• dEDGE Post Scriptum •
Dwight Howard scorns the bright lights of LA for the obscurity of candle-lit Houston. Kobe Bryant tends to his blown achilles tendon and Vines himself jumping down, but not up. Steve Nash is another year older and another year removed from his MVP reign in Phoenix. Mike D’Antoni is still the head coach and still not Phil Jackson. Metta World Peace, Ron Artest and Tru Warior are all amnestied in a harsh realization of the NBA’s luxury tax. With D12 out, Pau Gasol is in… that is, until rumors begin to percolate right around February’s trade deadline. While questions about this team’s resolve remain unanswered and unproven, unabashed fans of the Los Angeles Lakers embark on the 2013 season with a clear mantra, “Just wait until 2014.”
If there was ever reason to doubt the purple and gold, the Summer of 2013 should jettison any bandwagon fan directly across the hallway. The Clips remain the next best thing to an NBA title contender since Donald Sterling reinterpreted the definition of settlement. The once, lowly Clips are now projected as a likely Western Conference finalist while the 16-time, banner waving Lakers will be hard pressed to match last season’s meager accomplishments with Howard, Gasol, Bryant, Nash and MWP in the line-up. Gone are all remnants of D’Antoni’s coaching staff, the sole exception being big brother Dan. Also awry are any expectations of a 17th championship, that is, until the Lakers reload in the free agent rich Summer of 2014.
Lacking in substance and quality, the Lakers have gone the route of nostalgia, bringing back former Angelenos Nick Young, Chris Kaman and Jordan Farmar. Ownership would never say it out loud, but this team has been built for a solitary season of expiring contracts and temporary bodies. The names and faces look familiar, the better to alleviate the harsh reality of another “wasted” season. Last year was championship or bust, and after the disastrous tenure of the cowardice, the finger pointing quickly turned on anyone and everyone. What better way to appease a dedicated, yet unrealistic fan base than to direct them back to the past; a happier time full of warm, fuzzy feelings and meager goals?
Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry and Elias Harris won’t quite elicit the oohs-and-ahhs of Dwight Howard powering home an alley-oop jam, but they will fill a void that has been blatantly absent for the past several seasons, youth and athleticism. Look for both Johnson and Young to bring instant excitement to a debilitated bench. Henry appears to have finally found his comfort zone in his 4th NBA season and could be on the verge of a Trevor Ariza-like breakthrough. Although newfound fan favorite Earl Clark is off to greener and richer pastures in Cleveland, his ceiling was viewed as relatively low, as proven by his late season descent to earth after his meteoric rise. With Jordan Hill back from hip surgery, Clark was expendable, even after recording his best statistical season of his career.
Steve Blake finally flourished in the offense and returns for a 4th and final season as does inconsistent streak-shooter Jodie Meeks. Back-up center and lead cheerleader, Robert Sacre also returns as inexpensive insurance to the injury-prone Gasol and Kaman. Gone are Antawn Jamison, Chris Duhon, Darius Morris, late addition Andrew Goudelock and doghouse dweller, Devin Ebanks. To complete the nostalgia tour, the Lakers added Mark Madsen and Kurt Rambis to the coaching staff, along with Johnny Davis and Larry Lewis. And on the farthest fringes of reality television, lies the smallest of opportunities to resign former 6th Man of the Year, Lamar Odom.
The Los Angeles Lakers start the season with a tenuous schedule and if the shaky start under former coach Mike Brown seemed bad, this has the potential to be even worse. Lowered expectations and the frail health of veterans Nash, Gasol and yes, even Kobe has pundits calling for no better than a 12th place finish in the talent-rich Western Conference. But the Lakers have never been accused of tanking so don’t ever count this franchise out. Stranger things have happened and with a bevy of free agents available in the upcoming off-season, look for some serious trade scenarios popping up right after Christmas.
And should Mike D’Antoni and the Lakers stumble badly out of the gates, there are plenty of eager candidates waiting in the wings. Although Phil Jackson has ruled out ever coaching again, his regime is far-reaching and any assistant under the Zen Master will automatically bring back instant credibility. If you want to reach even further back, Byron Scott, a Pat Riley protege is patiently biding his time for an opportunity to join the bench on the purple and gold. With Kurt Rambis now part of D’Antoni’s staff, a shift in direction is easily possible with one or more of his cohorts jumping onto this nostalgic tour.
It may not be pretty, it may not be Lakers caliber basketball that we’re accustomed, but it will be basketball from the heart. As Lakers Nation patiently waits for the main act to hit the stage, all we can do is hum along and snap our fingers to the beat of some treasured oldies.
