By Brad Carr
Many of sport’s moments come down to an element of being ‘in the right place at the right time’. An adage that has proved true for many players, occasionally it holds for a supporter also.
I’ve followed the Los Angeles Lakers since 1988. At that time, when basketball was in its Australian heyday, then-Lakers star (and winner of the NBA’s Best defensive Player award) Michael Cooper visited Perth during the NBA’s off-season to train the Perth Wildcats for a couple of weeks before the NBL play-offs. I adopted the Lakers on the spot, and subsequently learnt of the legends of George Mikan, Jerry west, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, and got to revel in the delights of Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal (for a time) and Kobe Bryant.
However, I’d never seen them play live. I’d got close in 2003 (but for being deprived by dramas with ticketmaster.com), but it’s been purely a TV following. And to be honest, as basketball’s profile has waned in Australia, I’ve generally been content to limit this TV following to the last few minutes of the occasional game.
Still, presented with long service leave from work that had me bound for North American ski-fields, I had to seize the opportunity to spend a few days in Southern California and ‘live the Lakers dream’: soaking up the local media coverage, watching a couple of away games on prime-time local TV, and making the pilgrimage to a game at the Staples Center (their spelling).
It started at the Qantas Club in Melbourne. The Lakers were playing away to the hated Boston Celtics, in the seventh game of an eight-match road-trip across the east. These clubs are 1st and 2nd on the all-time tally of NBA championships, the Celtics having won most of theirs in the 1960s and ’80s against the Lakers. After a prolonged championship drought, the Celtics returned to the high life two years ago in familiar fashion, prevailing over the Lakers.
As I load up NBA.com, I find what’s been a close game, with Kobe Bryant reportedly troubled by his ankle injury and shooting a poor percentage, perhaps not getting his normal elevation and so not measuring his normally-lethal jump-shot. I pull up the site’s play-by-play companion and find the Celtics leading by one with 25 seconds to go… Refresh… Refresh… Kobe Bryant jump-shot, Lakers up by one, Celtics time-out, seven seconds left. Refresh… Refresh… Refresh, damn you, refresh…!!! Celtics missed attempt at a three-pointer and missed, Derek Fisher rebound, Lakers win by one!!
I’ll only understand how big a deal this is when my flight gets to the other end – right now I’m just singing the praises of how tight our defence must’ve been, the fact that Boston were forced to go for a three, when they only needed to land a two (or free-throws) to win.
Landing in LA, the mood in the local sports news is jubilant. Noted LA sports journalist Bill Plaschke (known to those who watch ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption) is moved to write of how the Lakers are the unifying theme that holds the disparate communities of Southern California together. Winning the NBA Finals is one thing, beating the Celtics is clearly the next best.
No time to rest on laurels though. Barely 24 hours later, the Lakers are on-court in Memphis, the final game of the seemingly endless road-trip, at least heading in a homeward direction. It has all the makings of an anti-climax, the Lakers at risk of a let-down, but shaped as an interesting occasion for a few reasons.
First, the Memphis Grizzlies. Named for an animal that won’t be found anywhere near the Mississippi, this club was formed in Vancouver as part of the NBA’s expansion into Canada in the 1990s, They suffered chiefly from an imbalance of paying players US$ salaries while chasing revenue in Canadian dollars at a time when the ‘loonie’ was worth a lot less against the US$ than it is now, so they lost both games and money. Nearly a decade in Memphis has only changed things on the money side, until this year – suddenly the Grizzlies look bound for the play-offs.
Second, the Gasol brothers. Spaniard Pau Gasol has become a star at the Lakers and was a key member of last year’s championship, since he was rescued from Memphis in a trade two years ago. ‘Rescued’ because when he first joined the Lakers, his new coach Phil Jackson asked him how found Memphis, and he likened it to “a bombed-out Dresden”. My travels to the US have been predominantly on the coasts with my ventures to the interior being to mountains and wilderness, but the description fits with my image of the industrialised cities of inland USA. I don’t think Elvis would be impressed. To complicate matters, Pau’s younger brother has since been drafted into the NBA too, to (you guessed it) a life in Tennessee’s Dresden.
Third, a couple of Lakers are on the cusp of significant records. Kobe Bryant is on the verge of surpassing Jerry West as the Laker’s all-time leading scorer, while Phil Jackson needs one more win to surpass Pat Riley for the most wins as a Lakers coach.
Memphis get away to a strong start, and the early signs are ominous for LA. Kobe’s the only one taking shots, and several of his shots are falling short as he struggles to get much off the ground with his troublesome ankle. But as I leap to that conclusion, Kobe comes good, and through the second and third quarters he single-handedly drags the Lakers back into the contest, stealing the lead in the third.
Along the way, he overtakes West’s record. To illustrate how big Jerry West was, the NBA’s icon (or logo) is the silhouette of West dribbling a basketball, and in the midst of the Lakers-Celtics hate-hate rivalry in the ’60s, he was the one Laker that Boston liked. Ironically, it was West that recruited Bryant to the Lakers, making a trade to secure the youngster when he was the Lakers’ GM.
