Late in the evening on June 17, 2020, Kobe Bryant jumped on the scorer’s table and serenaded the Staples Center crowd and for good reason. He had just won his 5th NBA title and it was an electric moment. Minutes earlier the outcome of a tense and anxiety-riddled Game 7 was up in the air; it was anyone’s game to win or lose. As was often the case for Bryant, he gave everything he had even as he was hobbled by a bad knee; Metta World Peace made the shot Bryant couldn’t. But now Kobe was one of us, a giddy, happy, euphoric fan who had willed this moment and exhausted every ounce of passion, skill, and competitiveness that was inside his 6-6 body. He stood on that table a good five minutes before he was forced to leave for media responsibilities. For those of us who remained in our seats long after it felt like a dream. I remember asking my friend who had scored the tickets from his boss, “will it ever feel like this again?”
I didn’t realize the prophecy. The following season the Lakers didn’t have the same hunger and the Dallas Mavericks beat them in the second round of the playoffs which hastened the departure of Andrew Bynum and Phil Jackson. A carousel of head coaches followed, ushering in mediocracy, pain, and despair.
Mike Brown lasted 71 games and his firing was humiliating. Mike D’Antoni will never be forgiven for Kobe’s Achilles injury. Byron Scott’s tough love was ineffective and his chair was warm for Kobe’s last professional game. Luke Walton put in the most time, 246 games.
But what Lakers fans had to go through, the 27 wins one year and 21 wins the next, was death by paper cuts. 17 wins was a particularly low point. Ditto losing to the Clippers by 48. (D’Antoni was responsible for that). Swaggy P made it bearable, even entertaining until his happy go lucky schtick was grating. This team was misery personified. There was no laughing through your tears. You couldn’t laugh your way through this sh*tshow.
The rose in the concrete was the talent the Lakers amassed. Jordan Clarkson. Larry Nance Jr. D’Angelo Russell. Brandon Ingram. Lonzo Ball. All were young players with potential who weren’t going to be around long because the history of the Lakers, what they vociferously cling to as an identity, is they lust after superstars. They steal them. On the one hand, the Lakers watched young players establish their place in the league, and on the other hand, they were holding their breath for the moment when they could flip those same players they praised in the media.
The mythology of Lakers luck isn’t much of a myth. The Lakers drafted Jerry West number two when they already had Elgin Baylor. They acquired Wilt. They won the coin toss for Magic Johnson and then three years later because of a previous trade had another number one pick and selected James Worthy instead of Terry Cummings. They stole Shaq out of Orlando, traded for Kobe on draft night. When Pau Gasol dropped in their lap like a puppy at Xmas, they didn’t hesitate. The acquisition of LeBron James was the usual Laker thing of the rich getting richer.
The Lakers will beat the Heat probably tonight and in the euphoria, no one will acknowledge the endurance of fans who suffered year after year yet continued their legacy of loyalty. We saw it all. The Chris Paul veto. The coaching atrocity, highlighted by Kobe play 48 minutes in back-to-back games sans interference. The free agency rejections highlighted by Paul George saying no thanks and returning to OKC. Kawhi Leonard stringing us along until all our free agency targets were gone and then signing with the Clippers.
Laker fans watched the Mavericks become champions. And the Heat become champions. And the Heat become champions. And the Spurs become champions. And the Warriors become champions. And the Cavaliers become champions. And the Warriors repeat as champions. And the Raptors become champions.
We waited for our turn and because we are Laker fans- privileged yet pretending we are not- we knew our turn was coming. Even after weeping because Kobe was gone, Kobe was gone, Kobe was gone (writing that makes zero sense God, explain yourself) we still knew it was going to be our turn in a new decade with a new team.
A secret the NBA hordes about its champions: the players earn it but the fans wait for it. It’s ours too because we had the patience, but often not the humility, to persevere, have hope, and believe. Lakers fans never quit. We are in it for the long ride, not the long goodbye. And because we are not Clippers fans title number 17 is ours to share.