Andrew Rafner is a recently liberated fan and writer from Los Angeles. He owns two Sasha Vujacic jerseys and isn’t sorry about it.
This past Sunday night, I was able to be witness to a pretty big moment as far as the NBA goes — I got to be in the building as Dwight Howard took the court for the first time in perhaps the most vaulted and exalted position in the game, starting center for the Los Angeles Lakers.
At this point, I’m fairly sure we can agree that it would be wasted breath to remind you that this is a mantle that has been occupied by the some of the best big men to ever play the game. It’s true, Laker history will show you a veritable who’s who of legendary centers, both the ones you can think of off the top of your head. Your Mikans, Shaqs, Wilts and Kareems. But the record will also show some more esoteric entries, like Bob McAdoo, a former league MVP who joined the Lakers in the early-80s to play a key role on two championship teams, and Vlade Divac, the patient-zero for what would be a mega-influx of European players in the decades to come, not to mention the bargaining chip that landed the Lakers a mostly unknown superskinny high-schooler named after a variety of steak in the summer of 1996.
We all get it. Laker centers are cool and most of the time really good. Their newest addition, Dwight Howard, is unquestionably worthy of the acclaim: a six-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year and lynchpin of a 2009 Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic team that was rounded out by the likes of Rafer Alston, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu (to be fair, all playing out of their minds). Dwight Howard is an elite center. Yes, yes and yes. But that isn’t what any of this is about. This is about what wasn’t being talked about at Staples Center on Sunday night.
As Dwight Howard entered to a sea of cheers and adulation that moved him to the point of tears, not a soul in the gathered crowd of the 18,997 on hand mentioned Andrew Bynum. Not one No. 17 jersey in the stands. Not one person said they missed him and not one kid cried cause his old favorite was gone, as I did in 1998 in a Jack in the Box parking lot the night Eddie Jones was traded. And it was this whitewashing of Andrew Bynum and what he had once represented to the Los Angeles Lakers that struck me as totally weird, and not because I think Andrew Bynum is better than Dwight Howard in any measurable way and definitely not because I missed him, as previously published opinions will support.
It was weird because it seemed as if for the last seven years, I had to defend my opinion to Laker fans Internet-wide that Andrew Bynum had way more Elden Campbell in him than Shaquille O’Neal. As I thought about the collective selective amnesia that had ravaged Staples Center as Dwight Howard effortlessly scored 19 points and pulled down 12 rebounds, I settled on a disturbing truth that has existed for my entire existence as a fervent supporter of the Los Angeles Lakers.
And that is that the general fanbase of the Los Angeles Lakers is really fucking stupid.
I’ll say it again in an effort to be sure my opinion is fully understood: The general fanbase of the Los Angeles Lakers is really fucking stupid. Now, before you start closing browser windows and calling for my resignation as a denizen of the Greater Los Angeles area and for my father’s season tickets that he has held since 1982 to be vacated, let me explain myself. In my years as part of the Laker fan community, I have heard some awfully ridiculous things about players and the organization as a whole. From Andrew Bynum being “the future of the franchise” despite his inability to remain on the court due to injuries and a crippling case of shittitude to the notion that Shannon Brown was somehow heir apparent to Kobe Bryant simply because he had a couple incredible dunks where he jumped slightly higher than normal dunkers.
Then there were the numerous articles about how Phil Jackson was losing his edge as head coach and that he needed to be fired, first in 2007 after consecutive playoff ousters to the Phoenix Suns. And then again in 2008 after the Lakers lost to Boston after an improbable Finals run. And then shockingly, impossibly again after back-to-back NBA Championships in 2009 and 2010 and then being undercut by his own team’s dickishness in 2011, sending the greatest coach in NBA history into his ungentle goodnight while watching Andrew Bynum crosscheck JJ Barea into Fort Worth.
Laker fans even like to call seldom used guard Andrew Goudelock, a pretty nondescript second-round pick in 2011 who averaged 4 points in 10 minutes per last season, “Mini Mamba.” Yes, that Andrew Goudelock. A tiny, itty-bitty Kobe.
When the Lakers brought over 6-foot-9 Sun Yue from China, fresh off a tepid performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the huddled masses in LA exalted the lanky point guard from the Far East with comparisons to none other than Magic Johnson. After 10 regular season games, a rocky relationship with Chinese supermodel Gu Chen that was hallmarked by a mononucleosis scandal and a lot of time hanging out with Adam Morrison, Yue was gone, having barely made a whimper.
Similarly, when the Lakers dealt for Ramon Sessions last March while dumping folk hero Derek Fisher, the generally agreed upon position out of Lakerland was that this was the best point guard the Lakers had had under their employ since, wait for it, MAGIC FUCKING JOHNSON. Furthermore, Fisher, who’s penchant for big plays and history of maximizing a skill set rife with holes that had been a part of five Laker championships, was hot garbage. Not surprisingly, after three months of typically middling Ramon Sessions basketball, his option was declined and he was left to fade to obscurity in Charlotte, far away from the pathologically insane expectations Los Angeles Laker fans seem to throw around with little to no regard for reality or any modicum of basketball sense.
Laker fans remember when it’s convenient and forget almost always.
It is this is the kind of attitude that files in and out of Staples Center 41 nights a year. The attitude that posits that simply by virtue of wearing the Forum Blue and Gold that you have been bestowed some kind of seal of approval from the basketball gods. Laker fans tend to look through the most distorted of fan-biased lenses. Anyone in their uniform is the next fill-in-the-blank, and having to admit that they may not be is an admission that the Lakers are fallible and that someone, somewhere could possibly be better. To Laker fans — and to a small degree, the organization itself — this is the worst case scenario of anything ever.
And this is where Andrew Bynum comes back in. The cheers lavished upon Dwight Howard used to be for Bynum. For the last seven years, it was Bynum who was the predestined fifth head on that Laker Center Mount Rushmore. It was Bynum who was coddled and pandered to and the great hope of the state. And suddenly, now that a man truly worthy of his place on that mountain had arrived, Laker fans tried to bury their secret shame for having believed that if they built Andrew Bynum up high enough, maybe, just maybe he would reach their near unreachable expectations.
Their time defending and lionizing another fraud had reached it’s end, only to be buried in the annals with the others who had come before him — the once and future kings of Lakerland, faded and fated to become castaways and cutouts. The true savior was here now. The one finally deserving of the kind reverence and celebration Laker fans had casually and regularly accorded on those far less deserving had arrived only to hear the din of the crowd falsely shout as they had for the endless line of frauds that had come before.
Stay golden, D-Ho. Stay pure. These fans are a fickle lot that aim to rip your body apart and leave you pining for that one special and emotional night you took the court as a Laker for the first time.