Headed west down Trigo Road as it stretched out before me on an (un)seasonably warm Friday afternoon in February, I was faced with all the typical travails of biking home from the beautiful beachside campus of UC Santa Barbara: backpack-induced bouts of back and shoulder sweat, hunger pangs, an eastward wind that seemed to take offense at the very idea of me biking against it; but more than anything, a characteristic weekend malaise that triggered a predictable cycle of boredom, followed by optimism, then momentary motivation, but ultimately ending in resignation to more boredom. To fill these boring voids, my mind would most often be occupied by none other than your Los Angeles Lakers. Oh, how rich the drama was back then. There was Kobe’s trade me- don’t trade me radio tour in the preceding spring, the Lakers’ surprising ascension to the top of the west while riding the broad, yet fatefully ill-proportioned frame of an Andrew Bynum that seemingly dunked anything within a 10 foot radius of the rim, the equally surprising competence of heretofore unimpressive players like Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, et al, and of course, the entirety of Southern California receiving an unforeseen crash course on what "subluxation of the kneecap" and "bone bruise" could mean for a young player’s basketball career.
Let me back up for a minute. I loved where I went to school. I did well in my classes, had plenty of friends, went out on weekends, etc. The sociological experiment that is the densely populated college town of Isla Vista is wedged between Santa Barbara’s south facing beach, the school campus, and the unremarkable town of Goleta. I really couldn’t have asked for a better college environment, despite the obvious clichés and well earned stereotypes of the typical So-Cal beachside college-aged population, it really was a beautiful, enriching place to spend a chunk of my formative years. In spite of all that, I would often find myself mentally detached from my surroundings, technically having fun, but wishing and wondering about anything other than my physical surroundings. That’s where the Lakers came in. Out at a party? Better check that box score on my phone. Going to the beach? Might need a copy of the Times sports section to…shield me from the sun. Writing a paper? Probably ought to check the Kamenetzky brothers blog instead. This constant mental distraction caused by my favorite team made it equally uplifting and devastating to be a fan at that time. Going from, "Ah crap they’re gonna trade Kobe" to "Damn, check us out, #1 in the west!", to "Seriously Lamar? Your foot was responsible for season ending injuries to Bynum and Ariza within 2 weeks?" was, needless to say, quite the emotional rollercoaster.
Which brings me back to that breezy, sunny day in February. My biking odyssey was nearing its end when I felt the familiar buzz of a phone call in my pocket. I pulled my phone out, and see that it’s my friend Beeps. We called him Beeps, well, because his real name was far too long, and far too Indian for us to pronounce with any degree of consistency, and I’m pretty sure he liked it. To be honest, I didn’t particularly care for Beeps all that much—he was obnoxious, obsessed with math, and talked faster than anyone you’ve ever heard. The one thing we had in common was basketball. Oohhh could we ever talk some hoops. It would get to the point where we’d be at a social function, and at some point there would come the inevitable lull in conversation and people would overhear us poring over the intricacies of some hoops minutia that only we would find remotely interesting, which would be met with quizzical facial expressions around the room, equal parts confused and pitiful. Needless to say, I ignored the first call from my old pal Beeps. And the second. Seriously, buzz off Beeps. By the third, I figured it had to be reasonably important so I answered. Before I even say hello, I’m met with, " Did you hear about Pau Gasol?"
You may have surmised by this point that the day I’m referring to is February 1st, 2008.
I’ve always identified with Pau Gasol. Setting aside the obvious differences (height, wealth, talent—oh god the disparity), I feel that I’ve seen many of my positive attributes and my shortcomings play out on and off the court through my favorite Laker. We’re both tall, willowy, bearded dudes who are sometimes missing an easily identifiable aggressiveness, but never lack in compassion or heart. Not unlike the way we idolize many of our favorite athletes, when Pau succeeds, I feel that I’ve succeeded, when he fails, I feel as though I’ve had my own letdown. I can confidently say that the four months following the trade for the big Spaniard were the most fun I’ve had watching sports, hands down (yes that includes the years they actually won the chip).
