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This One Means The Most: A Season Unlike Any Other

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Years of Doubt for the Laker Faithful

While we can now look back and think how inevitable it was that the Lakers won the 2020 championship, it was almost 17 months ago to the day that the entire Laker organization was in disarray, even with LeBron James on the roster. Magic Johnson had just unexpectedly quit on the last game of the season, leading fans to question what the future of this organization was, after being the gold standard of ownership for so long, under the late, great Dr. Jerry Buss.

One of my favorite quotes is “the greatest advantage in the NBA is great ownership,” but in the six years following Dr. Buss’s death, which coincided with the longest playoff drought in Laker history, the faith in ownership from fans like myself certainly wavered. It was short-sighted decisions time and time again, relying on the philosophy of “Lakers Exceptionalism” that had carried us to championships for so long. Entitlement and arrogance that basically said: we’re going to get the best players and win championships just because we are the Los Angeles Lakers.

In 2016, I was fortunate enough to attend an event where I got to ask Magic Johnson about his level of faith in D’Angelo Russell being the next great Laker guard and the future of the franchise. He responded with the most charismatic response, reminding me that Jerry West, the best talent evaluator the league has ever seen, was the reason we got 19 years of Kobe. He went on to explain that West’s belief in D’angelo was all I needed to know the Lakers were going to be back very soon. My heart swelled with belief, and a year later when he was promoted to President of Basketball Operations, I’ll always remember my Dad telling me “I finally believe in Magic to run the Lakers” – a huge statement of confidence given his long mistrust in him after his disastrous head coaching stint in the 90’s. So when arguably the greatest Laker of all-time abruptly quit on his team in that manner, it crushed my waning trust in the future of my beloved franchise.

And there wasn’t too much to be optimistic with basketball-wise. The first year of LeBron James on the Lakers was a complete disaster. After showing he was actually human and suffering the first major injury of his career, LeBron failed to deliver what seemed inevitable – missing the playoffs for the first time in 14 years (and first finals in 8 years). I remember painfully watching the 2019 playoffs wondering how we could ever compete with a team as star-studded as Golden State or assemble a tough and smart 7-man rotation around LeBron, as Toronto did with Kawhi.

As the disappointing 2019 season came to an end, more doubts crept in as President Rob Pelinka single-handedly ran the show. While I listened to his dramatic biblical metaphors every press conference knowing that Kobe’s ex-agent genuinely cared about the Lakers, there was the part of me that chalked his GM credentials to nothing more than the nepotism that plagued the Lakers for years (shoutout Byron Scott and Luke Walton). So when the report came out that the Lakers whiffed on both Monty Williams, on all accounts one of the most respected men in this league, and Ty Lue, a proven tactician and NBA champion, it was so hard for me to get excited about the hiring of Frank Vogel, who came with the justified criticism of him not being able to organize an effective offense in his Indiana and Orlando stints. Not to mention, the speculation surrounding Assistant Coach Jason Kidd potentially taking over Vogel’s job in the middle of the season felt like a backhand slap in the face. When the reporter asked Pelinka in Vogel’s opening press conference how he felt about being the third choice, there was a sting from the deep embarrassment and disrespect from even our own media was doubting us.

Flash forward a month later, I remember celebrating my best friend, Henry’s, birthday, surrounded by some of my best childhood friends in the world, all of us Laker fans. I see the Woj bomb light up on my phone that after weeks of negotiating, we finally got him. AD ON THE WAY. I have the video reaction of Henry finding out the news and immediately breaking into dance out of pure excitement… But then the details of the rest of the trade settled in. The doubts crept in again – had we given up too much? Did Rob overpay, the same way we overpaid for players like with Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng? I know that comparison for AD seems ridiculous now, but as a Laker Die Hard, following the team so closely for so long, I had trust issues!

Those trust issues weren’t alleviated when Kawhi made one of the stealthiest free agent maneuvers ever by convincing the Clippers to trade for Paul George, all while stalling the Lakers and getting our hopes up in the process. The result was a very questionable and hasty cast of signings, headlined by Danny Green and DeMarcus Cousins. It seemed like we hadn’t learned from the mistakes of the year before, and it was difficult to envision how this team was going to fit together, especially without much to alleviate the issue of three-point shooting.

When DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL in August, I was crushed. He was the potential X-factor and number 3 option that defined the Big 3 style of the 2010 decade, and I didn’t know if I trusted Kyle Kuzma to be that guy (to be fair I was right on that one). The most painful part of that injury was looking at the free-agent list for centers to replace him. It killed me that there was a clear best option and that that option was ex-Laker Dwight Howard. Believe me when I say this was definitively my least favorite player since 2013 (when he left us). This was the bitter relationship with the ex-girlfriend who left you out of nowhere.

Finally, when the whole Daryl Morey China Fiasco occurred, it set an ominous tone to the season. I didn’t even comprehend it at the time, but I can’t even imagine the mental toll it took on the team, while they were stuck in China, not sure if they were going to be able to go home. It was also a reminder that being on a LeBron James team meant the spotlight was always on you. Magnified by the fact that this was the Lakers, and, it felt like people were waiting to see us fail again.

 

A new level of fandom

I present this elaborate backstory of doubt and uncertainty to set the stage for how I was feeling going into the season… because when the practice footage started rolling in and the preseason games started, even in the limited minutes, I started to realize that something was different. Anthony Davis was everything he was supposed to be and more. LeBron was dialed in from day one on both sides of the floor in a way he hadn’t been since Game 1 of the 2018 finals (the infamous JR Smith game and perhaps James’ greatest performance of all time). They weren’t perfect at this point or even considered a contender, but there was a hunger and focus to this team that I hadn’t seen in a full decade.

Losing the opening game against the Paul George-less Clippers was definitely a bummer, but in a poetic way, it set the tone for this season. A team that always bounces back and takes care of the job. A team that’s only lost back to back games twice before the season shut down and never in the playoffs. A team that is truly “next-man-up” and will cheer for their teammates on the bench as they figure the other team out. A team that stands alone in history – never losing a game with a lead going into the fourth quarter (re-read that stat a few more times). The moment that made me realize the resilience of this team was the Mavericks on the road when LeBron made the perfect baseline drive pass to Danny Green, who pump-faked it on Seth Curry and sniped a three to send it to OT, where the Lakers eventually won.

And so gradually, the doubt eroded and the confidence started to build. Sure there were moments like the 4-game losing stretch around Christmas (including to the Bucks and Clippers) where the noise around losing to the best teams rang in our ears. But not even thinking “title or bust” yet, something I realized was that despite being an obsessive NBA fan for years and years, there was a new level of joy I felt following this team that I’ve never experienced before. Like I remember the huge smile on my face walking home one night from the library in the freezing Wisconsin winter. Even though I spent the whole night studying for final exams, all I could think about was the between the legs pass in transition from LeBron to Dwight for the monster dunk against the Atlanta Hawks. I mean when was the last time I cared so much about a Hawks away game in Mid-December?

This obsession with this team grew more and more each game. Going back home to Los Angeles over Winter break and being able to see LeBron and AD in person with my Dad and with my friends, grew it even more. The gratitude looking back and knowing that I got to see a championship team player in person is overwhelming. Spending a night in watching Lakers-Rockets with loved ones was all I could want. The Lakers were rolling and LeBron was breaking all-time records. I thought there was no way I could be more invested in a season.

January 26, 2020

The hardest day of 2020 for me. I was sitting in my room on a Sunday afternoon, doing work in the kitchen when I got the texts in my home group chat. “Wtf”, “Kobe”. I got that weird chill run through me when my roommate knocked on the door. I quickly and silently opened the door. The weirdest thing is I felt like I already knew what happened before I even read the rest of the texts. As the door shut behind me, I heard my phone start to light up. Facetime Call from my computer and phone, my phone buzzing with texts. Walking back to my computer, I already started to feel the numbness. I couldn’t even brace myself for the worst. I Googled ‘Kobe’ and there it was. TMZ: “Kobe Bryant Dead, Dies in Helicopter Crash”.

