Through five games, everything was terrible and through six games it probably still is. A Lakers fan can’t visit any of their favorite NBA sites without facing ridicule and mean-spirited jokes ripping Kobe, Byron Scott, Carlos Boozer’s penchant for yelling “And one motherfucker!” no matter the score, the Buss family, and the Lakers unstoppable mudslide into the flesh-ripping craggy rocks of the Pacific. And even now, after the Lakers have won a game, they are a bad team in a mercilessly stacked conference. But for about two hours on an otherwise forgettable Sunday night in November, the Lakers delivered me from my numb escapism into world of feeling, a world of now.
The Lakers suck, but I haven’t watched many regular season games in recent memory with the same riveted fixation with which I watched that game against the Hornets. At 0-5, with Kobe trying harder to eke out otherwise meaningless wins in a lost season to the point that his usage rate is bordering on the insane and physically unsustainable, there shouldn’t be much beyond his Herculean efforts riding on these miserable games, but that couldn’t have been further from my experience. Instead of balling up into a cynical mass of unfeeling bitterness, I rode on a fragile precipice of caring: too much, too little, just right, just natural? What the fuck was I doing letting myself hope with a team already allowing themselves to be defined by an inability to compete in close games? Twice already on these dark fall nights the shorthanded and outmatched Lakers have fought and scrapped deep into the bowels of fourth quarters only to fall short, giving their objective and subjective detractors more fuel with which to throw on the funeral pyre of the 2014-15 Lakers.
On November 4th, the night the Republicans won all sorts of elections across this strange country while those same voters voted in favor of numerous liberal causes, I sat at an indoor picnic table at Dr. Jack’s at the Rose Quarter in Portland. It’s pretty much part of the Moda Center, but oddly enough not a single employee could tell me and my friend Zach whether or not they had League Pass. We fired up the iPhone and crowded our early-to-mid-30s shoulders around the little screen to watch the fourth quarter of the Suns at Lakers. All around us the Blazer-faithful flitted and laughed with their massive hipster beards and era-spanning jerseys, filled with the glee (and beer) of beating back the royal Cavs of Cleveland, basking in the return to all-star form of Damian Lillard. We sipped our IPAs and watched the seesaw Lakers while making pacts on possible outcomes: “OK, if the Lakers win, we’ll get wings and another beer.” The Suns lead grew as high as eight and our sails were windless, flopping emptily in the Portland night only to be resuscitated. Vintage Kobe buckets and Jeremy Lin free throws lifted us to hopeful feet. Our chicken wings were maybe some kind of reality, but we’re both grizzled men with years of NBA fandom under our ever-tightening belts. The Lakers pulled within one only to have Phoenix crank it back to five so we modified our arrangement: “If Kobe gets 40, we’ll get our wings.” We settled because in 2014, when a Lakers fan is bent on celebration sometimes the win that might grant release doesn’t come and when that happens, you still want your damn wings. Kobe didn’t get his 40, the Lakers didn’t win, but we still ordered those wings and then walked uphill to our hotel, buzzed, defeated (twice – thanks LeBron), no longer hungry, but not quite satisfied either.
With memories like those so close to the surface, I sat through halftime of the Hornets game with the Lakers down 51-42 shooting under 40% and 0-8 from three. Internally, I was unconsciously fighting about whether or not I could let myself feel something this Lakers second half. It was like two tiny oceans clashing in the core of my guts without any intent except forward force. Masters of the sea? Pfft. Before the game I had texted friends that I thought this was the night LA broke the winless streak and whether I wanted to be right or truly believed the Lakers would win, I stepped into that second half a scared man. But something happened on the way to the funeral. Instead of shooting 40% and missing every three attempted, the Lakers bounded out of the locker room breathing hope into my thirsty lungs. The comeback was focused like single-minded jump-first-ask-questions-later Jeremy Lin drives. The Lakers attack was a wave of Sunday white that I and we desperately needed. Four of five from deep while out-rebounding Charlotte 14 to five in the quarter? It reminded me of Julio Chavez Jr.’s legendary 12th round comeback against a dominant Sergio Martinez a couple years back, but Julio fell short despite uplifting an entire country and sport in the process. I don’t identify with any notion of a Laker nation, but this weird third quarter was micro-galvanizing and probably I’m overreacting, but it was a mini-scaled version of the Laker claw-back against Portland in the 2000 Western Conference Finals. Similar in the sense it was needed, fans were desperate to be rescued and the Lakers delivered. People may burn effigies of my body at that comparison (and I’d simultaneously be flattered and creeped the fuck out), but I can only write to what I feel and the other night of this hopeless gauntlet of a Lakers season, I was full of all the feelings.
If the Lakers won, an alcohol-themed celebration was in order, but a man who’s been hurt is desperate to avoid that feeling again. I tried to detach and hold feelings at an arm’s length, but anyone who has ever loved knows the heart wants what the heart wants. I was begrudging and giddy to accept my feelings, a man split down the middle like a seedless avocado with one half ready to be ground into creamy guacamole and the other half rotting and grayish brown awaiting a stinky destiny in the nearest trash can or compost bin if you float that way.
Believe me friends when I tell you that the Lakers didn’t give it away. Despite giving up 58% shooting and sending the Hornets to line 18 times in the final period, the Lakers shot an improbable 13-21 with assists on 11 of their 13 field goals, a testament more to un-Laker-like great shooting instead of good shots from cohesive ball movement. Eight Lakers scored in the final period and it was probably some kind of apropos that Kobe scored the least of them, just two points on one of five shooting.
I celebrated with two big cans of frothy, foamy Guinness while basking in a combination of what I hoped was my own relief and the disappointment of Laker haters around the world. It was a laid back celebration and my Guinness well-earned.
In the immortal words of Fight Club: “This kid from work, Ricky, couldn’t remember whether you ordered pens with blue ink or black. But Ricky was a god for 10 minutes when he trounced the maître d’ of a local food court.” Sunday night didn’t elevate the Lakers up the NBA food chain, but for that 24 minutes of 60%-plus shooting in the second half, they were gods worthy of their fans unconditional appreciation.