We often demarcate and compartmentalize our lives based off certain events, singular or recurring, that reflect our overall mood at the time. You may look back on your junior year of high school fondly because you were in a great relationship, or maybe you reflect on being 23 happily because you had just gotten a great job or conquered some personal demon that had long tormented you. Granted, there were plenty of other circumstances contributing to my happiness during the year 2008, but to attempt to separate them from the trade for Pau Gasol and the Lakers ensuing return to prominence would be the definition of disingenuous.
The rest of that season, my emotions were inextricably tethered to the success of the purple and gold, my Friday night plans dashed by a loss, and my Monday mornings made somehow tolerable by a Sunday afternoon prime time victory (Kobe’s 52 against the Mavs and the unexpected walloping of the Spurs come to mind). Making matters even more interesting, I had a…sketchy roommate that year, and plenty of unsavory characters passed in and out of my house, sometimes friendly and talkative, sometimes having to be locked in a room for 36 hours while coming down off a Jimson weed trip. Regardless, I couldn’t have cared less, they were all just faceless bit characters in my own narrative that was being driven by some of the most aesthetically pleasing basketball ever to grace the hardwood. Of course, a lot of that was Kobe, he was, after all, the MVP that year, but the sea change in Laker culture was undoubtedly tied to the arrival of #16. He brought a certain aesthetic to the game that I truly didn’t even know existed. The feathery jumpers, the effortless left handed hooks, the baseline spins, and perhaps most of all, Pau’s instant chemistry with one Lamar Odom. Watching those two big men work off of each other and literally play hot potato with the ball until they found the proper mismatch or angle was a sight to behold. The way Pau supercharged the triangle offense that year was easily the single most profound impact I had ever seen a player have on a basketball team, but again, his greatest contribution was bringing even more beauty to an already beautiful game. It was like soccer on the basketball court, an athletic ballet that churned out art and unmatched tangible success in spades. Sports heaven.
Over the six seasons Pau Gasol has been a Laker, I’ve always thought of him as an emotional barometer for the team. Sure, the nationally driven narrative was always Kobe-centric, and rightfully so. But I’ve always been far more fascinated by how Pau has contributed to wins, and losses. Losses were more tolerable if Pau played well and provided a few pinpoint passes that would have made James Naismith smile. Even when the team won, as exhilarating as a Kobe scoring binge was, without a hearty contribution from Pau it didn’t feel as pure. In spite of all this, I was in the majority camp of Laker fans this year when I felt it would be in the team’s best interest to finally part ways with their beloved big man import, it’s obvious that the combination of he and Kobe isn’t nearly enough anymore, and I figured if the team could get a first rounder and some cap relief for him, all the better. Aside from that, I wanted to see Pau in the playoffs on a good team that he made even better, just as he did for LA all those years ago. Sure, his impact wouldn’t, and couldn’t be as profound as it was in 2008, but I just wanted to see him flourish again, to be appreciated for all he brings to the game and his team, instead of being chastised and beleaguered for what he didn’t. But, just as I took a conflicted sigh of relief when David Stern put the kibosh on the Chris Paul trade, a little part of me was glad to see him stay. In spite of the sorry state of this current Laker squad, I’m ecstatic that I get a few more months of watching Pau and his refined, designer offensive repertoire, even as every positive contribution he provides on the court flies in direct opposition to the teams long term interests.
The first week or so after Pau was brought aboard were some of the happiest days a Laker, or basketball fan could ask for. From Kobe’s energetic, dunk laden 46 points against the Raptors the day of the trade that practically screamed "THANK YOU MITCH!", to Pau’s first game in a Laker uni resulting in 24 and 12 in a victory, it was a surreal experience for a fan base that had languished in basketball purgatory for the past 3 years. After that first game against the then New Jersey Nets, I can still remember Pau giving his post game interview, with a jubilant Kobe coming up behind him, enthusiastically patting him on the back and shouting, "Si! Si, me gusta!". Despite the somewhat lackluster English translation that phrase amounts to, you could see the look in Kobe’s eye, he knew what they were embarking on, he knew what the Lakers had in their newest acquisition.
In the blandest understatement of the decade, Kobe pretty much nailed it, "yes, yes I like it"