At the time it was just a report. Part of me genuinely held onto that belief that it wasn’t possible. I mean this was the toughest, most invincible player. For some reason, my mind jumped to where I was when he tore his Achilles. I was at my friend Brad’s house, with our friend Ben, rushing home for the Laker game after watching 42, the Jackie Robinson biographical film starring Chadwick Boseman (RIP). Somehow I remember that detail because it was such a vivid, embedded memory of my childhood – the day Kobe was injured and was never the same athlete, yet always the same unbreakable legend. I still get goosebumps watching him hit both free throws.

I hit refresh over and over again, hoping that something would change. I thought of the day I was with my friend Henry and we heard that Lamar Odom, a family friend of his, died. Surely if he, another legendary Laker of my childhood, could escape death, so would the most iconic person of my childhood. But nothing on the website changed. It was when I got the Woj or Shams Twitter update that Kobe had passed that I finally whispered to my roommate sitting blissfully behind me, watching TV, that Kobe had died.

I don’t remember too much after that. I just remember curling up in my bed too shocked and dizzy to comprehend what happened. To be honest, I don’t even know if I cried. I had never experienced a significant loss I was old enough to remember and this was the closest thing I’ve had. I just laid in bed for an hour, thinking about my favorite Kobe memories, in particular his last game ever, which I was lucky enough to watch in person with my Dad. I tried to concentrate on that game so hard that I would forget that he was gone.

My two forms of communication were texting my friends from home taking a minute to not take life for granted and a quick call to my Dad, where I think we were both too in shock to realize what happened. The pain-staking updates from a strength trainer on the team of the chilling whispers and muted tears in the Lakers team plane headed home from Philadelphia, only made me feel more numb. Finally, the next morning when I woke up, it all hit; I cried uncontrollably with the raw realization that this person who I’ve never met was gone forever, and so selfishly, I’d never get the chance to tell him what he meant to me.

LeBron becomes a true Laker, Kobe’s shadow looms over the league

I felt strongly that if you didn’t support LeBron when he came to the Lakers just because he was rivals with Kobe, you are not a Laker fan. You are a Kobe fan, but you are not a Laker fan and those are two very different things. That being said, I’ll acknowledge that year one of LeBron in LA, I couldn’t say I quite felt like he was a Laker. I had his jersey, and I knew he was the face of the franchise, but he wasn’t necessarily a Laker, the same way you think of the ten legends hanging up in the rafters. I’d even go as far as to say, after year one, his jersey was closer to Karl Malone, Gary Payton, and Dennis Rodman’s than the nine players hanging in the rafters. By the way, that’s more a testament to how hard it is to be a Laker legend than an insult to LeBron’s 2018 season. The point is, realistically, Laker nation hadn’t fully embraced him yet.

But that night against the Portland Trailblazers, the first game after Kobe’s death, when LeBron stood before the Staples crowd, fighting off tears and talking off-script about what Kobe meant to him and the city of Los Angeles, I knew: LeBron has officially become an all-time Laker for this. There was no one I trusted more to carry the burden of the Laker franchise than him. He became the heir to the Laker torch that Kobe left when he retired. That night was a symbol of how important Kobe was to the city and how woven he is into the DNA of Los Angeles. I’ll forever cherish the pictures and videos from that game my friend Nick and his mother, Irena, sent me. That, plus a picture of Kobe’s jersey hanging in the sky, my sister sent me, were nice reminders that even if I wasn’t home, LA was a community I’d always be part of and they were mourning his death with me. That day, my hometown and Laker fandom became rooted even deeper in my identity.

As a basketball fan, though the days following his death were some of the hardest days of my life, it was surrounded by so much good. I got to relive highlights I hadn’t seen in years, appreciate heartfelt posts from athletes across the world, explaining what Kobe meant to them, and I got to see the amazing tributes in the game of basketball (the 8 and 24-second violations, the All-Star Game tributes, the amazing scoring performances by Trae Young wearing #8, Khris Middleton, Eric Gordon, Westbrook, Kyrie, and Damian Lillard – just to name a few). On a more personal level, the number of texts from my friends everywhere – especially the ones away in Europe, meant more than they’ll ever know at the time.