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Magic Johnson was a warrior who wore his heart on his sleeve. Win or lose, you knew he bled purple and gold. It is the main reason why Laker fans continue to love him so dearly. Kobe Bryant is a fire-breathing beast who will cut out your heart, then feed on your still warm, lifeless carcass. It’s why he’s called the Black Mamba and why NBA players continue to fear him. Two highly evolved players with two highly different personalities, yet with identical accomplishments that forever bond them; both are life-long Lakers and both are 5-time NBA champions.
Unlike the well-prepped and extremely mature teenage sensation Kobe Bryant, 19-yr. old Earvin “Magic” Johnson arrived on the doorstep of the NBA via the more traditional route, having just completed two full years at Michigan State University. In his second season at MSU, Johnson had led a high-flying Spartan squad to an NCAA crown against Larry Bird and the “at-the-time,” undefeated, Indiana State Sycamores. Having accomplished his goal in college competition, Johnson immediately made himself available and declared for the NBA draft.
Magic was 100% showman, but the NBA remained a man’s game that had little regard for a brash, flashy 6’9″ forward who thought he was a point guard. Although highly talented, GM’s and critics alike were not completely sold on Johnson, saying that the safer pick in that year’s draft was 6’4″ Sidney Moncrief, the potent shooting guard hailing from Arkansas, or 6’10″ UCLA forward, David Greenwood. Neither was as electric as Magic, but both came from fundamentally sound programs and were also mature, graduating seniors.
Johnson did not play the game with the traditional point guard sensibilities of simply bringing the ball upcourt and feeding his big man. Instead, he choreographed the court like a wizard, passing the ball with the deftness of an NFL quarterback. He constantly scanned the floor, searching for pinholes of opportunity and quickly delivered passes precisely in tune with a teammate’s foot speed. If you didn’t keep your eyes open, you were bound to be zinged by one of his no-look passes. Magic was capable of making his opponents look absolutely befuddled, or even worse, foolish, without ever scoring a point.
With a new owner taking over the reins in Los Angeles, the Lakers selected Earvin Johnson as the #1 pick of the 1979 NBA Draft. Dr. Jerry Buss, real estate mogul with a vision for an exciting blend of basketball and entertainment, immediately bonded with Johnson. Both yearned for an uptempo offense with Magic leading the way on the fast break. And with veterans, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes solidifying the half court offense, the Lakers skyrocketed under their new conductor. Magic revitalized excitement in the league, and along with Larry Bird on the East Coast, the NBA began to transform into the megabrand it is today.
Magic possessed a charismatic smile, a reassuring charm, and the disarming vernacular of one of the fellas. These attributes translated well to the general public and before long, the Los Angeles Lakers were everybody’s media darlings. Even the aloof, distant Abdul-Jabbar began to soften and open-up, revealing an affable side never seen before. Playing basketball had become fun again. The grind of the regular season was erased into a dazzling, brillant dash to the post-season. Fans flocked to arenas to get a glimpse of Showtime and the man called Magic.
But for all of the fun and games Magic Johnson portrayed on the outside, he was an equally fierce competitor that hated to lose. He was a winner at all costs, willing to sacrifice anything to remain at the top. He pushed his teammates in practice and challenged anyone who stood in his way. Magic wasn’t just a spectacular passer, but he was a bona-fide scorer as well. His size allowed him to post smaller guards while his speed and quickness nullified any forward who attempted to defend him. He continually refined his game, mastering a new weapon each off-season. Whether it was free throw shooting, 3-pointers, post-up moves, or his famous junior skyhook, Magic reinvented himself annually to stay at the top of his game.
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Kobe Bryant is the son of former NBA forward, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant. The elder Bryant spent seven years in the NBA with Philadelphia, San Diego and Houston. Joe would then play professional ball in Italy where his young son would hone his basketball mind as an eager student of the game. The Bryant family would eventually move back to Joe’s native Philadelphia after his playing days were over. There, Kobe further developed his skills and often plied his craft against much older, college-level competition. Kobe would accompany his father to LaSalle University and play in pick-up games to prepare himself for stiffer competition.
Kobe was groomed to play in the NBA and was given the leniency to master his alpha-role from a young age. Soon, Kobe was dominating play at little known, Lower Merion High School and gaining national recognition as well as holding his own against professional players such as Jerry Stackhouse and Eddie Jones, both Philly area superstars. In an era when the “next best thing” was now a high school senior applying for the NBA, Kobe did not simply live up to his billing but easily outdistanced them altogether. In his senior year, Kobe was considered the top prospect across the country. Bypassing any college of his choice, Kobe was selected 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1996 NBA Draft.
Unbeknownst to others, Charlotte was only a stop-over. Kobe was immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for veteran center Vlade Divac in a deal agreed upon the day before the draft. It was shortly derailed when Divac balked at the trade and contemplated retirement. Magic Johnson spoke privately with Divac and convinced him that he wasn’t being shown the door but rather given a new opportunity to shine elsewhere.