It was pretty much all-Kobe for the Lakers, with the supporting cast all quiet, perhaps spent from the long trip and the emotional win in Boston. In the post-match wrap-up, one TV commentator manage to name-drop a sponsor three times in repeatedly declaring that “Derek Fisher needs some Carls Jnr comfort food” – as though his poor shooting for the night might be cured by a “double cheeseburger with extra fat”.
We surrender the lead in the fourth, hang in the game through the charade of fouling to stop the clock in the last minute, and miraculously sneak a chance to pinch the game on the buzzer. But no last-second heroics from Kobe this time; he’s closely guarded and gives it off to Fisher, who misses. Memphis score a deserved win, and Kobe’s record is soured by a loss (although the plaudits flow widely throughout the national media for the next few days), while Jackson stays level with Riley on 533 wins. The mammoth road-trip comes to a close with a 5-3 record.
And so to last Wednesday’s game at the Staples. I booked my ticket months earlier when the schedule first came out, for the fixture that suited my travel schedule: LA Lakers v Charlotte Bobcats. “A pity it’s not a big game or a credible opponent,” I had thought at the time, “but at least I’ll see a win.” The Bobcats are the newest of the NBA’s 30 teams, created as an expansion team to backfill the Carolinas market after the Hornets had relocated to New Orleans, yet to achieve a 50-50 season. And I still have no idea what a bobcat is, apart from an item of light industrial machinery.
But like the Grizzlies, the Bobcats are one of the NBA’s resurgent teams this year, above 50 per cent at 26-21 and poised to make the play-offs in the weaker Eastern Conference. Not only that, but I quickly learnt that Charlotte had (somehow) won five of their past six against the Lakers, through two seasons in which the Lakers featured in the league’s top two. Not only are we carrying injuries, but we’re playing our bogey team. So much for a certain win.
The hype is about records, both Bryant’s and Jackson’s. Before the game, there is a presentation to Kobe, and it’s done brilliantly. Once the national anthem is over, the lights are back on and everyone’s taken their seats, before there’s any announcement of who or what’s going on, the legendary Jerry West walks to the centre of the court carrying a ball. Unprompted, the crowd recognises the sight of the icon himself, and everyone spontaneously leaps to their feet. The courtside announcer then calls upon Kobe to receive the ball from the Memphis game from West. Emotion pours, and Plaschke’s comments about what the Lakers mean to the people of Southern California suddenly seem to be a lot more than mere hyperbole.
The Charlotte players join in the ovation with not only sportsmanship but genuine enthusiasm. As soon as he’s finished with the hugs with Bryant, West then makes a bee-line for the Charlotte bench and shakes hands with several of them. The yanks are an enigmatic lot, between extreme politeness and the loud ‘look at me’ factor, but West clearly exhibits more of the former; he’s a true gentleman.
Putting on a show, the Lakers have a live band up in the top tier playing during some of the breaks, and of course the Laker Girls who perform various athletic and gymnastic dance routines whilst maintaining the same fixed smiles all the while. My favourite was the half-time promotion for a brand of tequila that closed with the message “enjoy tequila responsibly” – an oxymoronic statement if ever I’ve heard one.
Fans are invited to text messages through that get run across the scoreboard. Revealing a big family element to the night (despite the tequila ads), there are a lot of “thanks for the tickets, Dad” and “congrats on your exams, enjoy the night,” but also several “thanks for beating the Celtics” and “take that, Boston.”
Indeed, throughout the night, you can feel the spectre of the Celtics rivalry continuing to hang over the place, not least because they’ll be making their annual visit to LA in a couple of weeks. The crowd delights in having Luke Walton (the son of a Celtics legend) on the Lakers bench, greeting him with chants of “Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuukkkeee” when he takes the court. When results from other games around the NBA are flashed up on screen, there’s a resounding “bbbboooooooooo” for Boston’s win over Miami. Although when an advert for Lakers sponsor Pechanga (Indian reservation) casino is run, its accompanying music is More than a Feeling by a band called Boston – an irony that I think I might’ve been the only person to notice.
To matters on-court, and Kobe has a rare quiet night – only five points, his lowest return since his rookie days coming off the bench. The supporting cast steps up, however, with Fisher taking the initiative early. Fisher reminds me of Eddie Betts: desperate, a little terrier snapping at everyone’s heels, terrific whenever possession of the ball is in dispute. And on this night, his shooting is on-song, whether he hoed into a few Carls Jnr fat-burgers or not…
Gasol strikes me as a natural leader, albeit one with a quieter style – one of those players who is effective at bringing others into the game, as he does again on this evening. I feel it’s no coincidence that once Gasol has asserted himself, Shannon Brown starts landing long-range shots and then Lamar Odom throws his weight around to be the dominant presence on court in the 2nd half. With Bryant carrying ankle and finger injuries, this is the supporting cast that will ultimately decide the success of the Lakers’ title defence. Coach Jackson would be very pleased with how they stepped up and took responsibility tonight. In typical style, his post-match interview plays down records, stressing that it’s all about this year’s championship.
Charlotte were valiant, and we only put them away in the last minute, leaving me to feel that we were a little lucky to win – but not nearly as lucky as I am personally. I’ve come to see the Lakers in a random regular-season game against a low-profile opponent, and I’ve got to be there on a significant night in the history of the club, with records and an appearance by a legend. Sometimes you can just be in the right place at the right time.