Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"Rooting For The Enemy"

I get a call Friday afternoon.

“I’ve got an extra ticket to Lakers-Nuggets Game Seven on Sunday. Would you like to go?”

“YES!” (The “yes” came fast. It was like, “Would you like to goyes.”)

That’s how it started. An invitation to Lakers-Nuggets, Game Seven. The deciding game of the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals, determining which team would move on to play for the championship. I’m a huge Lakers fan. And even if I weren’t, it’s the deciding game of the finals, not the actual finals, but the finals before the actual finals, which is still big enough that if you’re any kind of basketball fan, and somebody invites you to that game, you really – racing towards desperately – want to go.


Anyone following the NBA playoffs knows what happened. For those who don’t…you know how they say, when they’re talking about upcoming playoff games, like, “Game Seven, if necessary”? Well, this one wasn’t necessary. The Lakers clinched in six games. Game Seven, being unnecessary, was never played. Meaning, no me, Sunday, at Game Seven. There was no Game Seven.

No game at all.

On the Friday before, however, I have no such awareness. I just know that the Denver Nuggets are down three games to two. The Nuggets beat the Lakers in Game Six, the series is tied three-three, and I’m there at the Staples Center for the deciding Game Seven. It’s as simple as that.

Context. I’m in heaven at Lakers playoff games. Dr. M and I went often during the “Magic” Johnson era. I adored the “80’s” Lakers – Kareem, Worthy, Rambis, the inspirational Michael Cooper, but especially “Magic”, pushing the ball up the court, making impossible passes to the open man only he seems to be able to see. The excitement in those days was unbelievable. Plus they won five championships.

(When she heard “Magic” was retiring because he’d contracted the HIV virus, Dr. M called me at work and broke the news to me personally. I thanked her for taking the time to call me. “I didn’t want you to hear it from a stranger,” she explained.)

This, of course, is a different team, but I’m still a huge Laker fan. I wanted to see them beat the Nuggets. And when I say, “see”, I mean sitting in a seat in the place.

A Game Seven was by no means a longshot. The Nuggets had to win Game Six, but there were plenty of reasons to believe they would.

1) The Nuggets had to win or they were eliminated. For them, it was “do-or-die.”

2) The Nuggets had prevailed in two earlier playoff series and had beaten the Lakers twice in this series. They were a very capable team.

3) Game Six was being played in Denver, a significant factor, as, of all the major sports, basketball is the sport with the most reliable “home court advantage.”

An L.A. loss was a distinct possibility. And from the moment I received the invitation, I knew where I stood. As strange as it would feel, for Game Six of the Western Conference Finals, I was rooting for the Nuggets.

Game Time.

We have out of town house guests. We go out for dinner. We come home. I turn on the TV. It’s the second quarter.

The Lakers are ahead by thirteen points.

It wasn’t going to be easy.

It’s an odd experience, pulling for the other team. The Nuggets have two star players, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups. I haven’t a clue who the other players are. But it doesn’t stop me from rooting for them.

“Get the ball, Dreadlocks Guy!”

“Grab that rebound, Spiky Haircut White Guy with the colored tattoos!” Man, he was an ugly looking fellow, a grotesque stranger from the opposing team. And I was cheering the guy on!

Was it helping? No.

As luck would have it, the Lakers are playing their most spectacular game of the season. Everything’s working. They’re stopping them on defense, and their shots are all going in. Seeing my Game Seven appearance slipping away, I supplement rooting for the opposition with – it’s not my proudest moment – rooting against the team I love.

That doesn’t work either. Kobe sets for an outside jumper.

“Miss!” I call out.


Odom blows a lay-up.

“All right!” I enthuse.

Gasol tips in the rebound.


Great shooting, tough rebounding, tight defence – the Lakers did everything right.

But lose.

The Laker lead continues to grow. My houseguest confidently opines that it’s over. But I refuse to lose hope. Though the odds are increasing, I am confident the Lakers can still blow it.

This is hardly wishful thinking. All season, the Lakers have been notorious for giving up what appeared to be insurmountable leads. There was also the searing memory of last year’s finals, when the Lakers coughed up a twenty-four-point advantage to the Celtics. My houseguest stubbornly insists that it’s over.

“The Lakers have a twenty-point lead,” I explain with mounting irritation. “The Nuggets have them just where they want them.”

Though the Laker lead continues to expand, I remain steadfast, and defiantly hopeful.

“As long as there’s time on the clock, there is still a chance for a miracle collapse.”

It didn’t look good. The Nuggets seemed to be standing around, letting the Lakers score one uncontested basket after another. The Nuggets seemed like they were playing in a daze, like people had kidnapped their loved ones and were holding them for ransom:

“Lose or they die.”

I know that’s an improbably rationale for why the Nuggets played so badly. More likely, there was just this massive conspiracy to keep me from going to Game Seven. Which doesn’t really seem fair. I don’t remember doing anything to them.

The final score was Lakers – 119, Nuggets – 92, Lakers taking the series four games to two.

It’s funny. My favorite team had broken my heart before. But this was the first time they ever had done it by winning.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Ah. The '80s Lakers. I remember them well, having been a fan of the '80s Celtics.

It goes without saying that Bostonians and Angelenos were -- probably are, for all I know -- Very Different Sort of fans.

This, and I remember it vividly because I was there, is emblematic of the rivalry between these two great teams at that time.

At one point, the Celtics and the Lakers had met in the NBA finals a zillion times in a row. One year it was Boston, another it was L.A., almost invariably in seven games.


One of those years the Lakers won it, in seven, by a margin slimmer than purely theoretical particles. The Bostonians spent the entire season baying for Laker blood, howling for vengeance.

Only the Lakers took the Rockets too lightly and lost the Western Finals (in 7) and it was Houston, not L.A. that faced the Celtics.

What was the chant that echoed throughout the old Boston Garden, greeting the eardrums of the Houston Rockets at every opportunity?

Beat L.A., Beat L.A.!