The newest and youngest member of the NBA was about to join forces with Shaquille O’Neal, the dominant center acquired through free agency, a coming-of-age Nick Van Exel, veteran Elden Campbell, and a familiar sparring partner, Eddie Jones. Under head coach Del Harris, Kobe saw limited minutes early on, although he saw increased playing time as the season progressed. Kobe was eager to display his skills but was held in check by the conservative Harris, who favored divvying-up minutes to his veterans.
The high-flying Bryant was an immediate fan-favorite and exciting finisher. Kobe won the 1997 Slam Dunk contest with the bravado and showmanship of a tenured veteran. Yet while his more celebrated teammates were playing in the real All-Star game, Kobe squirmed in his own skin wondering what it would take to get more minutes from Harris. Eddie Jones, a first-time All-Star that season, now found himself fending off the uber-talented Kobe in practice on a daily basis. It may not have been apparent then, but the Los Angeles Lakers would soon need to make a decision on which budding star to keep.
Kobe developed in leaps and bounds, honing his game into the wee hours of the morning. His work ethic made the biggest gym rats look like overweight rodents. He knew he should be playing and had the talent to be out there playing longer than the 10-14-minutes per game he was getting from Harris. What he lacked in game time, he made up in output, sometimes alienating his elder teammates. The “ball-hog” moniker would follow him for the rest of his career, but as Kobe saw it, why pass the ball when you know you have a better chance to score?
The teenage Mamba would average 7.6-points his rookie season, garnering Second Team All-Rookie honors. Kobe’s skill really began to shine and by the end of the season, he had become an integral part of the rotation, albeit still off the bench. Facing the Utah Jazz in the playoffs, Kobe came up short in crunch time, air-balling a pair of jumpers down the stretch. The Lakers would eventually lose the series to the Jazz who would go on to face Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals. Most players would be devastated by those ill-fated shots, but not Kobe. It fueled him to work even harder in the off-season for a chance at redemption.
Kobe’s second season would see a jump in his production as his playing time increased to 26-minutes per game. He would average 15.4-ppg, 3.1-rpg and 2.5-apg. He often found himself playing alongside both Jones and Van Exel when the Lakers went “small” with Kobe at small forward. He was runner-up for the Sixth Man of the Year Award and became the youngest starter ever voted into the All-Star Game. Kobe didn’t even start on his own Lakers squad, yet fans clamored for the young phenomenon. It was here that young Kobe Bean Bryant was able to match-up against his childhood idol, Michael Jordan, on national television on the biggest stage in the world.
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The 1979-80 Los Angeles Lakers had steamrolled their competition all the way to the NBA Finals, where they now faced Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers. Leading the series 3-2, the Lakers had just positioned themselves on the verge of an NBA championship only to learn that they had lost leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to a badly sprained ankle for Game 6. With little chance of beating the Sixers on the road without Kareem, everyone looked forward to a Game 7 showdown back at the Fabulous Forum. Everyone that is, except for Earvin Magic Johnson. Magic had boldly predicted to his teammates that he was going to lead them to the promised land, and promptly plopped himself in row A1 of their chartered flight, the seat usually reserved for Abdul-Jabbar himself.
Not only was Magic convinced they were going to win it all, he convinced all of his teammates as well. No one expected much from the Lakers minus Abdul-Jabbar, but from the opening tip on, it was readily apparent that these Lakers meant business. It was 11-4 before a shocked Sixers squad realized that their title aspirations were in jeopardy. Magic was either too quick for Philly’s big men Caldwell Jones and Darryl Dawkins, or too big for guards Lionel Hollins and Maurice Cheeks. Even Julius Erving took a stab at guarding Magic, perhaps in part to escape his own man Jamaal Wilkes, (37-points, 10-rebounds), who was totally outplaying the Dr.
Magic went on to record perhaps the single, most impressive statistics in an NBA Finals game in history. The rookie scored 42-points, hauled down 15-rebounds, dished 7-assists, recorded 3-steals and even had a blocked shot. He converted all 14 of his free throw attempts and was named Finals MVP after the Lakers drubbed the stunned Sixers, 123-107. Johnson jumped ball at center, played both guard and forward positions and had Philadelphia shaking their heads in disbelief. In a little over 4-years, Magic had won at the high school, college and now professional levels. His star would continue to soar to zenith proportions as the Los Angeles Lakers would record 5-NBA titles in 8-appearances during the 1980s, winning Team of the Decade accolades.
