Saturday, November 13, 2004

Weekend distraction

I became a serious LA Laker fan when I moved to Southern California in 1986. It was the height of the Showtime Dynasty, and the NBA was on an upward arc that seemed like it would never end. Watching Magic Johnson choreograph in real time was a privilege that no other sporting event has lived up to since for me. I admired Michael Jordan's skill and dominant competitiveness, but Magic's sheer joyfulness and improvisational brilliance set him apart.

I rooted for them in the lean years that followed, and of course during the Shaq-Kobe-Phil championship years. The style of play could not have been more different, and at times it reminded me of the uglyball played by the Larry Bird-era Celtics, but it was still fun.

Last year they put together a team for the ages -- four certain Hall of Famers, two of them at the top of their games. They seemed to alternately sleep and fight their way through the regular season, but I was sure they would be able to turn it up for the playoffs. They did, but not by enough, and they were embarrassed by a blue-collar Piston line-up that just plain wanted it more.

The team splintered within days after the end of the season. The strained relations between Shaq and Kobe came to a head, a power struggle ensued, and owned Jerry Buss chose the younger star. Shaq and Phil Jackson moved on.
What is left is a team I don't recognize and, after nearly 20 years, can no longer root for. Friday night's line: Kobe Bryant, 41 points on 14 of 31, Lakes lose 122-113 to Magic, and drop to 3 and 4. They won't be a lottery team, but they won't make it past the first round, either.

I blame Kobe. Remember, Phil Jackson was good enough at dealing with head cases that he won rings with Dennis Rodman. But Kobe had alreay won; he wanted to be the star of his team. He got his wish, but he is now going to live Michael Jordan's life backwards -- starting with a string of championships, ending with highlight reels and lots of free time in May and June.


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