The last time the Los Angeles Lakers were in the NBA Finals was 2010. It was another victory over the Boston Celtics. It was the 16th Lakers championship. It was the final year Kobe would lead them to the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy.
2010 seems a lifetime away now. I was on a work trip watching the games from bars in Nashville but was back in town for the parade. Just like 2009, 2002, 2001, and 2000, I wore a Lakers jersey on Figueroa Street with thousands of others.
This year, the Lakers are back in the Finals and the excitement is not like in previous years. The combination of everything that’s happened this year mars the accomplishment and takes away some of the joy.
The Loss of Kobe Bryant
It was the tail-end of January when Kobe’s helicopter went down. Since then, several Lakers players, coaches, and staff have mentioned him as an inspiration this year. But losing Kobe has meant losing some of the city’s love for the game. I can’t help but imagine the excitement of this series if he were here. I can see Bryant front and center in heated trash talk with Dwyane Wade before, during, and after each game. I can see him yelling from the sidelines, sharing insights with his daughter Giana, and exchanging friendly banter with officials and players during timeouts. None of that will happen this year or ever again. All we have are the memories.
The NBA Bubble
COVID-19 disrupted everything in our lives. I’m certainly thankful to have baseball and basketball in any form. That said, much like everything else, the alternatives don’t create the same connection we know. In the NBA, all games have been played at Walt Disney World in Orlando without fans. This complex in Orlando is now known as the NBA Bubble. Playing out the season this way is understandable but there is no denying the bubble has led to an added sense of separation between the teams and fans. There are no Laker fans walking Figueroa toward Staples Center to take in a game. People can’t gather at restaurants and bars to watch the games and cheer on the team. There are fewer people outside in Lakers gear. The connection usually felt within the city as the team is winning games and gaining momentum toward the ultimate goal is not there. Los Angeles is watching the Lakers but it doesn’t feel like the city is a part of the Lakers.
Overall, the year has been painful and uncertain. We’ve lost loved ones, welcomed new lives, celebrated birthdays and graduations, all from afar. We’ve lived out the entire year through screens wondering when we will again experience life with all of our senses. The longer we continue, the more detached we feel from the events on the other side of the screen; be they good or bad.
The NBA Finals are set to kick off this Wednesday. I’ve watched the Lakers in each round of the playoffs and will be on my couch watching the Finals as well. I am, at the end of the day, an unapologetic Laker fan. The difference this year is if the Lakers win their 17th NBA championship, my celebration—like everything else this year—will occur in the privacy of my own house with mixed emotions about what was gained and lost to get there.