Like historians of the game remember Kobe, it was often about the passion and spirit of what he meant that were his biggest impact on his game and on future generations than necessarily the counting stats or efficiency. And that spirit really elevated the 2020 Lakers and our fanbase. All of a sudden, we had an added pressure to win, and while most teams in this situation would have crumbled in the pressure, this team truly responded with Mamba Mentality and thrived under the pressure. When LeBron hit the right-wing fade-away jumper against the Celtics in Staples with a minute left to win the game, I was sitting next to my friend Peter, a Boston fan, smirking to myself thinking “Kobe!”, in the voice you use when you’re throwing a piece of paper into a trash can. When playing in New Orleans, AD completely silenced the haters and doubters, just like Kobe would do in the closing seconds of a roaring road arena.

And my favorite moment of the season was the weekend of March 6th, when we beat the Bucks and Clippers back to back games (not to mention the 76ers days before). I remember the people watching with me wondering why I was so excited (my Wisconsin friends who are Bucks fans thought I was just rubbing it in), but it was really because these were the most meaningful regular-season games I’ve ever witnessed. These were the final stamps needed to go into the postseason as a legit contender. I didn’t even care about the LeBron/Giannis MVP narrative starting to take shape. All that mattered was that this team had a real chance, and that’s all I could ever ask for as a fan.

The Pandemic Hits

The hardest thing about abruptly losing basketball was the lack of closure to the season. It went from a tweet about the OKC game being delayed to the whole NBA being suspended, after Rudy Gobert tested positive for Coranvirus, in a quick hour and a half. If the season just ended, there was solitude in beating the two other favorites right before the shutdown. If there was a guarantee there’d be a playoff down the road, that would be the thing to look forward to. But it was complete uncertainty what was going to happen – was this a 2-week shutdown or something longer? A question for more than just the NBA.

That’s one of my favorite things about sports – in the grand scheme of life, it really doesn’t matter who wins or loses a game that kids play, but sports can be an excellent lens for us to analyze life and our society. They can be a barometer on how our country deals with issues and looks at life. We can take away lessons and inspiration from them that affect us in more than just an athletic setting.

Looking back at those times of strict lockdown in March and April, it’s ironic that even though no live sports were going on, sports still brought me some of my biggest joys in this new normal everyday life. Living in my apartment with no roommates home, reliving old games were opportunities to remove myself from the pandemic and get distracted for a few hours, appreciating something I’ve always taken for granted.

Nothing was more exciting than the release of the “Last Dance.” My anticipation for those episodes every Sunday was on par with my excitement for Laker playoff games. My day revolved around the countdown to 8:00 PM CST, so I could run across the hall and watch the new episode that night with my friend (and TLSM co-owner), Logan. Through the legend of Michael Jordan, we’d contrast those 90’s Bulls to players and teams in the modern age. There was even a sense of normalcy on NBA Twitter, as we’d text and tweet Last Dance memes to each other throughout the week. The best part was internalizing that Jordan alpha-dog mentality into everything I did that week, whether it was: Spikeball, 2K games with my friends Jordan and Scott (note the irony), going on a run, or even lighting up cigars on my virtual college graduation.

The Bubble

Flash forward several months later and after months of pessimism towards the plan, the NBA finally pulled off the bubble. In came the pictures of the small hotel rooms, sub-par food, lake fishing, and JJ Reddick/Meyers Leonard shotgunning videos. Finally returning home, there was probably nothing closer to Basketball Nirvana, than being able to watch NBA from 10 AM until dinner time. One of the things that I’ll be most grateful for this year was the chance to spend so much time with my friends, Dad, and Grandma sharing the experience of watching the restart with them.

On a deeper level, it also gave me a sense of pride to feel part of what I believe is the best-run league in the world. Adam Silver and his team were role models for this country, in terms of their planning and execution through the pandemic. The success of the bubble is something I will always marvel at and use as inspiration, as I aspire to one day work in the league office and grow the game even further, on a global scale.

