This is the third of a series of articles from each member of the Lakerholics editorial team recounting how this crazy and unprecedented year and NBA season personally impacted and affected them. Thanks to Blog Editor Sean Grice for suggesting and inspiring the series. We invite every Lakerholic to comment and let us know how this wacky year hit you and yours.
Sometimes it takes a miracle to remind everyone hard times won’t last and a bright light to scare away the constant nightmares. For haunted Lakers fans, the 2020 NBA championship was that shining beacon of light and hope.
Devastated by the death of Kobe, trapped in a never ending pandemic, and submerged in a wave of racial and political injustice, Lakers basketball was our chance to escape to a bubble world where dreams could come true. That was a world where the only worry was losing the game, where the virus didn’t exist, where demands for justice could be heard, challenges could be won and wishes granted, and playing the right way was always rewarded.
Those who know me understand I’m an incurable optimist, a glass half full zealot, and a proselyte of silver linings in every cloud. But I’m also a realist who knows things sometimes have to get worse before they can get better. That’s my lesson for the younger readers of today when it comes to the last ten years of Lakers basketball or last four years of the Trump presidency. That’s just how life works. One step backwards before two steps forward.
My love journey with basketball began when my family moved to Southern California from Wisconsin in 1956. All I played growing up in the midwest was baseball and football. Nobody played basketball in those farm towns. Dropped into suburban SoCal, I quickly discovered basketball was not only the game I loved to play but also the sport which would dominate my life as I played dawn to dusk on asphalt courts with metal backboards and nets.
I developed into a fair high school point guard, started my share of games, made it to a couple of CIF playoffs, played some AAU ball, was never good enough to play college basketball, but became a lifelong basketball junkie. You know me, the guy who opened the high school gym on Saturdays, organized teams in the local summer league, was always willing to ref in the rec league, drove all over SoCal looking for the best gym and games.
I grew up listening to Chick Hearn and modeled my game and shot after Jerry West but didn’t became a Lakers fan until they traded for Wilt in 1970. I’m proud to now have seen all twelve of the Lakers’ championships in L.A. My wife Teresa and I raised a son, grandson, and two granddaughters to love the Lakers and the game of basketball as much as we did. Not an easy thing to do in NorCal with Steph and the Dubs winning championships.
In my years as a Lakers fan, I’ve had many heroes but Kobe was the one who won my heart. I will never forget that morning when I heard he and his daughter and others had died on the way to a basketball tournament. Ironically, I was in the car with my granddaughters Alexa and Mia, both of whom wear 24 on their jerseys, on the way to a basketball tournament where I was coaching them, just like Kobe and Gigi and her teammates.
I remember huddling with the other coaches and the refs and talking about the tragedy and whether or not to continue to play when my granddaughter Mia said we should still play because “that’s what Kobe would have wanted.” The next week was filled with tears but also wonderful memories of how Kobe had embraced girls’ basketball for his daughters as I had for Alexa and Mia. Kobe never smiled more or seemed happier than those last few years.
I’ve lived long enough that losing friends and heroes has become the norm but losing them before their time hurts more because of the loved ones left behind. I’m not a religious person but I do pray for Vanessa and her kids. While I don’t believe in God, I do believe in Karma and watching LeBron accept the responsibility of being the new face of the Lakers gave me chills. I knew then the Lakers were going to win the championship for Kobe.
Everything was coming up purple and gold as the season approached the home stretch and the Lakers easily beat the Bucks and the Clippers, their main two competitors, in a back-to-back weekend sweep in early March. Those wins catapulted the Lakers to the top of all of the power rankings and had them closing in on earning the number one seed in the playoffs when Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus and everything changed.
Suddenly, America and the world were at war with a pandemic like we had never before seen with with tens of millions becoming infected and a million dying as the reality emerged that the world would be irrevocably changed. The economic fallout only exacerbated the tragedy as millions of jobs and businesses were lost. Then, on top of everything, came a series of horrific racial injustices that triggered an overdue reckoning of systemic racism.
The Lakers and basketball disappeared under the chaotic waves from the coronavirus pandemic horrors and racial justice reckoning that swept the country and became the catalyst in an all out war for the soul of America. There were long periods of time over the next four dark and difficult months when it seemed impossible to imagine the NBA or any professional sports season being resumed or started in the middle of everything happening.
But history has shown us chaos often breeds creativity and the NBA and NBPA came up with an innovative concept to resume the 2020 season in a safe bubble in Orlando and an inspired world class plan to make it happen. With dedicated leadership and execution, the NBA was able to finish the 2020 season, keep every player, coach, and worker in the bubble safe from Covid-19, and crown a league champion after a successful playoffs.
For beleaguered basketball and Lakers fans, the NBA bubble not only provided them with an escape from the drudgery life in the pandemic had become but also a sense of optimism intelligent management could prevail. Considering the federal government’s abject failure to properly manage the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA’s ability to successfully pull off the bubble restored hopes a change in our top leadership could defeat the pandemic.
In the end, that’s what leadership is all about, creating and executing plans to make things better. It’s exactly what NBA’s Adam Silver and the NBPA’s Michele Roberts did to make the bubble succeed and save the 2020 season. It’s also what VPBO Rob Pelinka, head coach Frank Vogel, and co-captains LeBron James and Anthony Davis did to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to their 17th NBA championship despite no fans or home court advantage.
My son, daughter-in-law, grandson, and two granddaughters live next door to us in Mill Valley but it’s been over six months since my wife or I have been able to hug or hold them close because of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, we talk through sliding glass doors, FaceTime them on our phones, and enjoy socially distanced and masked picnics at empty beaches and parks or wherever we can find enough space outdoors to be gather safely.
Our morning runs on the bike path have been replaced by an hour on the treadmill and exercise bike in the garage and our trips to restaurants and grocery stores by the ubiquitous deliveries from DoorDash and Instacart. But we’re the lucky ones because we own our home and are retired with money in the bank. We can’t be evicted or have our home foreclosed. We don’t have to risk going to work every day. We didn’t suffer losing our jobs.
I’m still enjoying the glow of the Lakers’ 17th championship and beacon of light that shone through the shear hopelessness and fear of the future the pandemic failures, racial injustices, and Trump presidency have spawned. Preparing to vote for the soul of our country, I have the same inspired feeling I had when LeBron took the baton after Kobe’ death. The beacon of light that led to the Lakers’ championship will also shine brightly on Tuesday.