanie Buss said in a statement on June 7, 2016. “During his time with the Lakers he was a true professional and was a favorite among teammates, coaches and staff. Sean was a friendly guy that everyone loved having around. On behalf of the entire Lakers organization, I'd like to send our condolences as well as thoughts and prayers to his family.”

Three years after Rooks’ final season with the Lakers, another Inland Empire-born player came to Los Angeles.

After knocking the Lakers out of the playoffs twice during his nine-year stay with Utah, Bryon Russell joined L.A. for the 2003-04 season alongside former Jazz teammate Karl Malone.

Russell — who was born in San Bernardino and helped push SB High to the 1989 CIF-Southern Section championship — averaged 4.0 points in 13.1 minutes in his lone season with the Lakers, who lost in the NBA Finals to Detroit.

While the Lakers went 12 years before acquiring another player from the I.E., they maintained their connection to the region with two annual visits during the preseason.

Along with the annual game or two in Ontario, the Lakers have recently made it a tradition to have a shootaround once at Pechanga Recreation Center in Temecula before one of their exhibitions.

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