The 2020 Lakers Playoff Run

Even with the longest season in NBA history, a shutdown killing their momentum, losing home court advantage, the loss of starter and defensive ace Avery Bradley from their Orlando roster, the China debacle, and of course, Kobe’s death, the 2020 Lakers still had more struggles ahead of them in the bubble.

First, from all accounts there, this was the most mentally and emotionally taxing championship run of all time. This was not a challenge unique to the Lakers, but the isolation from not having family members there for over a month, accompanied by the stagnant environment around them, took a huge toll on every single person there. This struggle was well expressed by Paul George, who revealed the depression and anxiety that he felt during the playoffs. Despite his lackluster playoff performance, I admire his candidness about the Bubble situation, emblematic of the struggle all players were feeling. Fans should empathize with how the isolation, magnified stronger by social media, would justifiably impact players’ performance. Not only the players, but media members strongly echoed this suffocating feeling of isolation. In retrospect, from this aspect alone, I believe that the bubble should not be seen with an asterisk but a badge of honor for the mental fortitude needed to concentrate nearly 100 days away in the bubble.

Second, it can’t be stated how much the emotional toll was to carry the burden of raising awareness for social justice issues in America. Even before the bubble started, players like Kyrie Irving and Dwight Howard expressed the valid uncertainty of whether the league should play. While ridiculed at the time, what many hungry NBA fans failed to recognize (including myself) was the frustration the players would feel isolated in the bubble not being able to do anything to help their communities. It all came to a boil on August 26th, when the Bucks decided to protest their game against the Orlando Magic, in light of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, leading to a series of protests across all sports.

Through reading and listening to different reporters, my biggest takeaway was the exhaustion and frustration being the main cause of the strike. Players like George Hill were not necessarily even trying to make a political stance. It was just exhaustion. An anonymous player explained that after hearing the news, all he could do was wonder how we lived in a world where players like LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, some of the most powerful Black men in the world (not just in sports), could not be able to stop these recurring tragedies in their own country. The survivor’s guilt of being isolated in Orlando, especially for the Milwaukee Bucks who live less than an hour from Kenosha, without a way to help the situation or even hug their kids in these dark moments was depleting. How could we, as fans, reasonably expect them to play a game when all of this guilt was anchoring them down?

Third, while the 16-5 playoff record would suggest that the Lakers didn’t have too many challenges, entering every round, the outlook wasn’t so rosy going in. The scene after the 3-5 regular season bubble record was bleak, even with the caveat of them minutes restricting starters. Whether the noise from the doubters was valid or not, it rang in our ears.

After the loss after Game 1 in the first round, the chatter and broomsticks immediately came out, with declarations of Portland being the best 8 seed of all time. While we went on to quickly solve them in the next four games, the second round Game 1 brought up the same criticisms. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight software even gave the Lakers only a 35% chance to beat the Rockets. Even my favorite NBA analyst, Zach Lowe, called the series a toss-up. But that series, the Lakers once again problem-solved. One thing that emerged was the willingness for the Lakers and Frank Vogel’s ability to change their style and rotation – from the huge, physical lineup used throughout the regular season, to an agile small-ball lineup starring Anthony Davis at center and mid-season buy-out Markieff Morris. Furthermore, Javale and Dwight cheering on the bench reflected a team with no-egos, a team that just wanted to see each other win.

This strength was tested even more in the next round, as the Lakers faced two offensive juggernauts in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Luckily, the Rockets series allowed Frank Vogel to solidify a playoff rotation that was still flexible enough to adjust given the matchup. The biggest question of the team the whole year – who would be the three other players to support LeBron and AD in clutch moments was finally answered. Simply dependent on the matchup. While that question lingered all season, as the Lakers struggled with different lineups, what those failures gave us was the opportunity to become comfortable playing multiple styles – traditional centers, small-ball, all wings, Rondo/LeBron, etc. Contrast that to the Clippers who had the same level of versatility but not the chemistry and trust to make it all fit together because of their limited minutes together. The buy-in from top to bottom, from star players to the coaching staff, was ultimately what distinguished the two LA teams.

