As Kobe Bryant wandered off the American Airlines Center floor yesterday afternoon, he had to be asking himself “Why?” He was on his own, free to give a hug to Dallas coach Rick Carlisle and accept some words from DeShawn Stevenson. But he was alone. Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom were already in the locker room, ejected for boyishly acting closer to embarrassed 13-year-olds than two-time defending champions. Pau Gasol had mentally checked out over a week earlier, worn down from endless speculation and gossip, worn out from years of people questioning his toughness. Phil Jackson had both feet out the door, and was already entrenched in the Montana wilderness by the time his postgame press conference started. The Zen was gone, all but disappeared for a team that just a week ago was aiming to grab a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals. Why did it have to end like this? It all came so abruptly, the funeral no one saw.
Death is never an easy thing. And like the Lakers learned this past week, the warning signs are hard. You don’t want to believe them. Believe them now L.A. They are real.
This never felt like a true Laker team. They were fractured more than anything else, completely spent from three-plus years of basketball together. In close games this season, they were awful. There was no trust. There was no togetherness. We should’ve seen this coming.
Even when he accepted the Lakers’ head coaching job in the summer of 1999, Jackson might not have envisioned this much success. Just four times before this year did he finish June in Hollywood without another ring. Now that it’s all over, a formality, it’s easier to dissect. L.A. had issues, and those issues were stemming for a long time. Talent took them to two titles, talent, and a group of players still willing to prove themselves. After they finally beat Boston last summer, validation set in. No one was bothered when they had long losing streaks this season because it was the Lakers and because that’s what the Lakers did. But the core of the team had been stripped and there was no turning back.
Jackson now realizes he waited too long. When the team starting airing their problems through the media and not in the locker room, he knew it was over. A change in preparation, a change in motivating the lost Pau Gasol wouldn’t work. It was over, even for someone like Jackson, someone who has never lost a team. Every coach has a shelf life, and Jackson’s finally hit, 11 rings and numerous NBA records later.
Most of the core is on the wrong side of 30, and fat with success. How much left did they have to give? The Lakers have rarely looked down, so high were they the last four years on their mountaintop. But now things are changing.
For Kobe, it’s time to adapt. While he’s still a fabulous player, this season pointed out the obvious: other players have caught up. His late-game heroics aren’t the norm anymore, but rather the exception. He needs more help. Will he share? Will he step back enough to still win? For Bynum, it’s time to grow up. For the rest of the team, it’s time to question, question whether or not they are comfortable, and happy to have a couple of championships. For many of them, it won’t matter. They won’t be back.
Just as many fans grew tired of seeing the same Lakers vying for a title every year, L.A. grew sick of each other. Just as Oklahoma City, Memphis, Miami and Atlanta came together, the Lakers fell apart, a family with too many nights spent arguing at the dinner table over who’s going to watch TV, who has to clean the dishes and who won’t take their laundry out of the dryer. Petty things, stuff that only bothers you when you’re drained, beat up and sick of the normalcy of winning.
In the second half yesterday, Kobe must’ve felt alone. He’ll be alone going forward, the rest of the team retiring, getting shipped out, on the trading block. He’ll be the holdover, the adhesive bridging one Laker era to another. They pushed time one year too far, and now the inevitable has arrived.
Yesterday, on the day we celebrated the women who bring life into the world, we witnessed a funeral. The Lakers will be back at some point – just as they always are – with new faces. But this era of Laker championship basketball died yesterday. It’s gone, and it’s sad it ended like this.
What will the Lakers do this summer?
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