I’ve spent the last two years hating the Heat and now I should loathe the Lakers. The only problem is that I absolutely love the Lakers.
I have loved the Lakers since Chick Hearn called the jello jiggly, since Fletch made through the legs lay-ups, since Magic Johnson’s mythological forum club orgies with the Laker girls, Arsenio, and Eddie Murphy. I have suffered through the Smush Parker and Sedale Threatt eras and rejoiced while doing the Madsen mash. I have never subscribed to the theory of liberated fandom because no Lakers fan has ever subscribed to the theory of liberated fandom. You don’t need to abandon your squad for the first pretty fast break when all you do is win.
If the Miami Heat weren’t obviously the DJ Khaled of NBA franchises (obnoxious, garish and propelled by a deal with the devil), the Lakers would be the next logical candidate. Their acquisition of Dwight Howard was less surprise than eventuality. Los Angeles is more gravitational vortex than metropolis — should you possess any trace of narcissism, you will wind up with a studio apartment in Studio City faster than you can say Vivid Video. But All-NBA centers are built to buck the odds. They carry girls on shoulders at the Playboy mansion and star in straight-to-DVD films. On closer inspection, things may be closer than they appear.
I admire achievement, but I am not obligated to applaud success. Achievement is the exceeding of expectations. But even if the Lakers sweep the playoffs, it will feel as though they obtained the Larry O’Brien trophy through an NBA Live cheat code. It is plastic surgery, a two-year fix before they have to re-up for some rare German silicone (Kobe can help). It feels like they’re the NBA equivalent of kids who played “Duck Hunt” with the gun three inches from the screen.
Of course, the Lakers have played this game before. Jerry Buss has spent half of his life at well drink casinos in Gardena. He understands the emotional politics of poker and the power of leverage. The Magic never will. No one ever believes them when they’re bluffing. Nor can I mourn for Orlando. Had they not tried to dump Jason Richardson’s contract, there’s a reasonable chance they could’ve acquired Pau Gasol and Bynum. Instead, the franchise revealed the depth of its abandonment issues. They freaked out that Bynum would bail just like the last hot guy and the one before that and got stuck with a few protected draft picks and some hot cheetos and takis.
Can you really blame Dwight Howard? The Lakers have Jack Nicholson sitting front row, championship banners on the ceiling, and hundreds of producers in the audience desperate to hang out with replacement Shaq. The cleverest thing he ever did was lie about not wanting to come here. He saw what happened to LeBron and relied on the virtues of mixed messages. The guy had been rehabbing in town all summer, is maybe dating Ciara, and is roughly 15 minutes ago from making his film debut as a rapping vampire. Not to mention, this is his best chance to win a championship. The only cool thing Dwight Howard got to do in Orlando was bring his butter beer on the Harry Potter ride.
You can easily make the case that this is good news for any NBA fan that doesn’t live in Florida, Boston or Oklahoma City. Ratings and narrative complexity will rise. The NBA has the most legitimately great teams since the early 90s, when the Bad Boys, Bulls, Trail Blazers, and Lakers all were at or near their apex. The 76ers and Nuggets are improved. Even spurned Cavaliers fans can celebrate that King James might be checked.
So why do I feel like I’m rooting for Mr.
Burns Buss to block the sun? The Lakers have snatched another team’s superstar center four times over the last 45 years — five if you count Pau Gasol — and the Howard deal may have been the closest thing to equal value. You can’t exactly blame this on a collective violation of the social compact either. After all, Kareem demanded to spend about 52 weeks on Venice Beach 40 years ago. In any free market, the exceptionally skilled deserve right to dictate where they want to live. No one ever wrote an essay about an investment banker’s traitorous decision to flee Cleveland for South Beach.
But there is something fatalistic about the Lakers landing Dwight Howard. It makes me feel like the game is rigged and I am in cahoots with those rigging the game. And no one wants to be in cahoots. It’s one of the worst hoots possible. What’s weirdest is the numb actuality that everyone knows the fix is in and no one knows how or really wants to unfix it. We worship success and the Lakers are the most consistent franchise in the history of professional sports. They are the city’s public trust, the dynastic undead.
With the NBA, we have agreed to suspend our sense of willful disbelief. Superstars can and will stack teams until a collective bargaining agreement redresses it. Forget the purity of sport. The Olympics are over. No one will ever demand a trade to Utah. It is the 1 percent logic applied to athletics. Your team will lose and you are told that it’s the culture that makes the difference. We all secretly want to believe that the ping pong balls will bounce our way, and the success of small market Oklahoma City provides enough of glimmer for people to say, “SEE!”
David Stern’s veto of the Chris Paul trade was a panic move, hastily made in the uncertain aftermath of the lockout. Who believes that the commissioner doesn’t want the league’s most glamorous franchise to make a deep playoff run every year? He’s already doing the Birdman hand rub at the thought of the Christmas Day schedule. Plus, no other sport has managed to turn the offseason into pure spectacle. Every summer, the media feasts on rumors and hearsay surrounding the trade demands of this year’s “alienated” superstar. This is pure capitalistic achievement. The lights never have to go off. The factory is always clanking. You’re probably as guilty as me — dying for the season to start and scrounging blogs for signings and half-baked speculation.
The trade may even out the balance of power, but it simultaneously tests my faith. Only religion is more irrational than sports, and both are vessels for our ideas about the ideal. Each theoretically comes with its own social contract, one at odds with the crass inequities of day-to-day existence. We violated it a long time ago and this makes me remember. It’s the jackpot at the loaded slot. As a fan, all I had ever hoped for was to be surprised.
Go Lakers. I guess.