Zach LaVine is a stay-in-the-moment guy.
But his first Olympics is testing his typical approach, particularly after he arrived in Tokyo following a brief stay in USA Basketball’s health and safety protocols for contact tracing.
“I understand the magnitude of it and everything that we’re doing,” LaVine said Saturday via Zoom. “It was a little surreal walking through the opening ceremonies, just seeing how many people were there and the history in it. It’s just like, ‘Wow, I’m really here.’”
The delay forced LaVine to skip the team flight and fly on his own from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to Tokyo, where he arrived in time for a Friday practice, the opening ceremony and, most importantly, Sunday’s opener against France.
“It was really cool, really powerful,” LaVine said about experiencing his first opening ceremony. “Just being around all the different athletes from all the different countries and all the different sports. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s a giant event with a lot of history and I just tried to soak it all in.”
LaVine said he was “a little shocked” to land in the health and safety protocols. He missed 11 games down the stretch of the Chicago Bulls’ season following his disclosure that he tested positive for COVID-19, a result that came one day before he was scheduled to receive his second shot of a two-dose vaccine.
But Team USA has experienced its share of COVID-19-related incidents already. Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal dropped off the team after landing in the protocols, while Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant mirrored LaVine’s situation by moving in and out of them for contact tracing.
“Obviously, (I) didn’t think I could get it (COVID-19). Obviously, I didn’t but they have to be careful with everybody coming over here. It made sense. I just pretty much had to do my time and jump through a couple hoops to get here,” LaVine said. “I didn’t want to put anybody at harm. I didn’t want to be at harm. So we just had to make sure everything was OK before I got here.”
LaVine said he quarantined for a couple days and produced “a numerous amount of negative tests.” Because of the strict restrictions surrounding the Olympics, which will feature no spectators, LaVine said maybe six people were on his commercial flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo.
“Felt like a private flight,” he said.
LaVine has made clear how much this Olympics experience means to him. The health-related hiccup only has intensified that dynamic.
Team USA isn’t staying in the Olympic village but visited to mingle with other athletes, take pictures and offer respect for their shared pursuit of a gold medal.
“It was really cool to experience that,” he said. “You’re playing for your country. It’s a way different game than playing in the NBA. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“You get to see this as a kid growing up and so many different memories of watching all the players you looked up to do this and go through it as well. It’s a little surreal knowing that you’re here. Obviously, we have one goal and it starts (Sunday).”
Team USA faces a strong France team in Sunday’s opener for pool play. LaVine said NBA Finals participants Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton were due to arrive Saturday. Those players will provide talent, obviously, but also are coming off a grueling emotional and physical series.
“I think them coming over here shows how much they’re committed and how much they want to play and just contribute. I think they’ll be ready to go,” LaVine said. “I think my role is still the same. It’s just whatever I got to get done. We’re not all going to play our regular starter minutes. I might come off the bench some games. I might start some games.
“I’m here to bring energy. Obviously, when I need to score and put the ball in the hoop, I can do that. But try to bring energy and change the pace of the game, pick up guys, be a menace out there.”
LaVine, who started the final two exhibition games, said he feels fine from a basketball and conditioning standpoint after his brief stay in quarantine. The games start for real now, pushing him to his preferred mode of competitor.
“We know how good they are,” LaVine said of France. “But we also know how good we are too. We went over the film and understand what they do. But I think we’re more focused on what we do. Because if we do what we do good, I don’t think there’s any team out here that’s going to come close to us.”