And so, here we are. Having defeated Darth Vader, we come face to face with the Emperor.
You can feel the contempt. You can taste the air of superiority. You can sense the arrogance. You can hear them saying they can’t fail. You can see them looking past our shoulders to Boston or Orlando.
Good grief, do I despise the Lakers.
Living in Los Angeles, you can imagine how I feel, seeing the Laker flags sprout on cars in April. Local sports-talk radio, treating the team like Gods. Everyone laughing and shaking their heads and calling Phil Jackson a genius as he plays another obvious head game and casually mentions to the media that he feels Steve Nash carries the ball — never mind that Kobe Bryant gets away with it at least as much, and that if the refs called the violation every time it was committed in the NBA, Allen Iverson wouldn’t have had a career, John Stockton would have been a backup, and pro basketball games would take six hours each because of all the whistles.
(Mr. Jackson happens to be a very good coach, and an extremely good manager of personalities. He’s also had the great good fortune to coach the best player of all time, and arguably three others who are in the top twenty — Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. I’d like to see him coach the Timberwolves…then we’d really see how good he is.)
Everyone in this town claims to be a Laker fan, but I know better. The number of true, hard-core Laker fans isn’t nearly as large. It’s like how, over the years, the number of people who claimed to have been there the day Babe Ruth called his home run shot grew to the millions. There are real Laker fans, who stuck with them during the Nick Van Exel years, or the Kwame Brown years. But I invite you to come to LA and listen to local radio with me after the Lakers lose a game. People jump off the bandwagon as though it were engulfed in flame. Phil Jackson has lost the team. Kobe needs to be traded while he still has value. Pao Gasol complains too much. Ron Artest isn’t half the player Trevor Ariza will be. Lamar Odom should be taken out with the recycling. Then the Lakers win the next game, and all is forgiven, all is forgotten, and this is the greatest team since the Allies at Normandy.
The worst of it is, they get a pass on all of it because they can smile smugly and point to that end of the Staples Center where all the banners are. They are the most successful, richest, most decorated team in NBA history. You can’t argue with the scoreboard, it’s true.
But all those things don’t make them any more likable to me, and that’s true, too.
George Will once said about the New York Yankees, “Rooting for them is like rooting for US Steel.” Meaning, you’re not exactly putting yourself out there as a fan.
Much as I dislike the Spurs, it’s always been about the Lakers. How they’ve never had to struggle for an extended period of time. How fortune, luck, and perhaps the conspiracy gods have always seemed to smile on them. How they traded a pack of nobodies for Wilt Chamberlain, then did it again to get Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. How they took advantage of the inept management of an inferior organization to get the draft pick that became Magic Johnson…then did it again to get Kobe Bryant. Then did it again to get Pao Gasol, a superstar in his prime, for peanuts on the dollar.
But hey, if you can do it, you do it. There’s nothing wrong, or illegal, about what the Lakers have done to win. I’m sure the Suns, or any other team, if they had the resources, they’d do the very same things. But they don’t. They can’t. And so we’re all left to fume, and the Lakers…the Lakers could care less.
It’s rare they even acknowledge competition. Jackson takes his playful little digs, but there’s a lot of talk around here every year how the regular season and the playoffs are just appetizers for the Finals they expect to reach every season. One time, in 1990, after the Suns won the opening game of a playoff series against the Lakers, an LA columnist wrote the most dismissive, superior, snooty story you can possibly imagine, metaphorically patting the Suns on the head while supposedly preparing to spank the whippersnappers back home to the desert. Re-reading it today still makes my teeth clench. Because it’s always been like this for the Lakers, whether the object of their disdain is the Blazers, the Jazz, the late Sonics, the Suns, whoever.
Am I griping? Am I airing sour grapes? Am I envious? You’re darn right I am. I want what they have. I want it for the guys who really deserve it. Not just Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, and Grant Hill, but for Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, Shawn Marion, Rex Chapman, Wes Person, Dan Majerle, Danny Manning, Elliot Perry, Kevin Johnson, Charles Barkley, Mark West, Tom Chambers, Jeff Hornacek, Eddie Johnson, Nick Vanos, Larry Nance, Walter Davis, Ronnie Lee, Alvan Adams, John MacLeod, Paul Westphal, Gar Heard, Curtis Perry, Ricky Sobers, John Shumate, Connie Hawkins, Dick Van Arsdale, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Jerry Colangelo and Joe-freaking-Proski. And I want it for the fans who never jump off the Suns bandwagon when the team dips below 50 wins in a season, the ones who’ve come back after year after year of heartbreak, like my future father-in-law, who was, depending on who you ask, either the first or second season-ticket holder EVER in Suns history, and who has renewed every year since. I want it for him. And, dang it, I want it for me.
Already, the verdict is in around the country, and certainly here in LA. There’s no way the Suns can beat the Lakers. They don’t have the inside strength. They don’t have the coaching pedigree. They don’t have the big game experience. They don’t have the tradition. They don’t have the playing style conducive to playoff basketball. They’re only here because Dallas choked and San Antonio lost the map to the Fountain of Youth.
Well, let me remind you all of two things. The first is ancient history, but once upon a time, a Suns team no one gave any chance played in the Western Conference Finals against the previous season’s champs, the team everyone assumed would waltz back into the Finals, the team with the best record in the league, with the best offense and suffocating defense, with experience and poise, with the best small forward in the league, and slightly fragile chemistry. Aside from the “best record” part, doesn’t that sound like this year’s Lakers? I was describing the Rick Barry-led Warriors of 1976, and the Suns beat them.
The second thing is, if you believe in omens (and why not? What do we have to lose?), it was seventeen seasons between the Suns’ first Finals appearance, in 1976, and their second, in 1993. Which was seventeen years ago.
I think the Suns can win. I believe the Suns can win. I look at this team and see some things I haven’t seen in other incarnations of the club — a quiet confidence to match their enthusiastic high energy. A bench the starters can lean on. An unlikeliness to push the panic button and let tempo be dictated to them. An ability to take an opponent’s best shot and remain standing. Genuine affection between teammates. And a certain, intangible something I can’t identify…I’d hate to call it “destiny,” because I hate when people speak in those terms for sports teams. But a sense that this team deserves good things to happen to it.
I may be proven wrong, I may get my heart broken yet again, but I will never, ever, give up my seat on the bandwagon. And oh, how I want to see the Laker fans flee theirs when the Suns set it on fire. Those who remain on will simply shrug their shoulders, of course, turn up their noses at us, and point to their banners. Fine. I can live with that, if our team is playing into June and theirs isn’t. I’ll take that any time. I want to see those flags come off the cars. I want to hear the excuses. I want them to see our taillights, just once, disappearing up ahead around the bend.
P.S. That playoff series in 1990 that brought about that terrible newspaper column? The Suns won it.
P.P.S. I’ll be in the stands at Staples Center for Game 1, and I’ll be Tweeting @sonnova.