Spencer Reaves got behind the wheel of his white Dodge Challenger and made the drive from Warrensburg, Mo., to Wichita State’s campus in Kansas to watch his little brother, Austin, play in the final conference game of his sophomore season.
Spencer’s season at the University of Central Missouri had ended two days before despite his 29 points in all 40 minutes against Central Oklahoma, so he had time for the 240-mile trip between the two campuses.
Before the Lakers played Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals in San Francisco, it was the last time Spencer had seen Austin play in person.
Friday, Spencer watched Austin play in Los Angeles, in front of the crowd that has serenaded him with “MVP” chants regularly through the season.
Austin hit a half-court shot to end the second quarter, Spencer rising to his feet at his seat one row behind Jeanie Buss, the perfect angle to see it swish through the net.
Just like the shot he made when Spencer saw him at Wichita State, right?
“No. He didn’t,” Spencer deadpanned of a half-court shot in that college game. “I don’t even know if he scored that game.”
He didn’t. Austin missed five shots — all threes — and soon after transferred to Oklahoma.
“Probably didn’t score,” Austin joked from the Lakers locker room after the series-clinching Game 6 win when he was asked about Spencer’s trip to Kansas. “I really didn’t do s— at Wichita State.”
Five-plus years later things couldn’t be more different. Instead of seeing his little brother go oh-for, Spencer flew from Germany, where he plays professionally, to see Austin look comfortable in the biggest games of his life.
In his first dozen NBA playoffs games, Austin is averaging 15.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Despite a persisting leg injury, he has been tasked with defending Desmond Bane, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. He’s playing more than 35 minutes a game, second only to LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Beginning Tuesday, he’ll get a chance on an even bigger stage, the Western Conference finals, which begin in Denver.
“He’s always lived for these kinds of moments. Same in high school. Even if he wasn’t the go-to guy,” said Spencer, who won a state title with his then-freshman brother at Cedar Ridge High in Newark, Ark. “And when he was, he was never afraid of any big shot, the moment. He’d do whatever he could to win. He’s always had that competitive nature where he doesn’t give a damn.”
Spencer, who averaged 6.7 points while shooting 49.1% from the field for Brose Bamberg, first traveled to San Francisco from Nuremberg, Germany, with stops in Amsterdam and Los Angeles. It took him 25 hours to get there for Game 5.
His brother’s arrival this postseason happened even faster.
Austin debuted in these playoffs by scoring nine straight points in Memphis against the Grizzlies in Game 1, giving the Lakers a series lead while having another meme-able moment when his microphone caught him shouting “I’m him!” after the last bucket.
He scored 23 Friday against the Warriors, tying his playoff high, while finishing a plus-24. He took five threes again, just like that game against Cincinnati, but this time he made four.
“It’s special,” Austin said postgame. “Like I said, I have my brother here, my mom is here. It’s … I don’t know. I can’t really explain it. But it’s not emotional where tears fly, but the feeling when we subbed out with three minutes to go was, it was very special.”
The timing couldn’t be better, the two-year deal he signed as an undrafted free agent expiring this summer. The Lakers can offer Austin a four-year deal worth approximately $51 million. He is eligible to earn up to twice as much if he signs with another team in free agency, though the Lakers will have the opportunity to match any offer.
Internally, he is thought of highly — a victory for the team’s front office, scouting departments and developmental coaches. His family and agents regularly sit with Buss when they attend games, and he has become a fan favorite while earning respect from all corners of the locker room, including from James.
He moved into the starting lineup for good March 22, and the Lakers are 17-6 since then, counting the regular season, the play-in game and the playoffs, all while he’s raised even the Lakers’ projections of what kind of player he could potentially become.
After the Lakers went up 3-1 against the Grizzlies, James said a conversation with Austin was especially fulfilling.
“This is Austin’s first playoff series and we were talking after the game and he was just talking about how much he loves this,” James said. “He said this is the greatest thing he’s ever been a part of basketball wise. He said something else, but I can’t repeat it. But that brought a lot of joy to me, that I could be in a position where I can be a part of someone’s experience that this is the greatest thing basketball-wise they’ve ever done. That’s pretty cool to me.”
After Game 6, Austin, in a rare “aw shucks” moment, said how special it was to him to have a chance to contribute as James tries to make another run at a championship in his 20th season.
“How cool is that?” Austin said.
The half-court shot might’ve been the most memorable basket in Game 6, but there was probably one bigger.
After missing from the corner directly in front of Spencer’s seat, he got the offensive rebound tapped back to him. This time, a swish, the Lakers on their way to second-half dominance.
After he hit the shot, Austin did the Lakers’ three-point “ice in veins” celebration like normal — only this time he stared directly at his brother in the stands.
“Perfect shot…” Spencer said. “He knew where we were sitting. And it was cool. Like, ‘Look where we came from. Small town in Arkansas and now I’m hitting threes in L.A. in the Western Conference semis in a closeout game.’
This story originally appeared on LA Times