LOS ANGELES — If I went back in time and told 1984 Billy Simmons, “Twenty-six years from now, you will attend a home Lakers playoff game and enjoy it,” 1984 Me would have punched 2010 Me in the face. Check that — 1984 Me would have screamed, “No!!!!! No!!!!!!!!!!! I AM GOING TO LOSE MY SOUL!!!!! NO!!!!!!!!” And probably started running.
1984 Me hated the Lakers more than Shaq hates salads. I hated their colors, hated their fans and really hated “Showtime.” I thought the Lakers were front-runners. I thought they were losers. I thought they were soft. My beloved Celtics won the 1984 title simply because we were tougher, because we had Bird, because we had the Garden, because we had Murph and Sully high-fiving after big baskets instead of Michael Douglas and Dyan Cannon. We took control of the series in Game 4 by beating the Lakers up and knocking them around. In Game 5, the famous Heat Game, they were sucking from oxygen masks while Bird turned them into Lakers stew. In Game 7, they wilted from the pressure — especially Magic, who fell apart in sections — and handed us the title. I went to the last two games. It felt like winning a rumble.
The Lakers returned the favor in 1985, failed to show up for the rubber match in 1986, then outlasted a banged-up Celtics squad in 1987 (my favorite team ever). By that time, I hated the Lakers more than Heidi Montag hates dignity. I hated them so much that, in the 1988 Finals, I even rooted for the Pistons — the same team that stepped on McHale’s broken foot and said Bird would be just another good player if he were black — just because I couldn’t stomach the Lakers going back-to-back. I continued to hate them through the 1990s and into the new century, escalating that hatred during the Shaqobe Era, when the Lakers won three straight titles and seemed like a safe bet for six to eight more.
When I had a chance to move to Los Angeles in the fall of 2002, I made a pro/con list to help me make my decision. The very first “con”? The Lakers. I couldn’t imagine living in Lakers country, being surrounded by their fans, seeing those Lakers flags on cars, hearing my neighbors gush about Kobe … it just sounded excruciating.
I made the move, anyway.
My first Lakers game happened in November 2002, only six weeks after I moved from Boston, only three days after my first 80-degree Thanksgiving and 9:30 a.m. NFL game, and only one day after eating at a posh Santa Monica restaurant and picking my jaw off the floor because Dr. Dre had strolled in for a quiet dinner with his wife. (Or as it’s more commonly known in my house, “The Day Hip-Hop Died.”) By the time I strolled into that Sunday night game, my head was already doing 360s; I may as well have moved to Mars. It was more of a scene than a basketball game. It went against everything I believed in. That may have been the strangest 96-hour period of my life.
We sat across from the Lakers bench amid a section that could have passed for a Coldplay crowd at the Hollywood Bowl. A shockingly high number of *fans* had dressed as if they were heading to a club and accidentally got steered to a sporting event. Trophy girlfriends and trophy wives were sprinkled throughout every section. I learned quickly that there’s a special dress code that you see only at Lakers games: “sporty hot.” That covers any super-attractive woman wearing an expensive T-shirt and tight jeans, and maybe even a hat, so it looks as though she just rolled out of bed, even though there was a ton of thought (and time and effort) put into that night’s look. Needless to say, we weren’t overflowing with “sporty hot” women in Boston. Throw in the fact that 82.83 percent of all super-attractive women live in Los Angeles and, yes, the level of eye candy at that Lakers game blew my mind. This was a sporting event?
That wasn’t the only unique thing I noticed. There were enough botched face-lifts, bulbous implants and scary comb-overs to carry a special edition of Star magazine. Nobody yelled at the officials, nobody was getting drunk. Unlike in Boston, it didn’t seem as though there were enough clusters of guys just having a few pops together; almost everyone seemed to be on a date. One of the loudest cheers of the night: Jack Nicholson’s video screen cameo. At halftime, everyone sitting courtside scurried toward one of the corners (including Nicholson) and disappeared underneath the stadium for … well, we had no idea. Oh, and there was a game going on the whole time. And the Laker Girls. Can’t forget them.
