Before any of this gets started, and in case you didn't already know, I'll tell you that I'm a Los Angeles Lakers fan. A big one actually. I've loved Kobe Bryant since he came into the league and started loving the team that he plays for a short time later. Ever since then, the Lakers have been one of my "we" teams. It's a designation that I only use with three sports teams in the world: the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Detroit Tigers, and the aforementioned LA Lakers.
If I talk about these teams, I say "we". I say it like I'm a part of the team, but what it really means is that the team is a part of me. They take up large chunks of my brain space and their performances have an affect on my overall mood and well being. Their losses hit hard, ruining the days and nights and weeks spent watching them, and their wins can lift me similarly, painting a smile on my face and placing a lilt in my heart that endures long after contests and seasons are complete.
For me, one of my "we" teams is already in some big trouble and causing me unwanted stress, they being the Ohio State Buckeyes football program. I say "we" for all of the Buckeye teams, but the football team at OSU is really the original "we" team for me. I have loved Ohio State since I was knee high to a grasshopper and the Buckeyes are mired in controversy and dogged by looming NCAA sanctions; with the fate of head coach Jim Tressel currently hanging in the balance and the future of the program floating somewhere in the ether.
While OSU is being put through the investigatory ringer and the autumn of 2011 fraught with uncertainty and probable doom, I thought that I at least had the Lakers to make my summer vibrant and enjoyable, with another ride to the NBA Finals likely and a third consecutive championship possible, if no longer as certain as I may have thought at the season's start.
That all changed when the Lakers played the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of this year's NBA playoffs. When they were swept out of the playoffs 4 - 0 in their seven game series with Dallas, when they flat-out embarrassed themselves on national television time and again, with a disgraceful 36 point loss on Sunday putting the icing on a cake made of a Kentucky Derby-sized pile of horse manure. The day after the Derby, the Lakers were blown right of the gym and acted like a bunch of spoiled children who had their favorite toy taken away, alternating between a pouty, unprecedented petulance and a tantrum-throwing disregard for their coach, their star player, and the purple and gold uniforms they wore that day.
It is likely head coach Phil Jackson's last memory as a Laker coach, and it was crushed into a potent nugget of disappointment by the Dallas Mavericks as he was disobeyed and disgraced by his players. The Lakers not only committed the grievous sin of quitting on their leader, but also committed ugly, unprofessional fouls down the stretch that cannot be called anything other than dirty plays. With their season coming to an end thanks to a Dallas team that seemed better than them at every facet of the game and one of their best players in Pau Gasol moping around the court like the jilted lover he is rumored to be, the Lakers decided to play dirty and without class, committing fouls that had no other intention than to harm players on the other team under the guise of extreme frustration.
The Lakers were rightly disappointed, down 3 - 0 to a team that had proven in those first three games that they were clearly the better squad. The Mavericks were faster, more determined, and locked-in on their goal, three things that the Lakers perhaps did not expect, and seemed unable to return in kind with their effort on the court. So as the season drew to a close and with one of their players, Ron Artest, already marred by a dirty play in game 2 that led to a suspension in game 3, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum decided to act like bullies and turn their sub-par performance into an absolute disrespect for their opponent and head coach by flagrantly fouling Dirk Nowitzki and J.J. Barea respectively. These were dirty, nasty, uncalled for plays that left me aghast not only as a Laker fan, but a fan of professional basketball in general.
Phil Jackson is perhaps the greatest head coach in the history of sports, with 11 championship rings and a trio of three-peats under his belt. He announced early on this year that it would be his last with the Lakers, and Kobe Bryant seemed determined to help Phil go out on the right note by completing a fourth three-peat and giving Jackson an even 12 for his career. Instead, the team that Kobe has led alongside Phil for over a decade crumbled under the pressure of trying to win their third consecutive championship and melted down in front of a sold-out crowd in Dallas and millions of fans watching the game at home.
Lamar Odom might as well have had hockey pads on the way he blatantly checked Nowitzki at the top of the key in the fourth quarter, which was bad enough. But minutes later, Bynum threw an elbow into Barea's rib-cage while the diminutive point guard was mid-air near the basket, watching the young man crash to the ground with what was enough force to knock the living daylights out of him. They were both egregious fouls that led to the players' ejection from the game and do not speak to the character of Jackson or the pride of the Lakers, who have won 16 world championships in the NBA.
What those fouls and this swift exit from the playoffs have done to the legacy of both Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant remains to be seen. Jackson was pursuing an amazing 12th title, while Bryant was searching for his 6th, something that his idol Michael Jordan achieved playing under Jackson himself. In the long run, Jackson will likely return to coach another team after a hiatus with a chance to rekindle his legacy, and Bryant will continue to play under a new coach and doggedly seek his 6th ring, but the game did little for either in terms of the public perception of their greatness.
My "we" team let me down. Okay, it's a bummer, I'll just have to wait 'til next year. But the way the Lake-Show went out this season has me still scratching my head these two days later, and wondering how Bryant will be able to continue with the cast of characters he has around him. Dallas most assuredly exposed the retooled Laker bench as markedly inadequate, but there are deeper issues at play. Rumors are swirling in Los Angeles that Bryant's wife contributed to the end of Pau Gasol's long-term relationship with a girlfriend, leaving the Spanish power forward listless and uninterested in playing meaningful basketball. Odom's hard foul on Nowitzki and uncharacteristically lackluster playoff performance point to his level of distraction in Los Angeles, where he is a reality TV star and husband to a Kardashian, a truly unfortunate combination for a professional athlete.
Bynum, while young, showed a level of immaturity that cannot be attributed solely to his age, and the Lakers rock-solid, but obviously slow point guard Derek Fisher may have turned from "veteran leader" to "aging liability" right before our eyes. I'm not one to panic when it comes to my "we" teams, but the truth is that something has to be done in LA if Kobe is going to end his career as the legend he wants to. He is already a five-time champion and one of the top-five talents the game has ever seen in my eyes, but in order to move from an honored resident in the House of NBA Legends and start down the hallway to the wing where players like Michael and Magic rest, he needs another ring and even more proof of worth on his already crowded resume.
My guess is that the gears in Kobe's head are already turning and he is making a list of those he does and does not want around him next season. A list that includes players and coaches and one that the management and ownership in LA has to abide by in some way shape or form. Say what you want to about Kobe's off-the-court and on-the-court personality and proclivities, the man is as determined an athlete as the sporting world has ever seen, and this writer seriously doubts that we have seen the last of his greatness. Los Angeles is a city of stars, and Kobe is among its brightest. I have a feeling that we'll find out just how hard he'll burn in the coming months and NBA off-season, and I hope that my "we" team bounces back from this inglorious exit and makes me a proud Laker fan once again.
If not, I've still got Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers to try and pick me up, and a no-hitter in May sure isn't a bad place to start...