No one considers this part of it, that things are not what they seem. Careers do turnaround, things can change on a dime. Consider the Lakers, the most classic of all the franchises. By all accounts this was the year they were going to stab themselves in the heart; and their fans too. It was the science of it all. They had assembled a motley troupe of characters who were mostly known by their depressing failures, their names barely recognizable. They fit nowhere, they lacked even a hint of glamour. Therefore it became an obvious question: what would become of undistinguished players that had known only suffering in their careers and were now Laker teammates? And so it was for Xavier Henry and Shawne Williams and Wes Johnson, first round draft picks who were in Los Angeles trying to redirect their crashed careers. This was as close as they would come to starting their basketball lives over and building something from scratch.
It is the third day in December. There is still no Kobe despite the rumors of his impending return and yet his uncertainty has not left a terrible shadow. The Lakers have five more wins than were expected from their roster. The schedule has been tough too: Golden State, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Memphis. Here we are nearly twenty games into the season and what there is to remember are the horrible losses, the exhilarating wins, the fight for respectability, the refusal to quit and of course beating Dwight Howard. This is a team that at its inception was considered unremarkable. They are shouldering the burden of their low expectations by asserting their character. They have an innate impulse to work hard like men in the mines. They do not play the score but the game and in this sort of ambition they persevere. They expect the impossible and the insane, that no deficit is beyond their desire to overcome it. Once upon a time their careers were a footnote in history, easily forgotten by just about everyone. But in the collective framework of a Kobe-less team they share with one another, they are supportive to the point of being ego-less. This is true: all men have pride.
Twice on Sunday, against the Portland Trailblazers the Lakers trailed by huge margins. Once by 17. And then again by 20. Twice the Lakers returned from the brink, on the backs of Shawne Williams, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson. It brought to mind the story of Sisyphus, the Greek king who found himself climbing up a hill only to be chased back down by rock again and again. But Shawne Williams rebounded a missed free throw for a two point putback. Xavier Henry scored 27 points and played point guard. Wesley Johnson’s defense, especially his blocked shot of a Damien Lilliard layup was a thing of beauty. It must be noted that these were the ridiculed players no one particularly wanted by the end of the summer and now here they were, playing their heart outs, creating stress and trouble for a team that had only lost three games.
Chemistry is one of those elusive things in sports that is talked about incessantly. In a way it is like oxygen. You only notice it when you do not have it, when you are choking to death. The Lakers chemistry is sublime and is built out of trust and respect and what all kindergartners are taught: sharing is rewarded. The players have been on the other side of it, of course, on teams in which no one cared about anyone, where they were stuck trying to stick to their principles in a world of selfish values. But of all things chemistry can do, what it cannot do is just as significant. It cannot win games. Talent and effort and a plan is what wins games but chemistry brings a team back from the brink as was the case Sunday night against Portland. It is difficult to say which is more of a revelation, the Lakers players of this year, their grit and hustle and refusal to quit. Or these players lives and past mistakes which had such an influence over their careers it nearly ended in a wreck before the Lakers stepped in.
By everyone’s calculation the NBA is a league of men taking care of their body. It is the only way to survive such a grueling physical schedule year after year. And yet Xavier Henry was always out of shape. So it made sense the shapeless nature of his game. He was a capable player but so were a lot of guard/forwards. He was able to hit threes and drive through contact but so was half the league. He was a mediocre free throw shooter and he did not fit into anyone’s system by his own choice. He was in a state of perpetual conflict, too young to understand that a NBA player is a team player first, a role player second, a contributor third. But for everything Xavier wasn’t, his shortcomings and work ethic lapses notwithstanding, he had never been where Shawne Williams was, arrested on drug charges. This last time was the third such incident in five years. Shawne had a good year playing for the Knicks in 2010 where he came off the bench, scoring twenty five points against the Utah Jazz one night, and in the playoffs against the Celtics he scored seventeen points in game three. (The Knicks were swept 4-0) This is his fifth team in a seven year career. This is Wes Johnson’s third team, a surprising turn of events since he seemed destined for multiple All Star selections coming out of Syracuse as the fourth pick in the draft. He is long and athletic with good defensive instincts but struggled in Minnesota. He has already made an impact defensively as he leads the Lakers in blocks and steals and is their best perimeter, one-on-one defender.
These three are responsible for what the Lakers season has become so far, this fight against misery, this rise for respectability. They have created their own truth: they do belong. They have surpassed half the league in that they are identified by grit and hustle and not quitting. There have been stretches of games in which Xavier and Shawne and Wes did not play and yet they did not feel sorry for themselves, they willingly cheered for their teammates as they watched the game unfold. For all the talk about talent, character is the fundamental sustaining principle for any team.
Not many people understand the NBA meat market. Xavier and Shawne and Wes know the other side of midnight, being counted out, being written off, having humility forced upon them. They have their own set of limitations as most NBA players do and their images have been distorted through a tough lens. Judgment, though, can be premature. Assumptions were made before these three hit the court. They had yet to be coached by D’Antoni. They had yet to depend on each other. They had yet to raise their confidence. In a certain way this was a grand experiment, a way to see if it was really true that second chances can revive careers. Or if players can resort to amnesia and forget the terrible places they have been in order to pursue the dream one more time. But even that is not the point. Their contribution to the Lakers is a testimony to what has happened to them. Remember who you used to be. Never forget. Because the world in its smallness still has symmetry. Things are not always perfect. Sometimes a price has to be paid for what you did to your career. But then in the midst of chaos and uncertainty the Lakers call. And the career that had fallen into a thousand pieces is suddenly not over. Not by a long shot.