The year was 2004. The United States was waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan. A whale exploded on the streets of Taiwan. A charismatic Senator from Illinois went H.A.M. at the Democratic National Convention and the Boston Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino by winning their first World Series title in 86 years. Subsequently, 200,000 innocent people are killed after an earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Is there a correlation between Boston’s happiness and God’s anger? Draw your own conclusions.
All these events, in one way or another, shaped the world we live in today. Eight years have passed and the Middle East is still in unrest. The Senator that went off? You can call him President Obama now. As for the Red Sox, they won another title and that same year a tiger escaped it’s enclosure at a zoo in San Francisco and killed a man. The whale exploding didn’t change much, but it happened and it’s so crazy. See for yourself.
One event occurred that I didn’t mention previously, because still, to this day, I refuse to believe it happened. Our beloved LA Lakers, after an early postseason exit the year before to the San Antonio Spurs, made some major offseason moves and acquired Karl Malone and Gary Payton to help Shaq and Kobe win another championship. After running over the league with a roster boasting four guaranteed first ballot Hall of Famers, they were manhandled and shockingly embarrassed in the NBA Finals by a rag-tag assemblage of crusty CBA journeymen with no talent, but a whole lot of hustle, heart and giant balls from Detroit.
It was unprecedented. Again, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Gary Payton lost to a team that depended on contributions off the bench from Elden Campbell. Yes, Elden Campbell has a ring and Karl Malone does not. I can’t believe I just typed his name twice. I’m afraid if I do it again he’d show up like Beetlejuice, but instead of causing trouble, he’d just eat the leftovers in the fridge and hit me up for money.
I bring up these painful memories because as we all know, this offseason St. Kupchak and the Lakers again made some huge moves by signing Steve Nash and trading for Dwight Howard to have them join Kobe and Pau here in LA to make another run at the title. Everyone is making comparisons to that ill-fated ’04 team. They say they’ve done this before and it didn’t turn out well. To those people, I got two words for you… suck it. This is different and it’s gonna work this time and here’s why.
Gary Payton isn’t on this team. A former Defensive Player of the Year and the only point guard ever to win the award?! Sounds great, right? Nope. This guy was garbage when he was a Laker. He had an entire season to learn the triangle offense and refused to do so, was a locker room cancer and completely disappeared in the playoffs. In the ’96 Finals, as a member of the Seattle Supersonics, his defense gave Michael Jordan headaches and because of it, Jordan averaged less in that Finals series than in any other. In ’04 his defense made Chauncey Billups the NBA Finals MVP. The Glove? Glove my balls.
Thankfully, Steve Nash is not Gary Payton. He hits his threes and runs an offense better than any other point guard in the league. He’s clutch. He took the Phoenix Suns to the Western Conference Finals twice while picking up two MVP awards surrounded by mannequins. I can’t even imagine what he’ll do with live players. He made Mike “Mustache” D’Antoni look less like the cartoon guy on a box of pizza, and turned him into Coach of the Year. Speaking of pizza, our next topic loves it.
It was at the request of Shaquille O’Neal, The Diesel, The Big Baryshnikov that the Lakers brought in Malone and Payton. He promised them a title and then came into training camp at the heaviest in his career. I love Shaq. He’s one of my all-time favorite players, but the only title he’d come close to that year was a blue ribbon at a state fair for Prized Pig. He came into training camp that year way out of shape and only got worse.
He ended that year at 355 pounds. That’s bigger than a Giant Panda. Who knows how many pizzas that guy put away? The weight issues coupled with the fact that him and Kobe wouldn’t shut up in the media played a large part in the fate of that team. If only he had as much control of what came out of his mouth as he did what went in it.
Someone who doesn’t have that problem is Dwight Howard. Are you kidding? The guy is a fitness freak. He’s been on the cover of Men’s Health magazine, not the wrapper of a candy bar. Yes, he was in a McDonald’s commercial, but he didn’t have them name a combo after him. Remember the Shaq Pack from Burger King? It was a sourdough bacon cheeseburger, fries and a drink that came with a cup of cheese and a defibrillator to jump start your heart after eating it. As we all know, a cup of cheese is essential to the diet of any professional athlete. Check it out below.
It’s Dwight’s athleticism that makes him stand out over a declining, but still dominant when he wasn’t drinking cheese, Shaq. Howard has won Defensive Player of the Year three times. Shaq ate three defensive players. He hustles all game and you’d never catch him plodding up and down the court with a bad attitude, pouting because he’s not getting his opportunities to miss easy lay-ups and draw offensive fouls on the other end with Sam Bowiesque grace. I’m talking about you, Bynum.
In mentioning Bynum, you have to discuss injuries, which is why Karl Malone kind of gets a pass from me here. The fact that Malone played through a sprained knee for four games in the Finals against Detroit says a lot about his toughness. Something that’s always in question when talking about his current positional counterpart, Pau “Me Duele” Gasol. I feel had The Mailman stayed healthy, maybe things would be different. He was 40 years old and in his 19th season. That’s a lot of basketball. Which bring me to the biggest question mark of this bloviated rant, and that’s Kobe.
As Indiana Jones said, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” Even though at the start of next season he’ll only be 34 years old, Kobe is third among active players in minutes played. He’s played 4,000 more minutes than Kevin Willis, who played till he was 74. That’s a lot of basketball. However, he still plays at a high level. I’m gonna piss off a lot of people by saying this, but Kobe will stay consistently effective at his position longer than anyone including Michael Jordan. Remember Kobe’s last game against what used to be Jordan against Washington? He dropped 55 on his head. I don’t see anyone abusing The Mamba like that other than Vanessa.
Much about how this Lakers season ends up depends on whether or not Kobe can replicate what he did in the London Olympics this past summer. Defer to his teammates and play without the ball. Can he become more of a sharpshooting threat and fight through screens like Reggie Miller back in the day, or Ray Allen now? He’d be wise too.
Ray Allen not only extended his career a bit, but won a championship in Boston against Kobe and the Lakers in 2008 doing just that. Then the Global Economy collapsed. The answer is yes because he’s Kobe. If the Lakers weren’t hitting 3’s last year, who better to fix it? It’s not like he’ll have three defenders and a prosecution ready to drop the hammer (gavel?) on him like in’04.
Finally, the bench on this team is much better. Antoine Jamison would beat Bryon Russell, Kareem Rush, Brian Cook, Devean George (ugh…) and Slava Medvedenko in a five on one full court game to eleven with no buckets, giving them three points and using only his left hand.
The Lakers are a legitimate championship contender again and to say I’m excited for this season is an understatement. I was excited leading into the ’03-’04 season, but this is different.
It’s different because hastily bringing in basketball’s equivalent of The Expendables that year was Shaq’s idea, not Lakers management. He thought he was bigger than the team because he weighed more than the other players combined and used that weight to get things done his way. When it didn’t work, he got his fat ass forklifted out of town. St. Kupchack and Jim Buss took their time planning this.
It’s different because what Kobe understands better than Shaq, is that it means something to play for the Los Angeles Lakers. When you play on this team, those who really support you don’t care what name is stitched on the back of your jersey as much as we care about what’s stitched on the front. My friend John owns a Cedric Ceballos jersey. You’ll see Shaq understand it when they retire 34 this year and he starts tearing up when looking at his jersey alongside not just great Lakers players, but some of the greatest to ever play the game.
It’s different because as Lakers fans, we’re spoiled. When you’re spoiled, nothing makes you happy but getting what you want. We want championship number seventeen. All the pieces are there for them to do it.
And it’s different, cuz unlike in 2004, this Lakers team will get it done. See you on Figueroa!