Let me admit something to you: I cheered for the Lakers to win the Finals.
It started during Game Two of the series when Boston walked into the Staples Center and slapped the home team around. That was the night Ray Allen made eight three-pointers, Rajon Rondo had a triple double, and it became clear to me that hating the Lakers is total garbage.
Maybe I got too close. I’m spending my summer working in Long Beach, a short freeway drive from where the Lakers play. When I got here, I figured that I owed it to my basketball obsession to go see a Finals game live. I may never again live near a team that is in the late stages of a title run. I may never again be blessed with enough disposable income to purchase a ticket.
Plus, it was Boston and LA, by far the most storied rivalry of the league I love so much. This is how one rationalizes spending half a month’s rent for a seat in the nosebleeds.
I planned to attend the game as a detached appreciator of the game and its history. Just a Blazers fan passing through. I arrived early and was struck by the festivities and mood outside of the arena. It was the Finals, so of course there was the cheesy ESPN stuff going on, and of course there was a buzz amongst the fans.
It wasn’t just that. I saw a nice selection of appealing permanent diversions that make the Rose Quarter look, well, lame. My associate and I were enjoying an excellent pregame burger and beer when an elderly couple started up a friendly conversation about the Lakers chances.
The woman thought the Celtics would win Game two. Her husband was going with the Lakers, but thought it was going to be a difficult and narrow victory.
These were life-long Lakers fans that had seen their beloved team blow-out the Celtics in Game One. I would have forgiven a little hubris. Instead, I got cautious optimism.
They went on to share the most nuanced thoughts on Lamar Odom that I’ve ever heard. I had similar conversations with several fans that day.
As part of my Lakers hater indoctrination, I was lead to believe that Lakers fans were mostly superficially interested, arrogant, front-running phonies. Yet I kept coming across people that wanted to talk about the small and critical role of Jordan Farmar. They talked about Andrew Bynum like we talk about Greg Oden.
And in spite of all the things their team has going for them, they seemed weary to do any boasting about the Lakers’ chances. How could I be surrounded by Lakers fans that were not noticeably less knowledgeable or enthusiastic than Blazers fans?
My being purged of Lakers hatred didn’t begin when I touched down in LA County. Being embedded in Lakers land was just the final push. I’m on record being skeptical of the legitimacy of Portland’s Laker hatred . I can’t accept that Portland and the Lakers have an actual rivalry as some Blazers fans loudly believe. My definition of a rivalry has two components.
Most importantly, a rivalry needs to be acknowledged by both parties to be actual. The parties in this case are the teams and their respective fan bases. This is a fact: The Lakers and their fans do not care about Portland. To them, Portland is just another place that hates the Lakers.
The second part of a rivalry is that both teams are often competing at an elite level. In amateur sports, this is less important since geographic closeness fuels so many rivalries. The best pro-rivalries are between teams that are both going for the title. They meet in the playoffs repeatedly.
Right now the Lakers are winning consecutive titles and Portland is trying to figure out how to get beyond the first round. Blazers versus Lakers has no business sharing a label with Lakers versus Celtics.
Our Lakers hate has to be built on envy. No other explanation makes sense. Not the rivalry argument, not the "Lakers fans suck" charge and not even the “Lakers are arrogant jerk whiners” claim.
This team is so arrogant that they bust their collective ass to defeat the competition and win titles? They’re jerks? Every team has jerks and “good guys,” even your beloved Portland Trailblazers. If you hate teams based on your disapproving judgments of their character, I assume you hate the Blazers forever for the Jailblazers era. And every NBA team whines constantly.
Some of my criticisms of Lakers hate are rooted in my own insecurities. If I went along with the concept, which is built on envy, then I admit to being jealous of the Lakers. My jealously is an admission that they are a better team and franchise than the one I devote so much of my time to. The more enthusiastic the envy, the greater the disparity. My pride can’t allow this type of admission.
The envy is understandable. I felt it so strongly while watching Game Two that dressing it up as something else would be impossible. It started when I saw all the amenities that surround the Staples Center.
It continued when I entered the arena, which is bigger and better than the Rose Garden. Their pregame introductions are better. Their lighting is better. They use a live band to play music during the game, which is better. Their concessions are cheaper.
When I sat near their championship banners; I couldn’t ignore all those titles. I couldn’t ignore that the names written on their retired jerseys read like a historical account of the greatest players from every era in league history.
Then there was the excellent product that is Lakers team itself, better talent that simply plays better basketball. Sure, they show the movie stars during the game and the crowd cheers. But they cheer louder when they show Jerry West watching the game from the owner’s box. When they show Magic Johnson, who stands and gives a gracious wave, the crowd responds with a standing ovation.
The plain truth is we don’t have it like that. I don’t mean to disparage Portland. I’m proud of the Blazers history. I love the current team and look optimistically towards the future. I just can’t ignore seeing a franchise that offers an all-around better game experience and is more historically significant. If running from the envy felt intellectually dishonest before Game Two it became impossible afterwards.
I let go. I put on the free t-shirt handed to me at the entrance. I cheered for the Lakers. I felt a little down when they lost that game. I watched Game Seven at Pizza Pi , one of my favorite neighborhood places in Long Beach. It’s like a lot of places here: the food is good, the owner hangs out to joke with customers, you recognize people from the bus, and the crowd meets just about any classification of diverse you can come up with.
I was happy to be there when the Lakers won their 16th championship. I was surrounded by Lakers fans screaming for their team and chanting “Deee-Fense” during the game. After the victory the celebration started, complete with plenty of stranger high-fives and dancing.
The excitement left the pizza place to join the party now getting underway on the streets outside. When I went to sleep that night I could still hear them out there cheering.
The noise kept me up but didn’t irritate me. The Lakers organization assembled the best team in the League once again. I’m happy for fans that get to see their team reach the pinnacle. I hope to experience that for myself some day. Yes, I still feel some Lakers envy. I'm just done hating them for it.
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