Though the Nuggets series ended in five games, what a formidable opponent they were. Game 4 was an absolute war, one of the closest games I’ve ever watched. It was the type of conference finals matchup that brought the best out of us – think 2000 Trailblazers or 2002 Sacramento Kings. Hard to say where that Anthony Davis buzzer-beater will go down in all-time Laker shots, but it now has to be in air comparable with Robert Horry’s three or the Kobe-Shaq alley-oop over Rasheed Wallace. This was the biggest shot since Ron Artest’s three in Game 7 of the 2010 finals! Role players like Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard got their big redemption moments too – big-time performances that made all those doubts of them being two washed-up former all-stars no longer capable of still playing in the league, all seem ridiculous.

But still, after 12 wins and the Western Conference title, the job was not finished. The Miami Heat remained, and though they weren’t the most talented team in the East, they were by far the toughest, best-coached, and hungriest team out there. The narrative of Heat culture was used throughout the series, and even as a fan of the opposing team, it was impossible to deny and admire. Driven by true leadership and a military-level of work ethic, this organization, led by Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, paired with a roster full of killers all hungry with a chip on their shoulder, had me stressed from the moment I woke up every game day. The desire to win personified by Riley, Spoelstra, and Jimmy Butler made me never want to count them out.

Game 5 where Jimmy put up 35-12-11 on LeBron who had 40-13-7 was an all-time performance and perhaps the best one-on-one battle of LeBron’s long playoff career. The fearlessness of Robinson, Herro, and Crowder along with the toughness displayed by Dragic and Adebayo to fight through injuries will earn my respect forever. But finally in the end, Game 6, the Lakers brought one of the best defensive masterpieces in franchise history and cemented their name in the history books as the winner of the bubble and the winner of the longest season of all time.

The Most Meaningful Championship of All Time

Even before the Lakers won the title, I texted my old teammate Henry that I would always consider this the most meaningful championship of all time. In a year where the entire planet was devastated, the joy and inspiration from something that we used to take for granted became more meaningful than ever. The 2020 playoffs will always have a special spot in the lore of basketball history – the Bubble, Damian Lillard’s heroism carrying his team to the play-in game, the undefeated Suns, Luka’s playoff debut and game-winner, Harden’s block against OKC, Donovon Mitchell vs. Jamal Murray, OG Anunoby’s 3, the Clippers blowing a 3-1 lead, the Heat shocking the East, and Jimmy Butler’s all-time Finals series. These were just a few moments in a Playoffs that will forever be remembered in a unique light – the ending to the longest season in NBA history.

For Laker fans, a great embodiment of what the franchise went through the last 17 months is through the perspective of Jeanie Buss, the first female controlling owner to win a championship. In almost a month-span, Jeanie lost a dear friend in Kobe Bryant, a mentor in David Stern, and her mother JoAnn. In a year that has had so many people suffer and millions lose someone special in their lives, Jeanie represented all of us, not just Los Angeles. The way she carried herself after the start to this year, I’m certain she made all three of them so proud, especially her beloved father. While not everyone wanted to believe in the narrative that this championship was for Kobe, it didn’t have to be the sole reason to want to win. The team clearly had Kobe in their minds, as they broke every huddle yelling “Mamba on three”, but this championship was not just for him, it was for all the people who have impacted our lives. Everyone who ‘left a legacy’.

This team had so much to fight for and to prove. LeBron carried the burden of picking up a franchise that lost their hero. Anthony Davis fought for his first big brother in the league and proved he had the inner Mamba-killer in him that everyone doubted he had. Role players, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Danny Green,  Kyle Kuzma and JaVale McGee all season fought the doubts of a fan base that demands the best and became stars in their specific roles. Quinn Cook won a championship for his father, who was a die-hard Laker fan. And finally, Rob Pelinka, who didn’t speak for a week, haunted by the death of his best friend, could look up into the sky and be sure that he made him proud.

Championships are truly the hardest thing to accomplish in sports, but the best part about them is when you finally win one, your name hangs with the banners forever. Job’s finally finished. As the play-by-play announcer, John Ireland, declared as the final buzzer sounded, “In a year we all thought we wanted to forget, the Lakers give us something to remember forever.”

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About Nathan Yeh

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