LOS ANGELES – As blasphemous as this line of thinking is in sports—particularly in the hallowed house of a franchise as storied as the Lakers—there really can be more to life than championships.
“It’s a good locker room,” Lakers guard Steve Blake said Sunday night. “Win or lose.”
The most emerging force in that room—high-energy Jordan Hill, who, like Blake, endured all the negativity of the 2012-13 Lakers season—put it even more aptly than that.
“Like a real team,” Hill said.
Waxing poetic about a 7-7 squad that just beat a clueless crew of Sacramento Kings might seem like a reach. Yet that’s precisely the point.
The goal of this season for the Lakers wasn’t explicitly to win the club’s 17th NBA championship; it was also about a return to the joyfulness that comes with honest work and real camaraderie.
It’s why even Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni can’t resist doing the compare and contrast with regard to last season—unable to forget the expectations, pressures and Dwight Howard’s massive ego.
On Sunday night, D’Antoni mentioned how basic it is to learn to share with others, bringing it all the way back to kindergarten, where “you share your paste and your crayons.” He noted how his players this season share willingly, and he offered one straight-shot example of that.
“They don’t go in and get a stat sheet,” D’Antoni said.
Just moments after Howard did that, Pau Gasol—despite having his starting job just taken away from him—spoke passionately about the players’ need to begin “owning up to our responsibilities.” Welp.
Those Lakers then had a team meeting at the next stop in Memphis—one D’Antoni described at the time as “open your heart up and let everything be raw”—with the players and coaches desperately trying to build an alliance.
D'Antoni is a real person with real feelings, as much as he might be viewed as a mustachioed puppet who exists solely to build membership and dedication in the Official Phil Jackson Fan Club.
He has spent his entire adult life on basketball teams. He was a pro player for a long time—17 years, mostly in Italy—before he became a coach. But it goes back much further than that, especially considering D’Antoni’s father, Lewis, was a legendary high school basketball coach.
D'Antoni knows what team unity looks, sounds and feels like. He might not ever have Jackson’s touch in coaching superstars, but the chemistry part D’Antoni knows well.
Before the victory Sunday night, he said: “You always search for it as a coach. … Some teams are tougher to convince.”
So it is with great pride that D’Antoni believes these Lakers possess such kinship. He balked at a reporter’s question generalizing Chris Kaman’s issues with playing time as any sort of broader disharmony. D’Antoni admitted how downright happy he was that he could sit starter Wesley Johnson down the stretch Sunday night and not have to go find him postgame and say, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
It feels good to be part of something clean like that—especially after being mired in something so dirty.
It’s why D’Antoni can’t resist little digs at Howard, even as much as the coach normally deflects questions delving into the dysfunction of last season. After the Lakers beat Howard in Houston two weeks ago with Howard missing free throws after D’Antoni deliberately fouled him, D’Antoni was asked about last season when he vowed to stand by Howard and not bench him in the face of such cheap tactics.
Well, D’Antoni cracked—he was supposed to get Howard to re-sign, you know.
What about this season’s Lakers, almost all of whom have unsecure futures?
“Although they’re all free agents…they’ve got the right values in the sense that they like their teammates, they like the Lakers and we’re trying to win as a team,” D’Antoni said.
Watching the Kings glare at each other on Sunday night after repeated breakdowns in help defense brought back memories of those 2012-13 Lakers who didn’t even offer helping hands back up when teammates fell down. Worth nothing, then: Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins angered Lakers guard Jordan Farmar with an extra push on Sunday night, Lakers forward Shawne Williams interceded—and soon Farmar was the one escorting an angry Williams away from the fray.
“If someone throws me down, I feel like Jordan would be the first one there for me,” Williams said.
He later added: “We’re a family. Gotta let ‘em know we can’t stand for that.”
What they can stand for is the kind of stuff that happened between two newcomers in the Lakers’ locker room on Friday night after the victory over Golden State. Xavier Henry fooled Nick Young into believing he had hidden Young’s phone—and the hostage ransom that a smiling Henry was demanding from Young was Rihanna’s phone number.
After the victory Sunday night, there was ultimate cheerleader Robert Sacre ribbing Gasol about drawing a crowd of reporters right when Sacre was about to get dressed at his locker next to Gasol’s.
Gasol, the generous two-time champion, and Sacre, the good-hearted rookie so happy to be there after being picked last in the NBA draft, had tried their best to make sense of things last season. It just didn’t happen.
Now, they’re in the midst of a nice team flow that might be kind of hard to explain but is extremely easy to appreciate.
“Pau!” Sacre faux-pleaded. “I really gotta change!”
Like a real team…