***Memo to The Godfather: this is my last NBA Finals post.
As I sat thinking about my view of the Lakers return to The Promised Land hours after their deciding Game 5 victory, I realized that I enjoyed the Lakers most recent success for different reasons. Normally I am just fan. The Lake Show has been my favorite for 30 years: win or lose.
I enjoyed Magic’s five championships, and the return of Laker greatness with Shaq and Kobe. There was something about this championship that got to me on a more human level though. I connected with some of the players and coaches that I have watched over the years and felt good for their success. I can tell by listening to them between games, in interviews etc. how much it meant to be at the top when the dust of the season settles.
This is especially compelling when I consider the fact that most of our sports heroes make a tremendous amount of money and enjoy a level of fame that gives them privileges that most of us couldn’t imagine. It makes me appreciate their commitment to excellence that much more.
Then there is the defense against “hateration.” In a way, the Lakers are compared to the Yankees for a societal theme that many people hate Goliath and cheer for the underdog. I never agreed with the premise of, “I’m tired of seeing the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs every year. Why don’t they let someone else in it.” In my opinion as long as no one is cheating dynasties are good for sports. Excellence is something to be modeled. Personally I don’t think the Yankees always spend their money wisely, but I respect that George Steinbrenner wants to win the World Series every freaggin year.
In my years as a Laker man, I’ve noticed that like many other dynasties people either love or hate them. There is no middle ground. When it comes to the more recent players, guys like Shaquille O’Neal were accepted because he was sort of a goof ball. But cats like Kobe Bryant are horrifically crucified by Laker haters as a man who doesn’t have so much as a soul. Part of that I think was his fault because he had a bit of a swag that people didn’t understand. He came from a different country and became a superstar in a beloved American sport. He had to compete with the likes of guys like Allen Iverson who sold more shoes than he did and Kobe tried to get street cred by not being himself. He wasn’t a thug like A.I. He was a sophisticated phenom who lived in Italy and traveled the world when kids like Iverson had barely left Hampton VA before going to Georgetown. But he grew impatient and tried to be someone he wasn’t. He didn’t come across well and youth was a part of that. I think he wanted to do the right things. But, but he didn’t have the maturity level and ability to bring people with him. He isolated himself and when he caught that case in Colorado, it didn’t resonate with people to offer much empathy.
When you look at him now, I think he has come full circle in understanding the balance one has to have with being a mega star athlete driven beyond the level of most top level athletes, and being a person who can give and receive love and trust from others. It seems like ages ago when Phil Jackson wrote that book about Kobe being uncoachable. But over the last few seasons he has really grown up and I am happy to see that. I love seeing redemptive qualities in people. So I will put him as one of the people I am truly happy for in winning this championship.
Kobe Bryant– for all the reasons I mentioned above. Kobe is not just a basketball player anymore. He is a man. A respectable man with a beautiful family. He teammates love him and I think he loves them back. No more talk about him not winning without Shaq – which was ridiculous in itself cause it ain’t like Shaq led the Heat to the championship though he did run Stan Van Gundy in the middle of the season. No, that was pretty much Dwayne Wade killing the Dallas Mavericks in 2006. Shaq was along for the ride. Kobe was the man already, the best player in the league regardless of what “The Logo” Jerry West said. This really puts his legacy in place regardless of whatever happens in his career from this day forward. This team was horrible just a few years ago. They were smashed in Game 6 against the Celtics last year. And they redeemed themselves on the shoulders of their most talented player. Kobe was the leader of the team in every sense of the word – including leading by example everyday. I am sure he will remain classy during the offseason and we won’t be hearing any free style raps at local LA clubs where Kobe goes with a “Yo Shaq, tell me how my ass taste!” blast.
Derek Fisher– What can you say about D-Fish? When I visited Staples in February to see the Lakers play the Hornets on my birthday, Kobe had his 39 but it was Fisher who hit the game tying three pointer to send the game into overtime as regulation expired. This guy has been through a lot since he left the Lakers years ago after their first three championships. He played up north with the Golden State Warriors, then the Utah Jazz before his daughter became seriously ill. Eventually the Jazz released him so that he could re-sign with the Lakers and be in a city where they had the medical facilities to treat his child. Big ups to the late Jazz owner Larry Miller for that classy move. Fisher is a business man, a hard core example of professionalism. He’s a players rep with the NBA players association and has represented nothing but class during his entire NBA career. This cat is so serious he put Luis Scola, a man almost twice his size on his ass and missed a playoff game just to send a message. Remember that? How can you NOT be happy for this guy.
Phil Jackson– This guy is hated on more than any other coach in basketball history. The first thing people say is that he coached Jordan, then Kobe and Shaq. Well I got three things to say about that. For one, Jordan, Kobe and Shaq didn’t win a damn thing before he started coaching them. Two, I have never seen a team with average players win any NBA championships. I do remember after Jordan retired the first time, Jackson took the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals and was one Hugh Hollins phantom call that put Hubert Davis of the Knicks on the free throw line away from going to the Finals without MJ. Three, when you look at a guy like Red Auerbach, hell he coached more Hall of Fame players than any other coach in the history of the game toward his 9 championship wins. But you never hear anyone say, “Red had that damn Russell, Cousy, Jo Jo White, Sam Jones, and Havlicek – So how was he going to lose?” No one said Doc Rivers couldn’t coach when his teams weren’t winning crap in Boston before they got Allen and Garnett to help Paul Pierce. Think about this, in 10 NBA Finals victories Jackson’s teams have never gone to a Game 7 and have won deciding games on the courts of my Lakers, the Jazz, 76ers, Nets, and now the Magic. To me that sounds like there is a lot of good coaching and preparation going on before the games.
Why is Phil criticized so much? Because he is just smooth with his game. He doesn’t scream at his players like Stan Van Gundy. It’s not sexy television. He has this anti-establishment tone to him. It’s like he loves the game of basketball, is hyper competitive to be the best, but understands that it’s still a game and that there is more to life. This is the same guy who after the Lakers won their third championship rode his motorcycle from Los Angeles to his ranch in Montana as a way to come down from the grind. But look at the results. He is his own man and that is why he left Chicago after their 6th championship. Jerry Krause didn’t like the attention Phil got. Phil didn’t give a flip anymore. He gets it. His players don’t tune him out, and his assistant coaches have remained loyal and stayed with him throuought his career. And dammit he passed Red Auerbach. Ten championships is ten championships. Period.
I could go on talking about how I am happy too that Pau Gasol redeemed himself after having his manhood taken against the Celtics last year. I called him Pau Gasoft. Not anymore! Or how Lamar Odom stepped it up when it counted and earned himself a ring. I know they appreciate this. Guys like Trevor Ariza don’t quite understand how hard it is to get to this place year in and year out. He’s only 24. But he played his ass off too and is about to get paid!
Mitch Kupchak got from underneath Jerry West’s shadow. And his trade for Gasol was the reason why. That is geting it done.
So its for these reasons, the human factor to borrow a phrase as to why this championship for me means a little more. Players are human too. And though I don’t know these guys personally, I can still see some of the history, the background, the hard work, commitment and most of all the soul of the men who show that in spite of the multi-million dollar salaries, winning and winning the right way still means something. It’s a great example for our youth. It’s a great example for the nation. It’s part of why I love sports. Not merely for the sake of the sport. But for the way sports brings people together, give of their talents, and sacrifice selfish motivation in order to accomplish a goal together
Congratulations 2008-2009 NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers! You earned it!