It was a scene eerily reminiscent of the night that the Magic-led Lakers celebrated the 1980 NBA Championship without their captain and leader, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Except in this story the participants are Laker fans, not players, and the key figure was not 3,000 miles away (more like ten), nor was he nursing an injured ankle (but he was attending his oldest child's high-school graduation).
So maybe "eerily reminiscent" is a little misleading, but if you know anything about us- and more importantly about him- you'd know that I haven't been taking crazy lessons from Ron-Ron.
Well, maybe, but that's for another day.
So that was the dilemma facing our supremely tight-knit group of Laker fans even as early as Game 5, when we came to realize that to win this thing it would have to go the distance, with the finale coinciding with the aforementioned pomp-and-circumstance thing-y.
Actually for my brother John, the co-founder of our group and undeniable leader, it wasn't a dilemma at all. He understood that with the ceremony starting at 5, he was going to miss a large chunk of Game 7, as he did the previous contest when his daughter graduated from her Social Justice class.
The quandary then was in the logistics: how and where were we going to hook up afterwards? It could have- and should have been simple- we'd attend graduation and rush back to watch the last quarter or so together. I mean, that's how normal families do it, right?
But my brother Abel had to get his daughter to a soccer clinic near tip-off, and worse yet, he was fighting a miserable cold and flu. So Abel told our cousin Paul- who we see every April through June, and pretty much only during these months; sad I know- to go to his house for the game.
I had told my niece beforehand that I would stay to see her receive her diploma and then I'd split, knowing the traffic gridlock that awaited me if I were to stick around for the duration. Because she is awesome, she understood.
The class valedictorian gave the cliché-filled speech about having been through the good and bad times together, but it struck a chord. I stole a glance at my brother John two rows back. We had been through a lot together. Magic's first title. The profoundly bitter defeat to Boston in '84, and the redemption the following season. The repeat at the end of the 80's, and the three-peat to kick off the millennium.
Good times, bad times, champagne baths, and consoling words. Through the years, we came to depend on John- as the Lakers once did on Kareem- for his presence, for keeping his cool at the most uncomfortable moments.
I mentioned to John and Abel how I had seen a change in them in this year's playoffs. They were more vocal, while I seemed to be more of a quiet observer (though inside I was dying). John saw it as recognizing the moment, of what another championship meant to the franchise- and to us.
The applause from the audience brought me back to the present. I needed to know what was going on in the game. I asked my brother-in-law to borrow his phone, well, actually my niece Stephanie asked for me because I was afraid to check the score, and she gave me the unsettling news: 22-14, Celtics. Damn. I grew even antsier in my folding chair.
Abel called what seemed to be an eternity later, but must have been a few minutes, to report that it was now 23-19, and that the Lakers couldn't hit a bucket to save their lives. I don't know why, but I felt like they needed me there. But I couldn't leave without fulfilling my promise.
At last Carrin's name was called, and I said my goodbyes to the family. I told John I'd see him later at his house, thinking that our group would head over once he told us he was on the way home.
I hit traffic anyway and to make matters worse, the station that normally would run the game on the radio, had a local sports show on instead. Really? Thankfully they were giving frequent updates- but they weren't very pretty. Lakers shooting 28%. Boston ahead by five. Kobe off.
The minute I drove up to Abel's house, the half ended. Down by six. Paul's first words to me were, "Did you get the champagne?" We always get the bubbly at halftime. So I went and bought two bottles.
Right before the second half started, Abel said "Well it can't get any worse." I winced. "Sure, it can." He was referring to the Lakers' field-goal shooting; I meant the deficit. I hate when I'm right, because it got worse alright.
And then I got vocal, screaming at the TV, pleading at the Lakers to make some stops. I wasn't worried about scoring; I just wanted them to up their defensive intensity. They did. At quarter's end, we had trimmed two points off their halftime lead.
My niece Nikkole, 11, walked in from her soccer clinic. Paul said, "Our good-luck charm is here." She plopped down between me and Abel on the couch, just as she did for all of Game 6. She was just as loud as the rest of the group, which included Paul's son Carlos (and family), and our latest convert, my 22-year old nephew Patrick.
The Lakers had a few chances to tie or take the lead, but couldn't get over the hump. Kobe was having a nightmare of a game. His teammates would pick him up. Just as we would pick up John, who finally made it home with about nine minutes left. Abel filled him in on the details.
At the 5:56 mark, a Kobe free-throw gave the Lakers their first lead since a brief advantage early in the second quarter. They would never trail again.
I called John with about two minutes left and said he needed to get over to Abel's house. Yes, I suggested to my older brother that he should leave his first-born's graduation party. Nice. He said we needed to go there, but by then it was too late. We were going to have sweat out the last anxious moments with him on speaker.
Pau Gasol's bucket at the 1:30 made it 76-70 as we shouted our approval. He's my favorite Spaniard of all-time. I just thought you should know that. Twenty-three seconds after Rasheed Wallace cut the lead in half with a long three-pointer, Ron Artest responded with a trey of his own.
Ray Allen hit a three, Kobe missed one, and then Gasol grabbed the biggest offensive rebound of his life, before feeding Bryant, who drew a foul. Two more points. The shouting in Abel's house was countered by the screaming coming through the speaker phone.
Another three-pointer, this time by Rajon Rondo. 81-79. Goodness. Then a purpose foul on Sasha Vujacic. Eleven seconds left. "Make ‘em Sasha". He did. Swished them both. Did I mention how much I love his hair? That's why he made those shots. The hair.
Rondo chucked up another three but this time it fell short. Gasol pulled it down and heaved it downcourt. Kobe caught up to it. Fitting. Ballgame. Repeat.
As Paul had done to me when I was 14 (after the '80 title), I turned to Nikkole and sprayed her with beer. Shouts and hugs. And more beer. The bubbly we would save for the Big Fella.
Back at John's, my Mom- whose interst in basketball is a few miles south of casual observer- admitted to silenty cheering for the Lakers, not wanting to make her allegiances known to Dad, who is as anti-Laker as it gets.
We piled into Abel's SUV (his wife drove), and headed to our older brother's house. We popped the champagne and passed it around. As we had done so many times before. Having been through all the bitter defeats, many at the hands of the hated Celtics, I am sure a Game 7 victory over Boston, coupled with his daughter's graduation, will be a night that John won't soon forget. The hugs for our leader were delayed, sure, but they felt just the same.
That is, they felt damn good.
Almost every year I joke to the guys that this is my last as a Laker fan, noting that my heart can't take too many more playoff runs. John always says, laughing, "You can't quit."
As I surveyed the scene of happy Laker fans old and new, I thought to myself, "Couldn't quit if I wanted to."