SAN DIEGO — Ninety minutes before tipoff of a hugely anticipated N.B.A. exhibition game that most of the world would certainly soon forget, a whistle blew on the Valley View Casino Center concourse. The old arena’s four main entrances opened to the hordes of Los Angeles Lakers fans lined up outside.
They poured in, slowed only by security checks, and some headed straight to the merchandise booths. For $120 they could buy a LeBron James No. 23 Lakers jersey, and many did.
They crowded as close to the court as security would allow, and as the appointed hour approached, with a rustle of excitement in one corner, they aimed phone cameras and cheered as a chain of Lakers jogged onto the floor.
Last was James, without expression and wearing a purple-and-black warm-up suit that may take some getting used to before it looks right.
And, like that, in front of 13,565 fans in a small, sold-out arena past its prime and a global television audience curious to see where this all leads, the world’s best basketball player made his debut with the Lakers, maybe the world’s top basketball brand.
To the amusement of Lakers fans and the possible bemusement of those who root for other teams, James’s wardrobe switch became a reality on Sunday night. After he was formally introduced with the requisite spotlights and bombast, to the predictable burst of cheers, he took the court in the famed, golden Lakers uniform.
And he looked a lot like LeBron James, maybe in costume, with 9 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds in 15 first-half minutes. He did not play the second half.
James, who turns 34 in December, is starting his 16th N.B.A. season. He has been to the finals eight years in a row, while the Lakers have missed the playoffs the past five seasons, unprecedented in their illustrious history.
Their owner, Jeanie Buss, gave Magic Johnson the keys to the team’s basketball operations last year. Johnson went out and recruited James, with a four-year, $153.3 million contract signed this past summer, looking for an updated version of Showtime.
The possibilities are intriguing, but even a playoff berth is far from certain. Under Coach Luke Walton, the Lakers were 35-47 last year, and James leads a roster that might best be described as unsettled. An interesting stew that includes Rajon Rondo, Brandon Ingram, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee — the four other starters on Sunday night — will try to add spice, and not spoil, the flavor of the main course.
James scored his first points on a deep 3-pointer nearly three minutes into a technically meaningless game. Somehow, he blended in, more eager to pass than to shoot, as if testing his new teammates to see what each could do at his side.
He played most of the first nine minutes, missing 3 of 4 shots, grabbing a rebound and handing out two assists. He returned midway through the second quarter, sending a momentary jolt of excitement through the building when he took the court.
“Give it to LeBron!” a young boy screamed from behind the team’s bench, speaking for nearly everyone.
He soon swished another 3-pointer. They were small exclamations in an otherwise understated performance, barely enough of a tease to provide clues for what to expect as the season unspools.
James tamped down expectations when he met hordes of reporters last week. Media Day is supposed to be a burst of optimism for all teams, before anyone sees the way the ball will actually bounce, but James had none of it. He was circumspect and serious.
“We got a long way to go to get to Golden State,” James said of the dynastic Warriors, who have foiled James’ championship hopes three of the past four years, including the last two.
The Warriors? The Lakers may have a ways to get to the Nuggets, a rising team that finished one slot out of the Western Conference playoffs last season. They fell to Denver, 124-107, on Sunday.
Fans, however, have let optimism flow, for now. This first preseason game was big enough that the longtime San Diego Union-Tribune sports columnist Nick Canepa felt the need to remind readers that this was not the biggest sports event in the city’s history. Or was it?
San Diego has hosted hundreds of N.F.L. games, including three Super Bowls, though the Chargers are now in Los Angeles. The Padres have brought the World Series here, twice, hard as it may be to imagine. Muhammad Ali fought Ken Norton in San Diego.
And the old arena itself, Valley View Casino Center, used to be the home of the N.B.A.’s Clippers. It now mostly hosts minor-league hockey, indoor soccer and lacrosse. But it was also the site of the 1975 Final Four, where John Wooden coached his last game for U.C.L.A. in a championship victory.
The arena’s concourse is lined with life-size photographs depicting the building’s famous sporting events and concerts, Bob Dylan to Rihanna. There was a new poster, too: LeBron James’s Los Angeles Lakers Debut. Eight hours before tipoff, ticket prices on the online secondary market ranged from $150 to $489.
The Lakers and James play their first exhibition game at Staples Center, the team’s home floor in Los Angeles, on Tuesday, also against the Nuggets. The Lakers begin the regular season in Portland on Oct. 18.
By then, it might feel closer to normal to see James in a Lakers uniform. The question is if and when it will ever feel right.