Might just be that I’m feeling nostalgic after savoring Grantland’s sensational oral history of how the 1996 movie Swingers was made. I emailed the link to all of the guys who became the groomsmen at my wedding, reminiscing and drawing inspiration from the beating-the-odds backstory of Jon Favreau getting his culture-changing underdog movie made.
But my sense is that these days Los Angeles Lakers fans could use something to lighten the mood and recall some past glory, too. So I figured it’d be fun to share some of my own behind-the-scenes material (of the material that can be shared) from years of covering the Lakers all over the map.
How about one memorable anecdote from each of the seven cities on the just-completed season-long Grammy Awards trip?
After 15 years with the Lakers, it’s not hard to offer a reasonably interesting tale from any NBA city. Or even any previous NBA city (Seattle, where—even more than the time bad actor Shaquille O’Neal deliberately dived into us writers for a ball out of bounds and literally crushed a computer with his giant sneaker—I’ll never forget bad guy Isaiah Rider basically threatening the families of some other writers over things they wrote about him). Or any new NBA city (New Orleans, where my refusal at a mugger’s order to “empty your pockets” became an immediate part of Lakers lore, including Kobe Bryant coming up in deadpan fashion, gentle hand on my arm, asking sweetly if I was OK and offering me use of his security detail).
Any playoff series resonates way more than a regular-season visit, and the Lakers were in Phoenix for many Mays—hence Phil Jackson’s wicked greeting at one afternoon pregame media session with us familiar faces: “Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers.”
But the Lakers’ last playoff meeting with the Phoenix Suns in 2010 sticks out, albeit not because of anything on the Lakers’ march to yet another NBA title. Rather, I remember sitting there after the Lakers had won Game 6 of a series I gave the gritty Suns zero chance of winning and being struck by how Steve Nash and Grant Hill were feeling.
Such long, great careers, and a truly outstanding effort to take the Suns to the Western Conference Finals and to come within one Game 5 last-second Ron Artest shot within taking a 3-2 series lead back to Phoenix.
Then-Suns coach Alvin Gentry and Nash were both tremendously honest afterward about recognizing that truly outstanding effort. It reinforced one thing for me and taught me another.
First, in a playoff series with one team expecting to win the title against one that wasn’t and never did, the former almost always winds up winning. But this also offered a new appreciation for how meaningful journeys can be even if the last game is a loss: The Suns were still so immensely proud of their season that it was impossible to miss.
Almost all I’ve known with the Lakers has been championship expectations: Before moving to Bleacher Report last year, I went to cover the Lakers for the Orange County Register in 1999, right before Jackson arrived for the immediate three-peat, with two near-misses in 2004 and ’08 before two more titles came in 2009 and ’10.
It’s a message current Lakers fans and tanking advocates need to bear in mind. In a win-at-all-costs world, there still exists a point to playing and competing. There can still be drama in every moment that tests, growth to be discovered and fun to be had.
Jackson used to refer to rookies as lower than “whale s---,” so one quiet day at practice in Toronto in 2010, he just went ahead and shared a pretty embarrassing story about rookie Derrick Caracter.
Caracter didn’t mean to, but he ordered a $45 pitcher of orange juice for himself at the team’s luxury hotel there.
The Lakers have been rock stars for much of the past 15 years, but most of the players have just been regular guys in unusual circumstances.
In fact, there’s a metaphor to be found there with Toronto and “Broom Girl.” She was this pretty girl-next-door who, for a few years, pushed a broom with the towel on the bottom to clean the court down by the visiting team’s bench at Air Canada Centre. Despite all of the hot dancers or wild groupies who are part of NBA life, “Broom Girl” did not go unnoticed.
The NBA is about superstars and championships, but it’s also about Derrick Caracters and Broom Girls.
A logical segue would just tell the story of Jackson, after one 2005 practice on a snowy Chicago day at Moody Bible Institute, publicly reveling in him and Brian Shaw calling Kwame Brown “a pussy…cat,” but after the Caracter story, let’s not go with too much of a good thing.
I’ll also never forget Artest’s first time back to Chicago since divulging he used to drink Hennessy before Bulls games. He was getting a little frustrated at reporters focusing on what he did instead of what he was trying to do in educating youth by admitting his mistakes, so I helped him out and he brightened visibly and said, “Kevin Ding! You win the prize!”
