It’s time to write a post about sports. Specifically basketball.
I was never a fan of basketball growing up as a kid. Dad watched football and baseball, but basketball was more or less an afterthought. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that we lived in Silicon Valley before it was really all that siliconized, and the local basketball team was the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors represent the third circle of hell for sports fans: a team that is perennially as bad as the Clippers (the golden standard for sports-horribleness). From the 1977-78 through the 1985-86 season, they failed to make the playoffs. That’s a pretty substantive chunk of my formative years.
When I came south to Los Angeles for college, I was really introduced to college basketball. Dad watched some, but March Madness didn’t exist in its current incarnation in the 80s. My freshman year at LMU the Lions lost their best player Hank Gathers to heart failure on the court, the team made the NCAA tournament, and went all the way to the elite 8, losing to the future champions UNLV 101-131… one of the better Cinderella stories in the history of March Madness. I went to a lot of those games, working the concession stand, and that team was something to watch. Loyola Marymount still holds the place in the NCAA record books for being involved in the five highest scoring games in Division I history. They ran an almost constant full court press, took a shot usually within 8-10 seconds of gaining possession of the ball, and averaged 132.5 points a game in the regular season, and overall 124.6 points per game counting the tournament. They scored over 130 points 9 times. It was enough to get a complete non-basketball fan more than a little interested in the game.
One of my roommates in college and for a few years afterwards was predictably a local, and statistically un-astonishingly also a huge Laker fan. I was therefore subjected to an awful lot of Lakers basketball. College was from 1989-1993, Greg influenced my television watching during the 1991-92 through the 1994-95 seasons pretty heavily. In ’91-’92 the team went 43-39, Magic quit. In ’92-’93, the team went 39-43 and stunk on ice. ’93-’94 they were even worse, turning in a 33-49 record. I ragged on him pretty constantly (much like my local LA friends have in turn ragged on my favorite football team, the 49er’s, since their fall from excellence). Greg kept trying to convince me to become a Laker fan, but in spite of his wheedling, I just didn’t feel a pull to the team -> it was still an echo of the mid-80s team. I did still watch college basketball off-and-on, however.
In 1994, Greg and I were watching the NCAA tournament, and since Bobby Knight was good TV, we happened to catch the Temple-Indiana game in the second round. Indiana won, but I was really impressed by Eddie Jones. This kid hustled, he was all over the place, running like a madman. He scored most of his points in the second half, and brought the Owls to within one a few times. In the end, Indiana was the better overall team… but that just made me like Eddie all the more, he was able to do what he did in spite of the fact that the opponents could essentially ignore two of Eddie’s teammates.
The Lakers drafted Eddie in the ’94 draft, and at the start of the 1994-’95 season I became a real fan. Nobody could accuse me of being a bandwagon fan, I figured, coming in after the 1993-1994 season… and with the addition of Ceballos and Eddie I was going to see some fun run and gun basketball.
Since then, I’ve stuck with being a Laker fan, even after they traded away Eddie (still the only player’s jersey in any sport on which I’ve spent my own money). I’ve come to appreciate low-post basketball and half-court offense as much as transition game and pure shooting. Hard nosed defense, boxing out, and good team offense have replaced the thrill of watching mad dog basketball as my favored basketball to watch, much like I’ve become a much bigger fan of pitching duels and orchestrated runs in baseball as I’ve gotten older. Luke Walton (when he gets consistent playing time) is my favorite Laker to watch… because he’s got what I call Basketball Smarts.
This season has been a crazy ride for Lakers fans. My expectations at the start of the year were very low, Bynum coming out as dominant as he did was amazing. By late November, I was thinking perhaps the second round of the playoffs was a possible goal. Then Andrew went down, and all hopes of anything other than a flameout in the second half of the season were erased -> if we couldn’t pull off a trade prior to the start of the season, we certainly weren’t going to be able to pull off anything of substance in the middle. “Oh well,” I said to myself, “maybe we’ll get a 100 point game out of Kobe in the second half at least, that will be something to see. If they don’t pull something off during the summer, though, he’s going to leave for sure.”
And then, miracle of miracles, we picked up Gasol. I’m still reserving judgement – can he fit in the Triangle Offense quickly? Probably not. Another miracle! Not only does he fit into the offense like a fist into a glove, he produced better than I was expecting. Still, the team is young, we don’t have our downtown big body banger in Bynum, and we’re neither fast enough to play speed ball or big enough to play dominant half court offense, so we’re probably not going to make it to the Finals. Not a problem, says I… Bynum’s coming back during the summer, and with Gasol playing the way he is now, Bynum only needs to come back at 80% for this team to roll through next year like a tank.
They keep winning, though. The inside cutting offense keeps working. Nobody seems to have fast enough hands to keep Gasol from getting the pass through the traffic in the middle, to whoever is cutting… and a thousand times more importantly, his soft touch is much closer to Hakeem’s than Vlade’s. The fifth through eighth spots are being played by committee, but it is working. The Lakers romp through the Western Conference like it’s a walk in the park. I’ve been unable to follow Boston really (they were my pick for the championship the minute they got Garnett). Since I no longer have anywhere near the amount of time one needs to follow sports I don’t *really* know what the hell is going on (when I was young, single, and just working, I managed one year to watch 76 of the 82 regular season games for the Lakers and read the entire sports page every day. Now that I’m old, married, with two kids, and in grad school combined with working, I don’t even really have the time to write long posts like this one about things as recreational as being a sports fan).
But when the Finals come, Boston has been having some trouble in the playoffs… maybe the Lakers have a chance to take it all the way! The sports commentators all think so, but then I’ve been unimpressed with sports commentators in the past. Nope, not gonna let myself get too ecstatic. Boston’s got the experience edge, and in my estimation when it comes to a seven game series you have to assume that’s going to win out unless the younger team can show they can exhaust the warhorses.
Well, it’s been an interesting, if very frustrating, Finals. 30% of the time, the Lakers seem to be four times the team that Boston is. The remaining 70% of the time, Boston seems to be twice the team the Lakers are. I can’t attribute it all to experience, or coaching, or intangibles. It’s like the Lakers can’t admit to themselves how good they really are, and Boston is just plain too ornery to acknowledge that they’re too tired to play with these youngsters.
I tipped my hat to the Celtics. They were playing in the Finals like the team that wanted it more. They were more stubborn. They were refusing to make the dumb mistakes that the Lakers bench players couldn’t seem to stop making (how hard is it to stay home on Ray Allen, really?) They managed to put themselves behind by staggering amounts… and then refused either to give up, or play stupid in a hurried and undisciplined attempt to get back into the game.
All that said… they didn’t do it last night, in the fourth quarter, when it mattered. They had the chance to put the Lakers down and walk out with the trophy, and they flubbed it. They finally failed to play like champions, for the first time in the series. The door is still open a crack, kids. Stick your foot in there. Jam in your knee. Get your shoulder through the gap, and push really hard.
You don’t have to. I’m still not expecting you to do it. You have to win the last two on the road, and three in a row, coming back from being down 3-1… and nobody’s ever done that before. But there’s a first time for everything.