Before that night, I had never attended a sporting event overshadowed by the scene itself. Maybe it was a meaningless early-season game for a team that had just won three straight titles, but over the next few years, as I kept hitting games, that balance remained skewed — the scene always trumped the game — and fed into my unwavering belief that Lakers fans were bandwagon phonies. Well, until 2006, my first Lakers playoff game (Lakers-Suns, Game 4), when I learned that playoff Lakers basketball had little in common with regular-season Lakers basketball. The same “scene” was in place, only with buzz and urgency. I brought my father to that one; we left the Silicon Center with begrudging respect for the fans. They cheered at the right times, lifted the team when it mattered and generally knew what to do.
The inherent problem with any Lakers game: There are three types of Lakers fans, so the balance of any crowd depends on Type A and Type C overriding Type B. Type A would be the die-hards — mostly middle or lower class, populating the upper levels of the arena as well as the higher corner seats. These are the ones who attend championship parades, stick flags on their cars, wear jerseys to games and defend Kobe to the death. They are my mortal enemies, and I love when they are unhappy … but I respect their passion. Type C would be the wealthy die-hards — upper class, connected, and in many cases, family-owned season-ticket holders since the days of Magic/Kareem or even West/Baylor — only it’s a disproportionately large group compared with any other NBA city except New York. I don’t mind these fans unless they are giving their tickets to Spaulding Smails-type relatives, which happens more than you think. They always return for the playoffs, just one reason why those games are always better.
The wheels come off with Type B: wannabe die-hards, locals there to be seen, couples showing up late and leaving early, C-list celebrities, agents or producers jabbering with clients and ignoring the game it’s everything I hate about Los Angeles in a nutshell. Every negative impression of a Lakers fan comes from the Type B’s, who tend to cluster for weekend games and Game 7s — anything that’s a difficult ticket — so instead of “Night of the Living Dead,” it’s “Night of the Living Pseudo-Fan.” The worst possible Lakers crowd? Any Finals game. It’s mostly Hollywoodites who called in favors or paid big bucks; the real fans get shoved into the upper decks or priced out entirely. (Important note: I will always believe that the 2008 Celtics won Game 4 of the Finals because it wasn’t a typical Lakers crowd.) If you want to have a sports experience with a healthy amount of L.A. sprinkled in, you want to attend a Lakers playoff game during the week. You get the highest percentage of real fans that way.
So I guess you could say that, after eight years, I have adapted to some degree: not just with living in Los Angeles, but with attending Lakers games. I love seeing good basketball in person more than I hate the Lakers, if that makes sense. Would I rather be part of an old-school, hard-core basketball crowd in Boston or New York for three hours? Of course. But Lakers playoff games aren’t a bad fallback plan two or three times per spring, as long as you can stomach:
1. The constant gushing over Kobe.
2. The unwavering collective belief that any time Kobe misses, this absolutely means he was fouled.
3. The unwavering collective belief that any time Kobe gets whistled for a foul or a turnover, he definitely didn’t do it.
4. Everyone’s willingness to overlook the two or three times per game when Kobe blatantly shows up one of his teammates or sells them out with a nasty look.
I have learned to tune things out. Whatever. They love the guy. But just to make sure I wasn’t being quietly corrupted and having my soul usurped, I brought my friend Jacoby to Game 2 of the Jazz-Lakers series.
Jacoby grew up a Celtics fan, lived in New York the past 15 years and could easily pass for a secondary lead in “How To Make It In America.” If anyone was put on Earth to despise a Lakers home playoff game, it’s him. I thought he would be a good fish-out-of-water test case for my theory that Lakers games have nothing in common with anything else in sports.
Jacoby lucked out for his virgin voyage: a weeknight Game 2, almost guaranteeing a good crowd. We met at my house, drove down to the game, parked and passed through L.A. Live on the way to the Staples. Once upon a time, the Staples Center was the only reason to go downtown at night, unless you wanted to get mugged, stabbed or chased. The building was surrounded by parking lots, sleazy hotels and about 30 different places to get a lube job or a tire changed. Thanks to the L.A. Live project (just finished this year), it’s now surrounded by a movie theater, an ESPN building with an ESPN Zone, multiple quality restaurants and bars, a Marriott, a towering Ritz Carlton and a mammoth parking garage. Fans have a place to go before and after games. Players have a fancy hotel to bring groupies and hookers. Everyone wins.
