SAN ANTONIO — On the last day of school, even the kid who got bullied might smile that it’s finally over.
The worst team in Los Angeles Lakers history divided 27 by 82, got a very small .329 winning percentage, shut the math books and packed up for the final time Wednesday night.
And they did smile that it was over.
There were actual good vibrations running through the very same visiting locker room where Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, gimpy Steve Nash and injured Kobe Bryant sat together (well, sat in the same room, I mean) the first two games of the short-lived Lakers postseason a year ago.
None of those guys played for the Lakers in this season finale Wednesday night. It was such a sad assemblage of talent that there was nothing about which to be disappointed.
All hope had washed away long ago—to the point that the sunshine of the Lakers locker room, Nick Young, wore a light blue fishing hat with tropical images on it after the game…fully on board with the NBA on TNT elimination concept that the Lakers had “Gone fishin’”—though Young referred to it more as his “J.J. from Good Times” fishing hat.
Thank goodness for Young’s smile and humor in this dismal season, for the sake of players, fans and reporters. He wasn’t in rare form on this night; he was just in his usual form—and that introduced joy all over the room.
He came out of the shower to see a group of reporters (including Time Warner Cable SportsNet’s John Ireland as part of the Lakers' postgame show) interviewing Robert Sacre. Although I can’t duplicate here the exact intonation in Young’s voice that made it so funny, he simply said, “F--k Rob.”
And so triggered a whole round of entertaining dialogue for Sacre and Ireland about Young. There might not have been a funnier moment all season than when Young was ribbing Sacre after practice one day and Sacre smiled and referred to the high-haired Young as “the Screech of basketball,” alluding to the most ridiculous of characters from the old Saved by the Bell kids’ TV show.
Young is actually the ideal class clown, one who can prank very well and be pranked to the joy of all. His spirit with it is clean, so his fun doesn’t come across in a ridiculous way like Howard’s or mean-spirited style like Bryant’s. Metta World Peace was always seeking a spotlight to promote himself, and Young does it too, but Young’s desire for attention seems somehow innocent.
Although the whole “Swaggy P” identity seemed ridiculous when Young arrived to the Lakers with his reputation as a selfish player, it became too fun to resist after he got on a camel in China and recorded his own spectacular crash riding a toboggan at the Great Wall: “I crashed!”
It’s fun because Young isn’t trying to be too cool for school. He wants to be cool, but he’s happy; he’s happy to be ridiculous; he’s inclusive and he countered his cavalier approach by playing pretty hard and well for the Lakers. Young’s pride was palpable this season, to the point that Bryant began mentoring him early on, and he fought all the way to the end by persevering through a knee injury.
Here was Young’s postgame quote before moving that fishing hat from around his neck to on top of his head: “I just hope y’all saw that I went out there and played my heart out and you got the best Swaggy. I hope you liked it.”
After the penultimate game in Utah two days before, Young had said, smiling, “I hope y’all know Swaggy P can play a little.”
Young’s 41 points and energy that game had lifted the Lakers to victory.
And when TV sideline reporter Mike Trudell had to try to communicate from a platform down to Lakers Vice President of Public Relations John Black on the court in the final minutes that the station wanted Young for the postgame victory interview, Black couldn’t understand Trudell mouthing words or signaling “0” with his fingers for Young’s number.
So Trudell wound up imitating Young’s low-three-finger celebration after he hits a three to get the point across. (I was so amused watching it live that I had Trudell reenact it before the game in San Antonio.)
After the game in San Antonio, Trudell asked Young, with Black standing nearby, where Black ranks among NBA PR guys. Young said in his sing-song way, “John Black’s top five!”
To which Trudell asked, “How many teams have you played for?”
Young’s deadpan reply: “Four.”
Really, it was more like “Fo’”—but I wanted to get the joke across to you clearly. (What I also want to get across is that TWC SportsNet needs to develop a sitcom with the Screech of basketball, Trudell as Zack Morris and Black as Mr. Belding, the principal. Impeccable casting!)
Anyway, Young felt a little bad about it, so he said he was just clowning around and then said, “John Black’s top three!”
Young is his own sort of leader, bringing this team together through good times. On a day when New York Knicks President Phil Jackson officially signed Lamar Odom to give him a chance to work with trainers this summer and earn a spot on the team next season, it was a perfect time to stop and appreciate how valuable it is to have a guy around who all of his teammates enjoy.
Odom was that guy for the Lakers’ great recent teams. Young was that guy for his Lakers' injury-riddled, talent-poor team.
Sacre had tried to do the same inclusive thing a moment earlier by talking on camera about Chris Kaman while Kaman sat nearby, but he ignored Sacre and kept looking at his phone.
Young just has a way about him, and whereas many around the team privately hoped Howard wouldn’t return, the vast majority would love Young to be back.
He is expected to opt out of his contract and get more than the minimum salary of $1.2 million due his way currently from the Lakers. He hopes to return to the team, but much is up in the air—including how ball-stoppers Young and Bryant would work together on the court at the same time, which rarely happened this season.
For now, all there is to know about them is that this disappointing season ended with smiles Wednesday night after Young scored 16 points in a Lakers victory and yukked it up postgame. Bryant was in France, snapping a photo of wife Vanessa and designer Christian Louboutin. (Friday is the Bryants’ 13th wedding anniversary.)
Bryant might not want anything to do with this season, tweeting Wednesday that his training begins Monday.
Here’s what Young posted to Twitter, staying positive: “Love y’all thanks for all the support all yr #LakerNation #TeamSwaggy LA the home team ... I love my city no matter what ... LA Baby.”
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.