A completely different animal on the basketball court from the timid Brown, but Artest/Metta World Peace was/is really a sweet person at heart. Which brings us to the guy with the most easily remembered Lakers moment from Chicago: Dwight Howard, who, for all of the sweet fun he puts out there, is not that kind of sweetheart.
Howard went around the losing locker room with a stat sheet last January in Chicago—prompting this “Time to hold Dwight Howard accountable” column from me.
I remember asking Howard a couple of questions that night and thinking that the guy just doesn’t get it. He is so far into himself that he doesn’t know how to get out.
Oh, I ripped Dwight last season in Miami, too. Back home a couple of days later, he told me he’d read what I wrote about Nash being fed up with his attitude and me criticizing him for not trying his hardest. Howard said he disagreed—but then delivered a titanic effort that night for the Lakers to win a game in which Bryant had four points and eight turnovers.
Anyway, to hark back to the initial point about Swingers, what I really remember is that I played an incredible amount of Electronic Arts’ Sega Genesis NHL hockey games in Miami when I came out of college and went to work for the Miami Herald.
(Two bonus memories with the Lakers having also just faced the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday: 1. For my week in Indianapolis at my first Lakers NBA Finals in 2000, a buddy who drove in from Chicago to hang out, and I actually went to rent a compatible TV to play his Sega that week. 2. Lamar Odom defending me and my affection for Indianapolis-based Steak ‘n Shake in the Lakers’ locker room one time—which was followed by Luke Walton defending me and my affection for Jack in the Box breakfast sandwiches.)
My strongest Miami memories are naturally of my time with the Herald, including Dan Marino calling me over after I wrote a column that stated his teammates admired him but were sorta afraid of him, being scared to play with the golf putter Marino kept in his locker and Jimmy Johnson not breaking stride at practice one day as he walked briskly past and just said, “Don’t go making my cuts for me in the paper.”
But I also remember asking Jackson at a Lakers-Heat game on Christmas Day 2006 about Heat center O’Neal’s very public proclamations that he ranked Pat Riley, who had just helped O’Neal to his first non-Lakers title, as a better coach than Jackson.
Jackson noted that O’Neal was the kind of guy to “love the one you’re with”…and then came the Phil grin that showed that even if it is something, no need to really make it into something, even as he sort of was making more out of it.
Did that make any sense? It was sort of what Jackson did with all of his crises—deal with it while not going crazy dealing with it, and definitely sapping it of its power by making light of it.
This was my favorite of the Lakers’ championship celebrations. Unlike the Shaq-Kobe teams, that 2009 team won because it was as much team as sheer talent. The celebration in the locker room felt that way, especially Bryant and Derek Fisher’s appreciation for the moment and fooling Jackson into coming out to get sprayed with champagne—at which point Jackson just tilted back and just savored it. What a moment.
(Favorite specific championship celebration moment, however, as I just kind of go on a stream of consciousness here: Kobe in the training room after his first title in 2000 and celebrating with Travis Knight while calling him “White Knight! White Knight!”—and then Bryant counting up how maybe he’d win 10 NBA titles. Really.)
Being completely honest, though, what jumps weirdly to mind about Orlando is that on one of my first days covering the Lakers, my flight was late getting into town and I rushed to practice at some little church in Orlando. There was a tiny elevator to take up to the basketball court. I tried but missed, and I guess the misses just stick with you so you don’t repeat them.
This is not the best elevator-related Lakers practice story I have, by any means: Ask my Bleacher Report comrade Howard Beck about the time in Denver, where there is an elevator up to the Nuggets’ practice court, or about the time at Lakers’ practice in November 2000 when I’d written something to perturb Bryant the previous day in Sacramento. Beck was covering the Lakers for the Los Angeles Daily News then, and he pursued an angry Bryant off the practice court to find out what was wrong. Bryant stood in that elevator and just told Beck, “Get off the elevator, Howard.” One of the classic lines of all time to some of us writers, though Kobe has no idea.
At the mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden, which do you think was better to watch live: Bryant’s 61-point game in 2009 or Linsanity leaping forward in 2012 with Jeremy Lin’s 38 points against the Lakers?
Considering I’ve seen Bryant get buckets on more than one occasion, it was easily Lin’s game, especially because his Taiwanese-American heritage is similar to mine. I’d talked to my cousin’s basketball-playing 13-year-old son the night before for what wound up an award-winning piece about the depth of what Linsanity was really meaning to people.
We never know where the stories will come from in this business. And as you can see, often they come from behind the scenes, too.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.