Friday, June 24, 2011

Silence Broken- Introspection, Change and the New Laker Fandom

Roughly seven weeks have passed since the Dallas Mavericks, powered by a three-point barrage the likes of which the NBA postseason has never seen, brought the Los Angeles Lakers 2011 playoff run to an ignominious end. Approximately the same amount of time has elapsed (three days more, actually) since my well-timed arrival aboardthe Dirk Nowitzki bandwagon. Due to a variety of personal and professional commitments, not to mention a mental backdrop that might one day serve as the set of a “Hoarders” episode- I have been absent from the Association’s realm of the written word.
In life as in sport, nothing is more tragic than the betrayal of one’s passion. It’s possible for one’s shortcomings to stem from the undertaking of a task that based on talent or “ceiling,” is simply a bridge too far. However, more often than not, people do not exert themselves to the point at which they are exploring the limits of their abilities, at which any unfinished task is truly insurmountable. Rather than explore the limits of the abilities about which he is most passionate, it is often the interested party that fails his own ability.
No one among us is totally devoid of talent. Some are gifted in multitudinous ways, while the savant-like are almost supernaturally gifted in a specific area, often to the detriment of other, more practical aspects of life. The talents of some are immediately evident and irrepressible, while those of others must be unearthed and coaxed out, sometimes against the subconscious will of the individual himself.
Whatever the case, why then, even after having discovered an aptitude and a passion (there’s that word again) for a given endeavor do people take these things for granted and refuse, almost with disdain, to explore their outermost boundaries? Is it a crippling fear of failure? Perhaps it’s our old clich├ęd friend, the fear of success. Having given the matter considerable thought, I feel it’s reasonable to assume that the “betrayal of passion” stems not from a fear of any specific outcome (success or failure), but from the transformation of one’s passion, from a gift, begging to be unlocked, explored and shared, to a weighty burden. It’s been said that at their best, talent and passion are not things to be possessed, but rather phenomena that possess those whom they deem worthy.
Far too often, however, rather than immersing ourselves in those pursuits for which our minds and/or bodies were seemingly created, we transform these gems with which we’ve been entrusted into burdens, crosses to bear. Rather than draw strength from past successes and enjoy each new journey, we run.
Boy, that escalated quickly!
Now that you’ve cleaned the blood and guts from your browser, let’s take to the hardwood. One could make the case that since the emergence of the sports blogosphere as a viable outlet for quality writing, no writer, regardless of sport or season, has gone radio silent at a more inopportune time. And one would probably be right. In the weeks since I tossed my hat into the ring at the Dirkus Circus, the ranks of an NBA postseason for the ages shrank- from eight, to four, to two- until a lone champion, led by the aforementioned German, remained. One legend publicly aired some grievances, while another sought out Stage Left. Dynasty-In-A-Box worked beautifully, until it didn’t, while another, with actual jewelry to its name, seemingly drew to a close…
A lot of time and energy is expended worrying about, and trying to prepare for unforeseen, cataclysmic events. Sometimes, however, while we are attempting to identify the black swans of tomorrow, we neglect to notice constants that we’ve long taken for granted ceasing to function as they always have. This is a far scarier scenario.
For more than a decade (minus a brief hiatus)- fans (myself among them) and the media have clung dogmatically to the notion that the Lakers could take little more than a mild interest in much of the regular season before “flipping the switch” when the stakes were sufficiently heightened. That the 2010-11 incarnation proved not as deep as initially thought, was deeply flawed in more areas than championship teams of years past and at times appeared totally disinterested in the task at hand was irrelevant. These were battle-tested champions. Genius savants. Whatever. Either way, these guys knew what they were doing.
I watched the Lakers’ Game 3 loss in Dallas before embarking on a nine-day trip abroad. In addition to the stomach punch that accompanies watching one’s team run up an insurmountable deficit less than three hours before having to be at the airport for an early-morning, six-hour flight, in light of the Mavs’ backbreaking 32-20 victory in the most important fourth quarter of the Lakers’ season- on the heels of the team’s inability to preserve a 16-point second half lead at home in the series opener- I left the country in the throes of a painful realization. The sun was setting. This time around, the cavalry would not be thundering over the horizon to restore order in Lakerland.
Thus the team’s shortfall in Game 4, though no less painful than a surprise defeat, was not entirely unexpected. Sure, the magnitude of the beatdown exceeded the expectation of any reasonable person by 25 or 30 points, but these Lakers never seemed to have a miracle in them. No dominant performances in key moments, like they produced in their Game 6 wins over both the Suns and Celtics last year. No late-game heroics the likes of which we saw in Game 4 against Orlando in 2009, or last spring, in Game 6 against OKC and Game 2 against Phoenix. This team, at the end of the day a very good one, was neither great nor special.
