An odd sight — odder even than the pattern of Pau Gasol's facial growth — emerged the day after the Lakers celebrated their 15th NBA championship and became the first professional team (depending on your opinion of the USC football program) to be cheered by a sellout L.A. Memorial Coliseum crowd in 15 years.
TMZ (a.k.a. JBFWS — Joe Buck's Favorite Web Site) ran a photo of an older, solitary man sitting at a poker table 10 miles away, far from the maddening crowd, as the Lakers parade unfolded on the television above.
Unremarkable enough until one realizes that the man was Jerry Buss, who usually eschews attending Laker victory parades despite being the individual most responsible for what has become a popular traditional civic event (just behind celebrity trials, weddings and funerals, not necessarily in that order). The same man who bought a team that frequently played the Washington Generals to the Boston Celtics' Harlem Globetrotters during the '60s and '70s and turned them into the best show in a town full of them, and quite possibly The Greatest Show on Earth, with all the craziness and big top drama that title occasionally entails.
It seemed a puzzling move to some observers, sitting alone at that table while the entire city cheered the heights reached by the foundation he laid in 1979, especially in light of Buss's decision to skip the championship trophy presentation after Game 5 and let his son Joey anywhere near a microphone.
This was merely a precursor to what has already been an eventful and sometimes puzzling off-season for the Lakers, with the most important move being officially made two days ago — the signing of Ron Artest, a man so unfiltered and without premeditation or calculation that one almost thinks of him as the anti-Kobe, the Oscar Madison to the latter's Felix Unger.
The acquisition seems to divide NBA fans, whether or not they are Laker haters or lovers, with about half thinking that this Lakers squad should have two rings each presented to them at the beginning of the 2009-10 season, and the other half believing the team has signed its death warrant, quite possibly in the literal sense. I find myself closer to the first school of thought, and here's why:
1. The Lakers couldn't afford to stand pat with potential challengers getting better, healthy or both. The Cavs now have The Big Aristotle, the Celtics Rasheed Wallace, and the Spurs landed Richard Jefferson in a swap that made you wish there was a trade committee that oversaw these kinds of deals. A championship-level team this season probably won't be good enough to win next season, and the Lakers couldn't count on another year of experience being the team's sole improvement. Artest brings a toughness and hunger to this team that had those elements last postseason only sporadically, despite walking away with the ultimate prize. Artest himself, after the Rockets took L.A. to a Game 7, said he still thought the Rockets were a better team. The Lakers were fortunate that the Celtics were missing Kevin Garnett and that the Nuggets and Magic weren't missing George Karl and Stan Van Gundy, respectively. They probably will not be so lucky during the 2010 postseason, so they need to be good. With Artest, you at least know complacency won't be a problem.
2. Artest will especially motivate Lamar Odom should he stay with the team. The Lakers (I can only hope) seem to be serious about re-signing Odom in a way that they weren't about Ariza, even if the two parties are currently dancing the fandango common to the re-signing of one's own free agents (e.g. the Manny Ramirez negotiations last winter). Odom put it together during the championship run — with a little help from his friends at the Mars, Willy Wonka and Nestle candy companies — but he's a player who still manages to project unfocused spaciness on and off the court even when he fills up a box score. His old Queens blacktop mate Artest will be one more check on Odom keeping his head in the game. By the way, Dr. Buss, buy Lamar a gingerbread house in the Hollywood hills if you need to. Do whatever it takes.
3. Artest can often be a distraction, yes, but there's a flip side to that coin. The offbeat and quotable eccentric will suck up a lot of attention from media that would otherwise focus on the Lakers. In a strange way (what other way could it be?), Artest will be taking a lot of pressure off of the defending champs' shoulders. And whatever problems Artest has had never involve his own teammates and coaches, but just about every other external party in the NBA (opponents, referees, fans, etc.).
4. Sure, a Laker signing hasn't looked this good on paper since Gary Payton and Karl Malone joined Kobe and Shaq to form The Creamed Team in 2003-04. But that was a very different team undone by the friction between Shaq and Kobe. Whatever their faults, these Lakers that Artest is joining are all very much on the same page. Just in case, maybe Phil Jackson can suggest his own The Last Season to Artest when he's handing out tomes for the team's book club. Or maybe there's a good book on chemistry Jackson's father-in-common-law can recommend.
5. Artest gets in the most trouble when he's lost in the moment. Artest isn't so much crazy as more prone to momentary lapses of reason than your average NBA player. A ring will validate his antic-filled career and nobody knows that better than Ron-Ron himself. Keeping his eyes on that prize will focus him in a way that he never was before in NBA backwaters like Sacramento and Indianapolis.
6. If Artest has any previous comparable, it is, of course, Dennis Rodman. Artest's role with these Lakers will be similar to the role Rodman had with Phil Jackson's Bulls. As long as there were alpha dogs like Jackson and Michael Jordan in place, Rodman was an integral piece of a championship puzzle, eccentricities and all, who managed to keep his volatile emotions in check (relatively). When the likes of John Lucas and Del Harris had to shepherd him, well...Rodman was going to be Rodman. Artest has never had influences like Jackson and Bryant who, with their championship pedigree, command instant respect. Artest's infamous shower lobbying of Kobe after the Lakers' loss to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals shows the respect he has for and the, um, connection he feels to Bryant coming into this situation.
7. Los Angeles and the media will love this guy. Just look at his recent tributes to Michael Jackson through the expression of both song and jersey number. Win or lose, Ron Artest is a great performer and he will contribute to what should be a great show. Sometimes an entertaining train wreck is just as valuable as a championship team. Only in L.A.
And what does the old card shark, who envies no man — with the possible exception of Hugh Hefner — think of this commotion from the gallery, half of the railbirds like me nodding and murmuring approval, the other clucking their disapproval? He chuckles to himself, “That's why I'm here and they're there. Aggression is the only way. To simply react is to be dead money from the moment the cards are first dealt.” Watch his chip stack grow, higher and higher, almost to the rafters.