As we headed toward the cheery entrance, a confused Jacoby wondered, “Is this really the same place that the Clippers play at?” and added a few seconds later, “I feel like we’re headed towards a nightclub.” Almost on cue, an older, mullet-wearing Asian man wearing an Air Jordan jumpsuit and about 20 pounds of gold necklaces strolled by us holding hands with one of Colonel James’ 16-year-old girlfriends from “Boogie Nights.” Definitely a couple you wouldn’t see at a Celtics game. We decided that the man had reached the final stage in life: “Pajama Rich,” when you’re so wealthy that you feel like wearing only pajamas or sweatsuits in public. The Lakers have more than a few Pajama Rich fans. All Type B’s, by the way.
We went inside, found our section, found our row and realized we were sitting next to Lisa Leslie and her husband. I thought about introducing myself and saying, “Hey, I’m the guy who’s been making fun of your league for the last 10 years and thinks it should go away,” but decided against it. At any other event, we probably would have been sneaking glances at her — she’s like nobody you’ve ever seen in person, elegant and impossibly tall — and admiring her for chowing down on an entire pizza while wearing a cocktail dress, only this time, there was way too much to see. Jacoby quickly embraced the world of “sporty hot” (“this crowd is LOADED”), appreciated me for underselling the Laker Girls (“classier than I expected”), loved the opening with bedsheets falling off the scoreboard and giving way to a video display (“that was just plain cool”) and chewed up the general vibe (“this is everything game presentation should be”).
That’s a crucial point: Most NBA games these days are overshadowed by a misguided attempt to turn the game into a scene. Every team turns down the lights for the introductions, blasts the same Black Eyed Peas songs, shows the same inspirational movie clips, trots out the same semi-skanky-looking cheerleaders, plays the same musical cues to get fans to cheer … really, it’s organized manipulation that doesn’t differ from city to city. With Lakers playoff games? Mission accomplished. It really does feel like a scene.
And sure, the celebrities help. At other NBA games, they play “Higher Ground” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and show various fans dancing along. At Lakers games, they play “Higher Ground” and cut to Anthony Kiedis and Flea. You just never know who might be lurking, with the obvious exception of Nicholson, a courtside staple and America’s most beloved actor. Think of how many competitors for that title came and went over the years — Newman, Redford, Cruise, Stallone, Arnold, Crowe, Hanks, Murphy, Smith — only old Jack still has that championship belt. When he passes some day, Lakers games will transform into something else.
During the regular season, Jack sits like Bernie Lomax in his seat and barely moves. During the playoffs, it’s a much more animated Jack — he yells at the refs, hobnobs with opponents and referees, even stands up during lulls to coerce the crowd into a “Come on, guys, let’s pick it up here!” ovation. In general, the playoff crowds are locked in. You forget how much winning they have witnessed over the years: Not just 15 titles, but five straight decades of contention with only a couple of minor bumps. Like longtime Celtics fans, Lakers fans have seen every conceivable big game or scenario you can see. You could call them fan outliers — over the years, they definitely assembled 10,000-plus hours of how to support a basketball team. I believe a basketball fan has four jobs at a playoff game …
1. Rise to the occasion any time your team is playing great.
2. Rise to the occasion during any lull (the aforementioned “Come on guys, let’s pick it up here” play).
3. Work the refs as much as you can; make them feel uncomfortable.
4. Express genuine joy and happiness after any great play.
… and the right Lakers playoff crowd does all of these things. The fans rose to the occasion for the three best moments Tuesday — a breathtaking breakaway dunk by Shannon Brown (they went appropriately bonkers); a shot clock-saving, game-clinching heave by Kobe that rattled around and went in (ditto); and Kobe’s remarkable 360-degree, Hakeem-like pivot out of a seemingly insurmountable sideline trap for an easy 5-footer (that one drew a “whoooooooooooooooa!”) — as well as the single funniest moment, when Ron Artest found himself alone in crunch time, and we could see an “I should just shoot this 3-pointer” thought bubble popping above his head, causing every fan to scream, “Noooooooooooooooo!” the same way you would if a buddy was turning the ignition for a car with a bomb strapped underneath it.
