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The Lakers valued streetlights over spotlights to give Los Angeles a team it could actually love

The Lakers embodied the spirit of Los Angeles during their run to the 2019-20 championship.

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LA Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

“You’re lucky these aren’t Dodgers tickets or I’d stab your ass.”

It was Christmas 2009, and the Los Angeles Lakers were facing off against the reigning champion Boston Celtics in a rematch of the previous NBA Finals. My then-girlfriend (and current wife) bought us tickets up in the nosebleeds to watch what we thought was an NBA Finals preview.

At the end of the fist quarter, I made my way to the restroom along with what felt like a decent chunk of the entire damn city. As we were there waiting in a line stretching almost to the next men’s room, a Celtics fan wearing a Paul Pierce jersey turns the corner with his chest puffed out (Boston had an enormous one-point lead).

“See? This is what a champion looks like. We punked you then. We’re punking you now. We’re gonna punk you this summah.”

The voice at the start of this story came in response, from the guy standing right behind me in line. He was legitimately gigantic, standing as tall and wide Kendrick Perkins, but probably more skilled; he was as intimidating and muscular a person as I’d ever seen.

When the aforementioned Celtics fan caught sight of the real-life Hulk wearing a Magic Johnson jersey, he stopped in his tracks with the ghost of his last taunt spread across his face.

“Hey bro. I know you heard me. You’re lucky I paid two weeks’ salary for these tickets or I’d stab your ass.”

The Celtics then fan shrunk to the point where he’d be looking up at the average leprechaun. His pants probably matched the shorts Paul Pierce wore as he was wheelchaired to the bathroom months prior.

It’s a story I’ve always just kind of laughed at ever since. It was hilarious. My dude covered his Pierce jersey and raced back to his seat as if his life depended on it. The entire line and everyone else standing in that hallway keeled over in laughter. I’ll never forget it, especially since the Lakers sent the Celtics similarly running in the second half of that game.

But now, looking back on this Lakers team, that fans’ reasoning for not fighting that brave-but-dim Celtics fan serves as a reminder of who the city of Los Angeles — and the Lakers’ fan base by extension — is actually made up of. For all the glitz and glamor that has become synonymous with the Lakers, the vast majority of people who live and die with the outcomes of their team’s game are working class. People who save up for weeks, months, or even the whole year to be able to watch a big Christmas Day game.

Those fans — the real ones who flocked even to the shitfest that was the last seven years because these were finally games they could afford nice seats to — genuinely love this specific team of new champions.

Why? Because they resonate with the backbone of Los Angeles.

2020 NBA Finals - Game Six
This Lakers team may have been star-studded, but where they were truly great was on the less-sparkly end of the floor.
Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Sure, LeBron James and Anthony Davis are supremely talented and will get the shine when it’s all said and done. So it goes with the movie, television and music stars the city has produced. Just as James and Davis are who come to mind when you think of this team, Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington, Andy Garcia, et al, are shown game in, game out during nationally televised events.

But what truly made this Lakers team special was the buy-in from role players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo and the rest of those who committed to defense, sacrifice, trust and small doses of their own heroics, all the while knowing the credit they’d receive would (rightly) pale in comparison to the praise heaped onto the Hall of Famers making their case as the greatest duo of all time.

When another team in Los Angeles was trotting around (not unlike Celtics jersey dude) preaching grit and plastering “streetlights over spotlights” billboards all across the city while Lou Williams put his postseason and that of his entire team at risk for some chicken wings, it was the Lakers quietly going to work night in, night out, building an identity of just getting it done.

Ever wondered why the Clippers caught so much shit after their latest second-round exit? It’s because they talked the talk, but failed to walk the walk. This city only cares about results. The Lakers earned this result, and the Clippers earned their slice of humble pie.

It’s become cliche to think of coastal elites when talking about Los Angeles, and for some reason consider everyone else who lives here less hardworking than those doing the same exact jobs in flyover states. Sure, that’s the case for executives living in the city’s high-rises. But the heart of the city? No, that’s made up of millions of working class families just trying to earn a living, working the same jobs, but in a part of the country where the money made breaking their backs extends a fraction of how far it does in the midwest.

Lifelong Los Angeles natives, immigrants and migrants alike flocked to or stayed in the city with a dream in mind, and a sense of desperation to either make it come true, or fight like hell in the attempt. Sound familiar?

Sure, we all know how James and Davis arrived, but what about guys like Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo, who might’ve had only a couple shots left at a title as they near the end of their careers?

How about Alex Caruso, who went from cult hero waiting for his chance to viral sensation, not unlike any number of bands or actors?

Hell, even Frank Vogel and Rob Pelinka come from pretty obviously different backgrounds, but forged a bond over media critiques of their hirings and a fanbase that had no shortage of people who wanted someone else in their roles.

Look across this roster and you’ll find a similar combination of hard-working origin stories you’d find anywhere you go in the melting pot that is Southern California.

And in order for all their goals to be accomplished, it took finding common ground to eventually work together. It took trust. It took belief. It took an understanding that reaching this goal was impossible without working together.

How isn’t that the story of Los Angeles, or any group of people in it also working towards a goal, whatever that might be?

2020 NBA Finals - Game Six
This roster was a team, in the truest sense of the word.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

This Lakers team resonated the way it did for fans not just because it was the first good Lakers team in damn near a decade, but for the way they overwhelmed and outworked their opponents.

When the Lakers were at their best, they ran. “It’s like Showtime,” many said breathlessly. But that misses the point.

Transition buckets only come from stops. You only get stops by committing to defense. Commitment to defense is an organization-wide concept.

In an era highlighted by incredible offensive performances and a rulebook tailored to generating gaudy stat lines, the 2019-20 Lakers built their identity on defense. They worked their asses off. And the payoff when they did was some kind of fastbreak that often showcased James’ and Davis’ individual greatness.

Sure, the replays focus on that breakaway dunk or insane alley-oop, but make no mistake, it took every single person on the roster committing to doing the dirty work to make those magical sequences happen.

So here’s hoping my buddy from 2008 is saving up for next season (so long as it’s safe, obviously), because this season — and the identity reflecting this city that was built in it — was just the beginning.

Important note: I (and Silver Screen and Roll) don’t condone violence in any way, shape or form, especially over something as unimportant as sports.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Anthony on Twitter at @AnthonyIrwinLA.

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