Kobe Bryant, the deadliest player of the post-Jordan era, but also the oldest 32 year-old in NBA history- looked tired. He logged more than 37 minutes per game against the Mavs, and with the exception of early/mid-Game 1, was unable to summon up one of his signature game-changing performances. Despite three straight Finals appearances, two rings and a phenomenal performance to close out the Celtics in Game 7 in 2010, Pau Gasol played poorly enough to breath new life into the “soft” label that plagued him for much of his career. Derek Fisher, five-time champion and the rock of the organization, was irrelevant, scoring just 26 points (on 9-29 from the field) and handed out 17 assists (just 11 in the final three games) in 123 minutes against Dallas. Andrew Bynum, arguably the team’s best player in the series, blocked three shots in four games and produced a combined 14 points and 11 rebounds in Games 1 and 4, despite not facing foul trouble in either instance. And the bench, so vaunted in the fall and winter of 2010? Not even an afterthought.
An unintended benefit of my brief hiatus from the keyboard was the opportunity to absorb and process the 2010-11 Lakers postseason exit, as well as to look ahead to a new era in Lakerland. The most bejeweled coach in NBA history will no longer man the bench. In 60 days, Kobe Bryant will celebrate his 33rd birthday. Jerry Buss, perhaps the greatest owner in NBA history, is no longer calling the shots. This alone would not have been cause for concern had he handed the reigns to his more-than-capable daughter, rather than his frighteningly Dolan-esque son.
Much as it did on Showtime in the late-80s and early-90s, the sun is setting on the Lightswitch Dynasty that ruled the opening decade of this century. However that winds up playing out, there will be a period of adjustment and acclimation for all parties involved, from ownership to the players, to the fans. Even if my worst fears about Jimmy Buss are totally unfounded and he proves to possess his father’s acumen for pro sports ownership, these are his first days as the primary decision maker of the most valuable empire in pro basketball (Sorry Knicks fans, the annual Forbes column is full of shit). Maybe Mike Brown’s defensive system will come as music to the Lakers’ ears and the wins will pile up with the same frequency as when Brown coached in Cleveland. Maybe, though I’d feel a lot better if there was another reliable big body and defensively capable point guard on the roster. Maybe the Lakers will successfully pull off the seamless transition from one superstar to the next- a feat achieved in the last 25 years by only the San Antonio Spurs.
Whether Laker fans spend the coming years rooting for a legitimate title contender led by the likes of Dwight Howard, Deron Williams, Chris Paul or some other in-his-prime stud, or if the next chapter in Laker history is authored by this generation’s Sedale Threatt-Nick Van Exel-Eddie Jones-Ced Ceballos combo, there is a new era on the horizon in Lakerland. Change is inevitable. Change is necessary. Change is good. But, man, change is tough.
While discussing the topics of recent Laker history and change, I’d be remiss if I ignored the end of another era- one that touched us all as NBA fans and spanned the most significant years in the lives of my generation.
On June 1, in a video disseminated via Twitter, Shaquille O’Neal announced his retirement from the NBA. It’s impossible to look back at the Diesel’s career and not at least momentarily wonder what his already spectacular resume would look like had his work ethic more closely resembled that of Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Garnett. Had Shaq’s relationship with the game been more monomaniacal obsession than professional obligation, there is little doubt in my mind that he, and not Michael Jordan, would occupy the choicest real estate in the NBA’s pantheon.
With that said, however, consider the following. 19 seasons, 28,596 points, 13.099 rebounds, 2,732 blocked shots, 181.7 Win Shares and eight All-NBA First team selections- all tops among active players at the time of his retirement. His Field Goal Percentage and eFG%, both 58.2%, rank at the top of the NBA’s all-time list, as do his 14 consecutive All-Star appearances from 1993-2007 (his total of 15 is second all time). According to Basketball Reference, his career PER of 26.43- with 10 seasons of 25+ (tied with Kareem, trailing only Michael Jordan) and eight of at least 28.5 (tied for most all-time, with Jordan)- trails only those of Jordan and LeBron James.
In 16 trips to the postseason- not counting his 12 minutes with Boston this spring- he posted 5,250 points (fourth all-time), 2,508 rebounds (third), 459 blocked shots (third), 582 assists (more than Dwyane Wade and Hakeem Olajuwon, and one fewer than the career totals for Chris Webber and Pau Gasol- combined), 31.08 Win Shares (fifth), a PER of 26.12 (fourth), and made 56.2% of his shots. For his troubles he was rewarded with four championship rings and three Finals MVPs.
The point of this stat bukkake? Shaquille O’Neal owes me nothing. However he chose to approach the game, he left it as one of the top handful of players ever to take the floor in the NBA and the most devastating physical force the league’s ever seen. In his prime he instilled a swagger in every one of his teams that was so strong, it trickled down to the fans. The greatest trick the San Antonio Spurs ever pulled was convincing their opponents that they could be beaten. Shaq’s Lakers afforded you no such delusion. Our guys would show up and simply crush you with an avalanche of talent. Bicker on the bench, half-ass the effort and still whip your ass by 25. Though he was at times hard to root for (“I got hurt on company time, I’ll heal on company time”), frequently clashed with his most talented teammates and could be a petulant employee (“PAY ME!!!”), my lasting impression of Shaq will be that feeling that he inspired in me as a Laker fan. And for those eight years, I’d like to thank him.


dave m said...

Terrific piece from start to finish. I've gone through my own introspection re: the wholesale purge of staff. I'm happy with the picks though - Darius has good size and a facilitator's attitude and Andrew's a pure shooter. I wish we'd picked up some speed but there's only so much you can accomplish that late in the order.

Anonymous said...

Great article, your section on Shaq was spot on.