Editor's Note: Please welcome Jameson Miller to the site. He should be a great addition to the team with a perspective I'm looking forward to bringing to our corner of the internet. Enjoy. - Drew
Sometime during the 2014 season, between commercials imploring listeners to do something about their dangerously low testosterone levels and listless credit scores, the Lakers' local flagship station, 710 ESPN, ran a sort of public service announcement to fans. This, of course, is nothing new, as anyone who frequently subjects themselves to the cacophony of AM radio will attest to. Local stations are always airing "pump up" ads, highlighting upcoming games, or promoting broad, optimistic narratives with a few clichéd, incendiary phrases about redemption that are designed to catch the ear of the casual fan.
But this one was different. Instead of some cool vocal timbre evocative of the "This is Sportscenter" guy, here was John Ireland, longtime Lakers sideline reporter, radio personality, and on-air play-by-play man, essentially conceding that things might be rough for a little while. Without actually quoting the ad, the overall gist was, "Hey, we know the team isn't great right now, but stick around, the next wave of Lakers greatness is coming." There was uplifting music and a general "we're in this together" vibe permeating throughout the entire 60-second slot. Mind you, the personalities spanning the ESPN LA radio roster aren't always unbiased, objective or strictly logical. Still, even with the commercial emanating a sort of universal optimism, this was quite the concession, however veiled.
After hearing an ad like that, one can't help but wonder, if the hometown radio station can admit that the team is in the tank (so much pun intended), how is the hyper-conscious, die-hard fan who's come to that conclusion long before, dealing with the current state of things? Essentially, for a fan base so used to the stretch run this time of year being so much more meaningful, how are we coping? What catalog of mechanisms do Lakers fans employ to come to grips with the team's humbling record?
By far the most multifaceted component of this spectrum, denial can take on many forms, ranging from nostalgic delusion, to rationalization, to good old-fashioned make-believe. Starting with the latter, there is a fairly simple way some choose to avoid the agony of watching the on-court product the Lakers are trotting out night after night: pretending it doesn't exist. Some fans just don't watch. To me, this isn't an indictment of this group's legitimacy as "true fans" or proof positive of their fair-weather nature. Rather, for some, it's just too painful to watch the team they love, populated by almost unrecognizable faces, ensconced in such a lowly station in a league where over half of the teams have something to truly look forward to in April. I don't think not watching the games necessarily means these fans aren't following the Lakers, nor that their heartstrings aren't as securely tethered to the team's fortunes as anyone else's. Just the opposite--some fans love the Purple and Gold so much that they can't bear to see them like this.
Sure, that's a touch dramatic, but in fact, I'd wager that a sizable chunk of the population of this very blog doesn't watch every minute of every game, choosing instead to immerse themselves in an environment of equally anguished fans that, as a whole, actually form a happy, pithy reprieve from the harshness of a reality that comes with even a cursory glance at the standings. So, rather than strapping a pair of speculums on their eyes to take in the nightly horrors unfolding before them, those in denial choose to simply avert their gaze and live to watch another day.
Next, we have a small, yet vocal sub-genre of rationalizers who, instead of ignoring the ghastly basketball on display during any given Laker game, choose to see something else entirely. Rather than seeing a team devoid of talent that only resembles an NBA roster in 90-second fits and starts, this group sees a potentially respectable squad, that, should an avalanche of "ifs" simply come to pass, could compete for a playoff spot. IF Jeremy Lin this, IF Wayne Ellington that, IF only Carlos Boozer could simply HOLDAT. This minority has largely receded as the Lakers loss count climbs into the 40s.
I certainly don't mean to dump on these optimists, as I'm sure one lurks within me, and I can have nothing but respect for the sheer amount of mental gymnastics required to envision the Lakers snagging the eight seed back in October. Besides, who doesn't love getting excited by listing off the dominoes that could very well fall and catapult the Lakers back into contention? What else can we do but let our memories of past success color our hopes for the future?
