Inside Jack Nicholson’s return to Lakers playoff games last year

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
For a few nights last year, a little Showtime rubbed off on LeBron James and the Lakers, giving new life to an old man and a team.

Jack Nicholson walked down the sidelines by the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench and plopped down in his courtside seats, sandwiched between the scorer’s table and the visitors’ bench. It was Friday, April 28, 2023 Game 6 of the Lakers’ first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, a game they would win — by 40 points! — to advance to the Western Conference semis.

Jack was back, and so were the Lakers.

It was the first time the Lakers had clinched a playoff series at home since 2012, but the loudest ovation of the evening came when the spotlight found Nicholson and the scoreboard blared his signature line from The Shining: “Heeeere’s Johnny!”

It all seemed so easy in the moment, but like all great performances, it took planning and preparation behind the scenes. Nicholson, in his mid-80s, was retired from acting and, it seemed, from most of the things he used to enjoy. Nicholson’s health had been the subject of much speculation, and the reclusive actor had rarely been seen in public by anyone outside his family and a close circle of friends in nearly two years.

“I got the call from Jack’s assistant that Jack was contemplating for the first time in close to two years attending a Lakers home game,” Lee Zeidman, president of Arena, Peacock Theater and LA Live, told The Sporting Tribune. “I said that’s fantastic. Everyone had missed Jack’s presence over the past couple years.

“I said let me know what we can do to help facilitate getting him into the arena and getting him to his seats.”

After the Lakers lost Game 5 in Memphis on April 26, they were in position to close out the series in front of the home fans two days later. They also had an idea what their schedule would be in the next round as the lower seed if they advanced.

“They contacted me with the dates he would be coming and we made arrangements,” Zeidman said. “We took him down a special way that allowed him to get in quickly and get out quickly. He’s 86 years old now and we wanted to make it as seamless and as comfortable for him and his son Ray to get into the building and get out of the building, and the Lakers worked very closely with us on that.”

Nicholson was driven into the arena via the same loading dock ramp players use, and taken to his courtside seats through the same corridors the players walk through. The only time fans saw Nicholson was when he emerged from the tunnel with Ray by his side.  

Few people outside of Zeidman and the Lakers knew Nicholson would be at the game. There was a buzz around the building when he stepped onto the court nearly an hour before tipoff. Everyone from fans and ushers to players and media looked in Nicholson’s direction as he took his customary courtside seat. LeBron James came over to gave him a hug, and others in nearby seats, including Larry David, also welcomed him back.

“Seeing him back was so comforting,” said NBA photographer Andrew Bernstein, who’s been shooting the courtside scene at Lakers games for more than 40 years. “It’s like seeing your uncle you hadn’t seen in a while. He’s a familiar face that brings back good memories. Jack being at his courtside seat is where he’s supposed to be that time of year and that’s where the Lakers are supposed to be that time of year.”

Nicholson was a fixture at Lakers games during the team’s run of 10 championships and 16 NBA Finals appearances from 1980 to 2010. He and longtime friend and record producer Lou Adler had their courtside season tickets since the 1970s and attended most home games during that 30-year stretch.

When COVID-19 restrictions were lifted on Oct. 19, 2021. Nicholson was in his customary seat for the game, sitting next to Adler, wearing a mask as the Lakers lost to the Golden State Warriors, 121-114. And that was it. 

During the next 18 months, Bernstein would often catch up with courtside regulars before taking his seat along the baseline.

“I had been asking Lou Adler from time to time how Jack was doing,” Bernstein said. “Lou would say, ‘He’s good. He’s still watching the games.’ I was hearing like many other people that he was in bad health so I wasn’t sure.”

The Lakers were going through their own struggles. Despite the presence of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, they were 25-31 and 13th in the Western Conference at the trade deadline on Feb. 9, 2023. But general manager Rob Pelinka revamped the team at the deadline last year, adding D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley and Mo Bamba. The Lakers rallied to finish the regular season 43-39, beat the Minnesota Timberwolves in the play-in tournament and advanced to face the No. 2-seeded Grizzlies in the playoffs.

Nicholson watched from home as the Lakers took a 3-1 series lead over the Grizzlies. The last Lakers playoff game he had attended was a decade ago. That was about to change.

After the emotional tributes and the blowout victory, Nicholson was once again courtside as the Lakers won all three of their home games and eliminated the Warriors with a 122-101 victory in Game 6 on May 12, 2023 to advance to the Western Conference Finals.

“It was tremendous having Jack back,” Zeidman said. “I think it was a shot in the arm for everyone.”

Zeidman, who previously ran operations at the Forum, first met Nicholson in 1988, the year he was filming his star turn as The Joker in director Tim Burton’s Batman.

“Lakers management came to me and asked if there was some place within the bowels of the Forum that we could carve out that could be a holding place for Jack,” Zeidman said. “There wasn’t a lot of space in the Forum. You could fit two and a half Forums into Staples Center when we made the move but we carved out an area in the press room and Jack was very comfortable. He would go back there whenever he wanted. He could smoke, he could grab something to eat or drink and he wasn’t bothered.”

Zeidman’s experience with Nicholson at the Forum actually helped shape the interior design of Arena. The Chairman’s Room, where courtside ticketholders and celebrities mingled, included a small smoking room filled with cigars that Nicholson would often fire up and enjoy.

“The fact is we built that smoking room in the Chairman’s Room based on what I had to do at the Forum as the young director of operations to create a space for him in the back of the house where he could smoke,” Zeidman said. “This was like his home. It always has been and it was just great to see him back home again.” Arena recently went through renovations that has eliminated Nicholson’s beloved smoking room and his stash of Montecristos, Cohibas and Romeo y Julietas. What hasn’t changed is the location of Nicholson’s seats. They will always be there, waiting for him.