Did he shoot it? Of course he did. He’s Ron Artest. (He missed.) He’s a fun Laker for so many reasons: Not just because he’s so consistently crazy that I challenged Jacoby to watch Artest and find five seconds when he didn’t seem crazy (nope); not just because he wants to fit in so badly that it’s comically endearing; not just because he’s just another goofball celebrity in a city filled with goofball celebrities; not just because he still plays in-your-jersey defense against scoring forwards as well as anyone (just don’t ask him to guard the Ginobili/Wade types); but because he’s a loose cannon playing in front of a fairly sophisticated fan base that understands the difference between a good basketball decision and a bad one. The Lakers are loaded enough that they can survive his occasional foibles/brain farts in these first two rounds, so the fans give him an accordingly long rope and appreciate him for who he is. After that? The rope will shorten. Considerably.
Just know that the Lakers aren’t going away. I thought they had been afflicted by a fatal case of the Disease of More — Pat Riley’s theory that, when you win a title, everyone wants more (minutes, money, shots, etc.) and it ends up sinking the title defense — but an upstart Oklahoma City team apparently rekindled their competitiveness. When Kobe manages the game, picks his spots and pounds the ball down low to his big guys, they are nearly unbeatable. Everything hinges on No. 24. He’s the most competitive guy in the league, but he also wants to be the hero of every game, and sometimes, you can’t be both. Tuesday night, he found the right balance. Spectacular. It was one of those nights when you watched him and thought, “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that he is one of the best 10 or 12 players ever.”
The fans appreciate him, and they should. It’s the right match of player and crowd. As Patrick Goldstein pointed out recently, this city has been dealing with talented, tortured, enigmatic stars for decades; he may as well be Russell Crowe or Sean Penn with a basketball. I don’t blame the fans for rooting for him, just like they can’t blame me for rooting against him. It’s sports. That’s what you do. You pick a side.
At the same time, Lakers home games can’t work without a superstar. For five decades (and counting), these fans have been blessed with West, Baylor, Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Shaq and Kobe. Seven of the 15 best players ever. At some point, the gravy train will end. The Lakers will bottom out like the Knicks did last decade, submarined by bad moves, poor signings and unlucky drafts. Their fans will flee in droves. Jack will pass away. The buzz will be gone. That’s how the NBA works — in a 30-team league, you can’t always get lucky, not even if you’re a big-market team with deep pockets.
I don’t know if that day is three years off or 30, but it’s coming. For now, playoff games continue to deliver. As Jacoby said afterward, “I couldn’t do that three times a week, but as a one-time deal, I had a blast. That’s the gold standard for a glitzy sporting event. I loved it, but I hate myself for loving it.” Exactly.
Last story: Our friend brought us to the Chairman’s Club at halftime, that mysterious underground location for Jack and the celebs. It’s one big room with a bar, two bartenders and popcorn. That’s all. We ordered drinks and I ducked through a back door to find a restroom. After I finished peeing, the toilet didn’t flush. I tried everything. Wouldn’t flush. I washed my hands, then left the bathroom intending to apologize to the next person in line and warn him, “Hey, just an FYI — that toilet doesn’t flush.”
The person waiting? Jack Nicholson. He was sitting on a chair, sunglasses on, squinting to see his cell phone. I was already feeling guilty enough about enjoying myself at a Lakers playoff game. This moment saved the day. No true Celtics fan would ever warn Jack Nicholson — the guy who came into our house during the 1984 and 1985 Finals and gave us the choke sign — about a toilet that wasn’t flushing. And so I walked by our most famous living actor in silence while praying that he needed to take a dump. Go Celtics.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller “The Book of Basketball.” For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy’s World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.