In the end, it was not a catastrophe what happened in the spring. It ruined no one. The truth of it is that things fall apart. They do. All there is to know is this: a flawed team failed spectacularly. That is not sorrow; it is not a reason to cry out to your beloved country. Decisions were made that were poorly conceived. It was someone’s idea to implement the Princeton offense. It was someone’s idea to hire a coach who hated post play. It was someone’s idea to move Pau Gasol ten feet from the rim. It was someone’s idea not to emphasize defense. It was someone’s idea to fire Mike Brown. In the end, trust, at the highest level, was severed more than any one injury that debilitated a single player.
In recovery, there is an understanding. To get past your failure you must get past your memory, you must let it all go; start from scratch. Start over. So here we are, another late September, another Laker training camp starts on Monday. The air is dry and succulent but without the predictable anticipation that accompanies this date on the calendar. A seventh or eighth playoff seed or a lottery pick doesn’t require much in the way of devotion, any franchise can wish for that.
Basketball is the sort of river that feeds upon itself if there is sharing and commitment and toughness and blocking and rebounding and rotations and screening and coaching. The purists of the game, the old timers who spend their hours in reverence recalling the havoc Wilt caused in the lane, recalling Oscar’s brilliant dynamics, recalling when economics had yet to infect the product, these proud men think of professional basketball as a sort of silent science, quantity and structure and space, the law of motion and the law of gravity and the law of flight. But it still remains linear-what your record is and what your defense is and what your post play is and what your chemistry is.
These are the facts. On the wing an underachiever, a 40% shooter. At the point, a guard who played last in Turkey. On the perimeter, an atrocious defender, he is really, really bad. Cutting inside, a projected lottery pick who fell out the draft. On the block, a Spanish born center, a non rim protector. In the paint damaged goods, arrested last December. At the elbow, a legendary scorer, a champion trying to stay healthy. Dribbling the ball, a 39 year old version of a once imitated player. Keeping it all together an offensive savant who despises post play. As is usually the case with descriptions and definitions, the truth is somewhere in the middle of reality and expectations.
Of course there is another way of looking at it. The sycophants, the glass-is-half full loyalists say the Lakers are younger. They say the Lakers have length on the wing. They say the Lakers have players who can create off the dribble. They say the Lakers have foot speed. They say the Lakers like each other. They say the Lakers can make free throws. They say D’Antoni will have a training camp. They say, proudly, defiantly, Kobe will not let them fail again.
But it is an odd set of circumstances. Desperate, it seems. All of this recovery, all of this scrambling for other people’s laundry as if you no longer remember who and what you used to be. All of this pretending this is the Laker way of doing things and then crossing fingers and hoping for luck.
This is the egg shell dance, a cautiously careful motion upon fragile ground where there is a heaven and a hell. Move the wrong way and it all cracks into pieces; it is gone. Move the right way and you survive.
Of course they have done it before, the surviving thing. Wilt in ‘68. Goodrich in ‘70. Abdul-Jabaar in ‘75. Magic in ‘79. Worthy in ‘82. Byron in ‘83. Kobe in ‘96. Pau in 2008. So it takes very little discipline to sacrifice for ten months and then start to fish, hoping the waters are not too frozen because frozen waters can cripple a boat. It was John Wooden who warned not to confuse activity with achievement. Of this, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak is a quiet disciple: he does not hurry, he takes his time, he sees from a distance how the landscape looks. He waits. He never anticipates the worst. It is not what the privileged do.
It has only been three years since the stirring night the Lakers were in a game seven against the Celtics. The jewelry the Lakers collected after that win was more jewelry than twelve other franchises have received in their history. It is the world that Charlotte and Utah and Toronto inhabit, a not flat world but it isn’t round either. It is always something. Either it is the wrong time or the wrong draft or the wrong player or the wrong coach. We live in a nation of C students, Chris Rock once said. If that is true then the C students of the NBA learn early in the year, perhaps after the first week of the new season. Here is where we are and it ain’t very pretty. Real talk when the sea is wide and you are small. Real talk when you are standing on quicksand and it is a snowy night in Cleveland. And there is no star to carry the burden. No bright light. No turning back.
They say sports and life are the same but that is not true, not really, sports and life are not the same, life is filled with catastrophe, men die in life, men are ruined in life, but in sports, teams never die, and neither do dreams. Teams such as the Lakers have a terrible year of not living up to what was supposed to be a perfect season and then they swallow the criticism and take a few months off and are back again, resurrected so they can embark upon what would have been unthinkable just two or three years ago: beginning a season with a ton of questions and so little answers and very few expectations and an injured star.