Rounding out the Denial zone are those of us who, despite lacking the constitution necessary to stomach this current iteration, need more than just a text-based existence as Lakers fans. This is where nuzzling against the warm, fuzzy bosom of nostalgia can make current images of the bad men in purple and gold go away. Those who have chosen the hopelessly nostalgic route to survival run the gamut of perspectives and generations. There are the radio show callers who make up the unique age group of people that somehow saw George Mikan play in person and are tech savvy enough to reference Yahoo Sports articles during their breathless diatribes. There are the fed up Show Timers, vociferous in their disgust with the aesthetics on the court, yet steadfast in their support of Byron Scott for "getting these guys to play hard". Then, of course, there is the nostalgic crop of fans from our current generation, a populous who might rather immerse themselves in YouTube clips of very recent success than acknowledge what's happening on television every night. What hopeless nostalgic wouldn't rather watch the rich drama of Game 3 of the 2010 Finals as opposed to game 67 of this regular season?
Of course these tropes don't apply to everyone, but common threads run through the nostalgic lot--they enjoy reminiscing with other fans, they prefer NBA Hardwood Classics to #Lakeshow when it comes to what's on TV, and they view past periods of their lives through varying prisms of Laker excellence, the ebbs and flows of the team's lush history inextricably linked to their own. Also, they all prefer highlight reels of James Worthy's Game 7-clinching triple double over him wearing a suit and maniacally doing laps around the Time Warner broadcast desk. Probably.
Comedy, or: What We Talk About When We Talk About Tank
There are a multitude of clichés swirling around the English lexicon regarding the therapeutic effects of comedy, the most well-known being of course that laughter is the best medicine. While it would take a fairly irresponsible dose of said medicine to make watching this team more palatable, being able to recognize the situation the Lakers are in, then processing it by poking fun seems like a natural way to go about coping. Realizing that smack talking isn't really in our arsenal at this moment in time, many an enlightened Lakers fan has taken to self-deprecation.
In stark contrast to just 22 months ago, many (most?) Lakers fans openly champion the idea of losing now in order to win later. But it's not just the calculus of tanking, which almost anyone can understand: High draft pick > no draft pick. Rather, it's a whole subculture that's taken on a life of its own. We've dedicated an entire weekly update (which I love, by the way) to monitor the progress of our precious tank. The standings are now viewed through what can only be described as a Bizarro lens, where down is up, losing is winning, and a March game against Minnesota is rife with drama for all the wrong reasons. We've stretched the very fabric of the Internet by utilizing Photoshop and meme generators to develop hilarious caricatures while gifs run roughshod in the comment sections. (Please don't stop, don't ever stop).
Of course, many of these elements would still exist if the Lakers were a great team. One of the many unspoken privileges allotted to a fan is the right to playfully rip your own guys and poke fun at your team's foibles. That being said, it's hard to deny that we've leaned more heavily on comedic distractions during the past 2 seasons than any in recent memory. Part of that is the low stakes, the lack of expectations for this Lakers team means less pain as a fan, which translates into an easier transition from disappointment to humor. Nevertheless, now more than ever, we laugh because we must.
This one's obvious, but the enduring, yet impossibly fragile nature of hope is something that unites all sports fans. Regardless of your team's current standing in the weekly power rankings, we'd be lost without at least some faint trace of promise that ultimately, things will turn out in our favor. If you're a Warriors fan, you're hoping Andrew Bogut can be healthy in the playoffs and that Stephen Curry can carry your team to the promised land. If you're a Knicks fan, you're hoping that Carmelo Anthony comes back healthy next year and that Phil Jackson actually knows what the hell he's doing as an executive. And of course, if you're a Lakers fan, you're hoping that LA keeps its top-5 pick and gets a ready-made rotation player, or maybe even a star, all on a dirt cheap salary. Without hope that things will somehow get better, why would we even be here? Obviously, if the Lakers somehow got saddled with a Phil Connors-type hex and were doomed to a Groundhog Day scenario of neverending 55-loss seasons, I doubt many would stick around to witness the same car crash over and over again.
