The Los Angeles Lakers have succeeded in forcing upon their fans a variety of emotions over the past few months: Excitement (no matter how short-lived); anticipation; anger; despair; frustration - so, so much frustration. With the passing of our beloved owner, Dr. Jerry Buss, we added two emotions to the list that really have no place in sports, grief and mourning. And now, because of what Dr. Buss' passing inspired in his team, at least for one night, we get to experience satisfaction.
As the night began, with a short, touching video tribute, followed by a speech made uneven through overwhelming emotion from Kobe Bryant and a moment of silence which was creepily interrupted by the voice of the man for whom the silence was intended, I didn't know what to expect. Everybody knows what Dr. Buss meant to the Lakers organization, everybody knows that emotions throughout the arena would be high, but I could not have been alone in wondering whether those same emotions would be coursing through the veins of the players currently wearing the Lakers uniform. Aside from Kobe, Metta World Peace and the injured Pau Gasol, nobody on the team knew much about the joys of being a Laker. In fact, the majority of players on the court for LA last night have known only the horror of this terrible season. You could count on veterans like Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison to understand the importance of the event, but would Jodie Meeks understand? Would Earl Clark? Would Dwight?
We didn't have to wait very long to find out. On the Lakers' first possession, Dwight Howard finished in traffic off a Steve Nash pick and roll. A few possessions later, Dwight out-worked and out-jumped Kevin Garnett to an offensive rebound. He did it again on the next possession. Play after play, Dwight dominated the first quarter on both sides of the ball. He erased defenders with solid screens. He rolled hard to the rim. He disturbed pick and rolls. He blocked shots. He gobbled up rebounds on offense and defense. He was clearly the best athlete on the court. His first quarter stat line (12 points, 6 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block) included more impact than he's had in half this season's games. Most importantly, he set the tone. The player most in danger of not getting the importance of the night made very clear, very early, that he understood. This was not a game to fuck around with.
Dwight was not alone. Steve Nash was dynamic, hitting six of his seven shots while doling out seven assists. He even looked Fish-ian in transition defense, nearly preventing one fast break by deflecting a lob pass, and preventing two others with a steal and a charge taken. Earl Clark was all over the place with 14 points and a career-high 16 rebounds. Antawn Jamison scored 15 points on just 7 shots. Ironically, it was the players who knew Buss least that provided the strongest responses in his tribute. That wouldn't be such a surprise for a team with good spirit, for the guys who were more grounded to carry the ones who (naturally) had a bit more emotion travelling through their system. But, prior to last night, this has not been a good-spirited team.
Can one game change a team's spirit permanently? It might seem doubtful, but you couldn't have dreamed up a script with a more perfect opportunity. Last night's game was the first after the All Star break, a natural divide in the season which provides a perfect opportunity for reflection and transformation. The opponent was vitally important, both in the short term (Boston destroyed the Lakers not two weeks ago) and in the long term (they are our most hated rival). And there is no more powerful emotional catalyst for unity than the death of a beloved leader. In this case, as often happens these days, reality is more perfect than fiction could have been, because this script would have been rejected for being too cliche.
Now, for one game at least, the perfect opportunity has been fulfilled, and the pertinent question becomes: How long can it last? What caused Dwight Howard to transform so suddenly from Public Enemy #1 into the superstar center we've been expecting all along? Did the weight of the moment finally break through his facade? Or is it simply a matter of Dwight feeling healthy and energetic for the first time after a long break? A mixture of both? Only Howard knows the answers to these questions, but the answers don't matter anymore. If Howard had decided to show up in full force for some random game in the middle of February, my response might have been frustration at how little dominance Howard has otherwise provided when it is clear he is still capable of it. But this was not a random game. For Dwight to be this good, against this team, in THIS emotional contest, can go so very, very far in repairing the damage he has done to his relationship with his teammates, and with the fans. Even if it ends up meaning nothing, even if the Lakers peter out into the nothingness of a lottery ticket that isn't even theirs, I will forever be thankful to Dwight and the rest of the team for this win.
But it doesn't have to mean nothing. The rest of this perfect script is there for the taking. The Lakers may not be willing to play for each other, but, for one game at least, they were willing to play for Dr. Buss. If they can do so again, if they can capture the magic of last night and hold onto it for a little while, maybe they can realize that to play for Dr. Buss is to play for the Los Angeles Lakers. Do that for long enough, and they might just realize they were playing for each other all along.
After all, if you are going to "Win one for Dr. Buss", a regular season game isn't exactly what he would have in mind.