By the time Wenyen Gabriel joined the Los Angeles Lakers last March, the team was already a mess.
Still, signing a two-way contract with a team with championship aspirations that was six games under .500 was better than the instability he had experienced trying to climb his way back into the league on a string of 10-day contracts after the Milwaukee Bucks waived him during training camp.
Like any other new employee trying to make a good first impression — and perhaps sensing the work environment could use a little levity — Gabriel began to spend time on the bench during games bleating like a goat.
It was his way to express admiration for LeBron James, who is on the short list of players under consideration by the basketball world as the GOAT — the greatest of all time.
“I mean, [I] wasn’t really playing much,” Gabriel explained earlier this month in the Lakers’ locker room. “And every time he would he would score or something, I’d be on the bench going, ‘Baaa-aaa.'”
Gabriel smiled, realizing how ridiculous it looks for a 6-foot-9 man to be unabashedly making animal noises in front of a roomful of people, before demonstrating the sound again with perfect staccato.
“I was out there, ‘Baaa-aaa.'”
Gabriel’s goat call has attracted a herd of teammates this season who’ve joined him in his unique tribute to James.
“This year, I just felt like there’s times just chemistry-wise it’s been a big boost,” said Austin Reaves, who regularly joins in the livestock serenade along with Gabriel, Mo Bamba, Lonnie Walker IV and D’Angelo Russell. “Bron’s trying to act all serious in his interviews and we’re over there messing around.”
According to a 2019 study by Luigi Baciadonna of Queen Mary University of London, goats can pick up emotional messaging from the bleats of other goats. Not all baaa-aaas are alike.
There’s only one thing the group of guys, all in their mid-20s, want to communicate to the 38-year-old James.
“A lot of us on this team really saw LeBron as one of the greatest of all time, especially growing up, you know?” Walker said. “We’ve literally grown up playing basketball together and we used to have little arguments of who is the best player and whatnot. And we would always say LeBron. So I think making the noises, like, we know he is the GOAT. We’re always going to give him his flowers.”
James added weight to his side of the argument this season, averaging 28.9 points in his 20th year in the league, tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most All-Star appearances in NBA history with 19; and, of course, passing Abdul-Jabbar for No. 1 on the all-time scoring list, with 38,652 points and counting.
“He’s not a normal human,” Reaves said.
An avid golfer, Reaves said he has heard the discussion that Tiger Woods’ career could be spliced into three distinct phases — when Butch Harmon was his swing coach, when Hank Haney was his swing coach, and since he left Haney — and any one of those on its own would be hall of fame worthy. He said the same applies to James.
“Cut it off by teams,” Reaves said, referring to James’ first seven seasons in Cleveland, followed by four in Miami, four more in Cleveland and now five in L.A. “Championships, MVPs, always going to the Finals. He could have stopped five years ago, and it’s always going to be an argument, but he would arguably be the best player ever.”
While James, when speaking on the ESPN+ digital series “More Than An Athlete” about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Finals comeback from down 3-1 against a Golden State Warriors team that won a record 73 games to win the championship, said, “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time, that’s what I felt,” he has been reluctant to comment on the goat calls.
When the Lakers finished off a 4-0 road trip away from L.A. toward the end of the regular season, capping it with a 135-133 overtime win against the Utah Jazz when James had 37 points in 38 minutes, including the game-winning layup, the baaa-aaas were louder than ever in the visiting locker room at Vivint Arena.
James was asked about the cacophony of goat calls that filled the room.
“I got to stay focused,” he said, straight-faced, after flashing a hint of a grin. “I’m locked in.”
That hint was good enough for the goat callers.
“A little bit of a smile,” Walker said of James. “Just a little tiny bit.”
Added Gabriel: “I mean, he don’t participate and go, ‘Baaa-aaa’ back, but I’m sure he likes it.”
For a team that James described as being in “desperation mode” for the past two months as it tried to climb into postseason contention, the goat calls are a welcome way to cut the tension.
“More and more we have moments like those — core memories — it just makes us want to play and see each other succeed,” Walker said.
The stress is only bound to spike as the Lakers continue through the playoffs. The further L.A. advances, the closer James will get to adding to his all-time case with a fifth ring.
“I mean, I feel like that’s something that, his legacy and stuff, that’s pressure that’s on him every single day,” Gabriel said. “That’s something that he’s dealing with personally. We are here to enjoy and be part of the journey. Like he always says, we are all witness.”
The next time there’s a baaa-aaa barrage from his teammates, James will understand exactly what they’re saying.
“You know, it’s probably like his second language,” Bamba said. “So, who knows?”