Alex Caruso is one of the NBA’s most popular players, and not entirely because of his work on the court. The 26-year-old guard is beloved among Los Angeles Lakers fans, who have created and circulated countless memes and highlight videos of him online. Any time he dunks in a game, you can be sure that videos are already going viral on Twitter. Though he was playing less than 20 minutes per game this season, he earned plenty of All-Star votes from fans.
So why is Caruso the internet’s favorite basketball player, as SB Nation once dubbed him? It’s hard to understand why the internet likes what it likes, but Caruso is certainly a relatable figure. At 6’5 with a slightly balding hairline, he has the look of a typical white guy from Texas — albeit a very tall one that can produce powerful dunks. But fans also likely admire Caruso’s winding path to the NBA.
The NBA is scared for the Alex Caruso era pic.twitter.com/usoM0B4NXM
— ALEX CARUSO OFFICIAL STAN ACCOUNT (@ACFRESH21STAN) October 22, 2019
After going undrafted in 2016, he played for the Philadelphia 76ers in Summer League that year before being signed and subsequently released by the Oklahoma City Thunder in October. He then plied his trade in the NBA G-League before impressing the Lakers in the 2017 Summer League, helping the team win the championship that year. The Lakers signed Caruso to their first-ever two-way contract in 2017 and then again in 2018 before he made it through the ranks to earn a two-year, $5.5 million contract last July. His scrappy style of play and the fact that he is a man of the people who has even joked about dapping up Rihanna “for the culture,” just adds to the legend of the Bald Mamba.
The Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, started the 2019-20 as one of the favorites to challenge for the title before Commissioner Adam Silver was forced to suspend the 2019-20 NBA season due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The league has since slowly taken steps to resume play, and on Thursday, the NBA’s Board of Governors voted to approve a plan that would send 22 teams to Orlando for an eight-game regular season and playoffs.
Dime caught up with Caruso last week on behalf of smALL-Stars about his life at home in LA during the NBA hiatus, the Lakers’ hopes for the rest of the season and his cult-like online following.
First off, how are you and how have you been keeping busy at home during the past couple of months?
It’s been a strange time. Everything was kind of abrupt, kind of thrown at us, and we weren’t really prepared for it, so I’ve been doing my best to kind of roll with the punches. To take every day as it comes and honestly, it’s been okay. I do well on my own, just kind of hanging by myself and staying out of the public. Just a couple workouts at home, video games, movies, started reading some books. It’s been good, but obviously I’m excited to get back out there and play.
I saw that you started streaming on Twitch since you’ve been at home. What made you want to start streaming, and what are some of your favorite video games?
I think [my favorite] to stream is probably Fortnite. That was the one that’s probably most popular to stream. But Call of Duty: Warzone has been picking up — my true love is FIFA. It just doesn’t have as much traction on streaming as some of the other ones. I’ve always watched people on Twitch, and I know other NBA players and athletes had streamed before. I kind of leaned on Josh Hart, one of my old teammates in L.A., to talk to about getting a computer for it and getting everything set up, so shout out to Josh for helping me. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s a good way to connect fans even in this time of separation.
What about 2K?
I recently started trying to play 2K, but it’s just really hard for me because they don’t do the things that I want them to do. I’m so used to basketball being a certain way, and when it’s a little more robotic, it’s frustrating.
Fair enough. I’ve seen a lot of NBA players getting into video games and just streaming a lot more since the season was suspended. How do you think you compare to the rest of the league’s gamers?
I think I’m up there, you know I’m not a cocky guy but I’m confident in my abilities, especially — Warzone maybe not as much just because I’ve played so much Fortnite and FIFA over the last few years — but I think I can definitely compete.
The Lakers started having practice sessions again — obviously they look a little different because of social distancing and other safety precautions. What have those sessions been like?
They’ve been good. It’s been pretty minimal as far as the number of bodies in the facility. They try to keep as many people away as they can at a time just so there’s less chance of catching anything, spreading anything, bringing anything in. It’s been one-on-one work with the coach and one-on-one work with the strength coaches and one-on-one work with the training staff, but it’s been good. Everything was going to eventually have a first step, and I think this has been a good first step to kind of getting back to it.
There was a lot of talk and speculation around how the league could and possibly would resume the season. During that time of uncertainty, how did you and your teammates stay focused and motivated?
I think for the team, it’s just about realizing what we want to do. Our goal for the beginning of the season was to compete for a championship, and I think that’s still our goal. It’s still our mission; it’s just been a different path than we first expected to take.
Talking about your personal career path, you went undrafted in 2016, played in the G-League, and now, just four years later, you’re playing for a real championship contender. When you reflect on how you got to where you are today, how do you feel, and what are your hopes for your future?
It’s been a crazy journey so far, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I think I’ve grown up a lot as a person through the struggle of trying to get where I’m at now. That’s been really good for me to just kind of grow up and assume a lot of responsibility in my life as well as in basketball. It’s been great for me to realize the full potential, and everybody has a dream, whether it’s playing in the NBA or to become a big lawyer or politician or something else, and it takes a lot of hard work to get there, regardless of what it is. I think that having the success that I’m having now and being part of this team is rewarding, and then, for the rest of the year it’s to continue to do what we set out to do. We’re going to continue to chase that trophy, that championship team at the end. We want to be the last team standing. So as soon as we can get back to that, I’m going to be excited.
The kind of attention that you’ve earned from NBA fans on social media is pretty intense. I’m sure you can attest to this, but almost every time you make a good play it goes viral, and of course there’s also all of the Alex Caruso memes that have made the rounds on Twitter. How do you feel about all this mania surrounding you?
I’m fortunate that, like we talked about earlier, my career path has brought me to this point. So I won’t take it for granted any time that somebody tweets out a video or tweets out a photo or something that I’ve done. And I think it’s great for the fans too just because it gives them a chance to connect and to celebrate something — especially for Lakers fans where it’s been a rough couple of years leading up to this, basketball-wise.
Tell me about the smALL-Stars collection and how people can get a slice of basketball even now when there is no live NBA action happening.
[*Pulls out his miniature LeBron James smALL-Star collectible*]I’m hanging out with Bron right now. We just got done playing FIFA together. smALL-Stars is great. I like to think of it as the modern-day Bobbleheads. Bobbleheads used to be all the rave back in the day, and I think this is the new thing. They’re about a foot tall, and they’re basically just cool representations of your favorite players. I think it’s a really cool way to connect with the fans in a unique and different aspect.
For sure, and maybe one day you’ll get your own smALL-Star!
Yeah, we’re crossing our fingers!