This is where all the tank talk gets serious. Conversations surrounding player and coach incompetence quickly change from lighthearted banter to something far more dire. A particularly stagnant offensive possession might invoke a "lol, Byron" tweet here and there, but when the Lakers are on the verge of blowing a perfectly good loss like they were against the Bulls a few weeks ago, the sight of Scott trying to squeeze his own biceps into a jelly-like substance while stalking the sideline becomes far less comical. The language surrounding the tank becomes filled with imperatives. The Lakers need to lose this game. They have to keep their pick. This will pay off.
This also spills over into how we think about what tangible prospects for improvement the Lakers already possess. We have no choice but to hope that Julius Randle is as good as we think he is, or that Jordan Clarkson will continue to develop into an important rotation player on a playoff caliber team. We hope and pray that the Lakers' front office uses the team's cap space wisely to snag multiple contributing players on bargain deals. I don't even consider these lines of thinking all that optimistic or biased. These types of thought processes are literally the only food for thought Lakers fans have to subsist on until some kind of concrete evidence is available to tell us we were right or wrong.
It may sound overly affected or dramatic to even apply a term like "coping mechanism" to how you feel about a basketball team, and that's fair. But, to whatever degree your being a fan of the Lakers or any other team is a part of your life--whether it's as an escape, a hobby, or even a career--it's equally fair to wonder what effect, if any, the changing nature of the object of that fandom might have on how much of yourself you devote to it. Being a sports fan is an emotionally expensive endeavor, and the only reason we would apply any of the above methods is because, in reality, it hurts when the team you root for is awful. Maybe not as much as having a great team that underachieves or falls tragically short, but it's still a net loss on that emotional capital.
No matter how evolved, conscious or realistic a fan you may be, you still ultimately want your team to be a winner with a realistic shot at a title. Of course everyone's outlook varies, and whether you're delusional, optimistic, realistic, eternally sarcastic, sadistic, masochistic, uncertain, pessimistic or scarred for life, no point of view is necessarily more valuable than another. Maybe you think the Lakers are going to hit a home run on a top-5 pick this year, Julius Randle will become an elite up and comer, Kobe will come back healthy, the team will use its cap space sensibly and Byron Scott will better connect with a new group in year 2. Or, maybe you've taken a hard, sobering look at reality and come to the conclusion that Kobe's age, Byron's ineptitude, the bounce of a ping pong ball, unproven young prospects, the Lakers brand and LA cache aren't the most rock solid foundational pillars.
Maybe you just think, well, what else can they do? That's a valid line of thinking, too. At a certain point, even the most well-run, prescient front offices need a little luck for their organization to truly ascend to a level of sustained greatness (as the Lakers have in the past). It also seems that as fans become more informed, they have both a greater patience for the undulating level of quality of the product they'll see on the floor, and an ability to recognize the necessity of the inevitable downturn in the win-loss column.
Or maybe that hokey John Ireland commercial was right, maybe the best course is to just put our heads down and grin and bear it until the tide rises and uplifts the Lakers' flagging ship. Is it sticking it out through these rough times that truly bolsters a fan's legitimacy? Are we here out of Loyalty? City pride? Habit? Heritage? Like the unspoken obligation of some imaginary family business in the deep south, are you simply here because your daddy, your daddy's daddy and his daddy before him was a Lakers fan? Guilt? After all, it's not as if some omnipresent force is policing viewership, making sure the "true fans" swallow their nightly dose of the pasty, granular medicine that is a 2015 Lakers game. Maybe we want to claim possession over the genesis of the next great moment that stands as an inflection point for the Lakers franchise, essentially being able to say "I stood by them during...." as a way to imbue "I remember when ....!" with more substance and depth. I'd like to think there's more to my gritting out this eyesore of a season than just making a down payment on ownership of future nostalgia, but who's to say?
Am I copping out with all of these rhetorical questions? No time to answer now, I have to go see about a man on the radio who's offering what sounds like a can't miss opportunity to make a six figure income flipping houses in my area.