By David Roth
It's not just sportscasters, although they seem especially prone to it. But if we can blame the demands of their weird gig -- and it's a weird job that asks someone whose previous life was mostly spent taking jumpshots under varying degrees of duress to improvise fast-twitch insights and profundities into an open mic on live television -- for the sportscasterian tendency to write something essential about a team's home city onto a given team, what's our excuse? Why do we (and by "we" in this case I mean "me," right before the World Series) look for some ineluctably Detroit thing in the Detroit Tigers? