A lot can happen in a week’s time. Last Sunday, Dwayne Wade broke Kobe Bryant’s nose in the All-Star game. In the three games since, Kobe scored 102 points. He also led his team to convincing wins in all three games, including a victory against Wade’s Miami Heat.
Second impact syndrome is the terminology for what can happen when an athlete receives a second concussion before fully recovering from an initial, even minor concussion. I won’t go into the details but it involves swelling of the brain and unrelieved pressure – not pleasant stuff. Kobe was diagnosed with a concussion on a Tuesday, as well as soft tissue damage in his neck to go along with his broken nose. He was allowed into action the following day.
Kobe’s game against the Timberwolves was stunningly successful, a masked bandit pouring in 31 efficient points in 33 minutes. Why 33 minutes? Because the Laker lead dipped to a mere 19, late in the 4th quarter. Coach Brown in his infinite wisdom sent Kobe back out to protect this tenuous situation. Not to worry about the broken nose, the concussion and the damage to his neck.
Two nights later, the Lakers are up by 10 with only seconds left against he Sacramento Kings. Keith Smart sees a teaching opportunity and calls a time out. A natural segue for Kobe to take his place on the bench considering the considerable time he’s been logging this season, not to mention that whole concussion/neck injury thing. Nope, Brown sends him back – the Kings foul Kobe hard and he heads back to the line.
Sunday – the Miami Heat come to town, a major storyline considering that it was Wade who did the bloody deed a week earlier. The Heat are widely considered the favorites to take it all this year. The Lakers picked them apart – perhaps their most convincing win this season. Kobe was an assassin and the rest of the team stepped up as well. Andrew dominated inside and Metta World Peace was as dialed in as I’ve seen him in a long time. Pau played well, Steve Blake played well, they all played well - crisply, cohesively, with meaning.
And you may ask yourself, well, how did we get here?
The Lakers ended last season by cleaning house and hiring Mike Brown. An excerpt from a May 27, post entitled This Is Not My Beautiful House:
There are contingency plans of course, in the event that cooler heads prevail and a season is somehow salvaged. For the Lakers, this entailed finding a coach who could follow Phil Jackson, a coach who would bring a fractured team back together and lead them to the promised land. After careful consideration, they hired Mike Brown. Pause for the sound of a gigantic shoe dropping with a loud, dull thud. Yes, that guy from the Cavs, the one last seen with LeBron’s tire tracks across his back. He was on ESPN the other night, grinning huge at the prospect of working with Kobe. I’m sure Kobe’s excited to be working with Brown as well, henceforth to be known as the big bulls-eye.
What was Jim Buss thinking? You probably don’t want to know, I suspect his mind is a soggy and dangerous place. He often talks of learning at the hand of Mitch Kupchak but it’s a crock – the only guy who sat at the right hand of Kupchak was Ronnie Lester, 25 years with the Lakers and the one really responsible for scouting and championing Andrew Bynum. Lester is now joining the exiting conga-line of coaches, scouts, trainers and video staff, courtesy of Jimmy’s sloppily wielded truncheon.
Cooler heads did not prevail – the league would soon shut out its players, resulting in a protracted lockout in which a cabal of owners attempted to shut things down for a season and break the players’ union, it was a time of strangeness and abstractions. That a season was rescued at all was due to lawsuits from the players – a ludicrous checkerboard schedule followed, along with predictable injuries and spotty up-and-down play.
The Lakers’ abbreviated preseason brought them a blockbuster trade that was summarily scuttled by David Stern, the trade of Lamar Odom for financial reasons, and the rupture of some key ligaments in Kobe Bryant’s shooting wrist. And so their season began, with three games in three days - Kobe played with the torn-up wrist, naturally.
The team itself went through a series of lineup experiments as the season progressed, a dizzying array of rotations that baffled most observers, along with the players themselves. The musical chairs lasted until this past week when Brown declared himself settled (notwithstanding the fact that Pau Gasol remains on the block).
You may ask yourself, how do I work this?
A couple weeks ago, Kobe Bryant spoke up for beleaguered teammate Pau Gasol, blasting the front office for keeping the guy dangling. It’s not a good way for management to promote team unity and success. Kobe’s statement however, was a good way to promote team unity and success. Ken Berger was one of many to write about the team’s deteriorating front office.
The Lakers’ front office is an uncommunicative, rudderless fiasco, and the unrest and paranoia that have been festering for years threaten to derail the team’s plans to ride Bryant to his sixth NBA title while they still can. And much of it can be traced to the growing influence of executive vice president Jim Buss, the owner’s bon vivant son, who has helped transform a great franchise into a steaming pool of nepotism and nincompoops.
General manager Mitch Kupchak responded to Kobe’s statement in the only way he really could, preserving the right to make personnel changes when needed. Lakers icon Magic Johnson put himself into the mix via a conference call with reporters, stating that Jim Buss is the one running the show, not Mitch Kupchak. Magic elaborated on television, “I’ve been with the Laker organization for almost 35 years, and this is really the saddest, the most disappointed that I’ve been.”
Roland Lazenby, author of numerous sports biographies, columns and other good writings, unleashes some wonderful threads on his twitter account. During the height of the Buss/Magic/Kobe tempest, he opined acerbically on the subject of the Lakers blowing out the minutes of their most valuable asset:
A season like this could burn Kobe’s candle out quickly. It’s a big price paid for a new CBA. Kobe won’t decide to retire. His knees will make that decision for him. He’s long known that. A basketball player’s knees are like a rock musician’s ears. They wear our and leave you crippled or deaf. That’s the real price of it all.
Race horses are surprisingly delicate creatures. They’re bred for blinding speed, and support themselves on incredibly spindly legs. As they run, their hooves hit the ground independently, 2,000 pounds of crashing weight. Each year about 800 die in the United States as a result of on-track injuries. Somebody could ask Jim Buss about this – the guy running the front office into the ground used to train his dad’s racehorses.
The racehorse analogy’s a tough one for me. I actually love going to the track, or at least I love the memory of it. I bought a fake ID when I was 13 and would go to the Del Mar summer meets until my meager savings were exhausted. It’s a brutal sport though. Ever see a horse break down in the home stretch? They struggle to cross the finish line, ankles sometimes flopping - whether it’s the instinctual drive to win or simply a sad attempt to outrun the pain, who knows. They can’t speak.
Like most of the teams in the NBA, the Lakers have had a jagged up and down season. The common wisdom is that they don’t have the talent to go all the way – hence the nonstop trade rumors. There can be no doubt that the team has been playing better since Kobe spoke out in support of Gasol. A couple days later, after a win against Portland, the team held a brief players only meeting, and further circled the wagons.
A litany of injuries over 16 seasons, from shoulder to knees to ankles, gnarled fingers that no longer grip the ball as strongly, the torn-up wrist that somehow self-healed and now pushing through a head injury that didn’t seem to faze him a bit. Somehow he perseveres. His ability to will mind over matter his astounding – he terms it “adjusting”. Terminator-esque, shedding parts along the way. Muhammad Ali used to will his mind over body, laying on the ropes and inviting punishment, waiting for his moment to counter with dazzling flashes that became fewer and more far between as age and punishment took its toll. As we all know now, he paid a heavy price for the blows to his head.
Throw a dart at the season’s schedule, ask at any random juncture where the Lakers should be. Take fans’ temperatures regarding trades, ask those who ponder such things if Brown was the right choice, if gutting an organization is clear-headed thinking, if Lamar’s trade exception should remain unspent, if anybody thought the team would be in fourth place in the west right now and climbing.
The game against Miami looked different, just as the past few games have looked different – the white light that leaks from the edges, the blurring of age and injury-defying moves, time standing still once more as it always seems to in this game when brilliance unfolds.
The future doesn’t always play out as predicted – LeBron’s Heat lost to the Lakers this afternoon and afterward, he came over and gave Brown a cordial hug. Wade just stared with a towel over his head. As for Kobe, he was giving an on-court interview at the time, relaying how it feels to play with a plastic mask covering his face – this in the wake of three games in which he averaged 36 minutes and 34 points. And I can make no real sense of it except to take it as it comes. Once in a lifetime.