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Fast forward to 2000 and the Los Angeles Lakers are enjoying a 2-1 NBA Finals lead over the Indiana Pacers when center Shaquille O’Neal fouls out midway through overtime of Game 4 at Conseco Fieldhouse. Kobe Bryant, still recovering from a badly sprained ankle that sidelined him for most of Game 2 and all of Game 3 is visibly hobbling on a throbbing ankle. But Kobe and the Lakers would not be denied. Bryant would score on three consecutive possessions to ice the game and cement his legacy as one of the league’s premier closers. He calmly drained two, long jumpers, then capped it with a reverse lay-up off a Brian Shaw miss, good for the 3-1 stranglehold.
“That was big-time tonight,” Lakers teammate Glen Rice said. “That had to be the biggest performance since I’ve been watching and playing with him, of his career. He stepped up like a veteran. That just goes to show how much he’s matured.” Even through the injury, Kobe dialed out the pain and simply “…relaxed like I was playing in the backyard.” The Lakers would eventually win the series, the first of their 3-championships in-a-row, 4-2 with Kobe establishing himself alongside Shaq as the most potent one-two punch since Jordan-Pippen. That their new head coach was Phil Jackson was not lost on Bryant, who was seen sporting Jordan’s famed #23 jersey after one of their games.
An observant O’Neal declared that the young Bryant should start wearing his own jersey, instead of that of others. Kobe recorded 28-points to go along with Shaq’s 36-points/21-rebounds, but his late heroics sans the Most Dominant of All-Time on the floor would begin to shape how Kobe was viewed around the league. Kobe would eventually emerge out of Shaq’s enormous, dwarfing shadow by winning his own back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010, tying him with Laker legend Magic Johnson at 5-titles apiece.
With the amount of hardware he has collected, one would think that Kobe is near the end of his game. But he continues to defy the odds and remains firmly attached at the top of the league. Now a 17-season grizzled veteran, Kobe has found the Fountain of Youth and has secretly kept his good fortune to himself. Still able to amaze, dazzle and deliver, the Black Mamba or more affectionately, “Vino,” is still capable of carrying the heavy load while filling arenas from coast-to-coast. He’s mellower now, more affable with the media and more accessible to his private life. But don’t forget for a second that he will beat you at all-costs, leaving you with your life or limb hanging in the balance.
• dEDGE Post Scriptum •
Nokia Theatre – Los Angeles, CA
Dr. Jerry Buss 1933 – 2013. A final tribute to the man who made the NBA relevant again. The producer and genius behind Showtime. 16 NBA Finals appearances, 10 NBA Titles. One of the most successful sports franchises ever, recently valued at over 1-billion dollars. A visionary innovator who brought us the Laker Girls, the Forum Club, VIP treatment for the ultimate fan experience, the Laker Band, a merger between entertainment and sports, arena naming rights, court-side seats, exclusive team cable network, a family-owned business.
The refrigerator door may have closed, but this light will never go out.
David Stern, “Jerry was nothing less than a transformational force in the history of sports.” Jerry West, “He not only changed basketball. He changed all sports. He has left a shadow over the entire sports world.” Phil Jackson, “Dr. Buss said, ‘Kobe, if I had a diamond of great value, four karats, would I give up that diamond for four diamonds of one karat? No.’ “ Pat Riley, “I feel like I’m back home.” Shaq, “I wanted one extension. He gave it to me. I wanted a second extension. He gave it to me. I wanted a third extension. He traded me.” Kobe, “…we are playing for the memory of a great man.” Magic, “Dr. Buss, I’m a black man from Lansing. I don’t know about horses.” ”Brothers don’t skate Dr. Buss.”
Elgin Baylor. Bill Walton. Bill Bertka. Rudy Garciduenas. Adam Silver. Andy Garcia. Dyan Cannon. Cedric Ceballos. Elden Campbell. Randy Newman. Davis Gaines. Kiki Vandeweghe. Mike Dunleavy. AC Green. Rudy Tomjanovich. Michael Cooper. Mike Garrett. Bob Miller. Jim Fox. Luc Robitaille. Lisa Leslie. Norm Nixon. Byron Scott. Kurt Rambis. Jamaal Wilkes. James Worthy. Mychal Thompson. Ronny Turiaf. Jodie Meeks. Devean Ebanks. Earl Clark. Robert Sacre. Steve Blake. Chris Duhon. Darius Morris. Antawn Jamison. Metta World Peace. Jordan Hill. Eddie Jordan. Steve Clifford. Darvin Ham. Chuck Person. Dan D’Antoni. Bernie Bickerstaff. Mike D’Antoni. Gary Vitti. Mitch Kupchak. Steve Nash. Dwight Howard. Jim Hill. Tim Leiweke. David Stern. Jerry West. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Phil Jackson. Shaquille O’Neal. Pau Gasol. Pat Riley. Kobe Bryant. Magic Johnson. Throwing up the L’s.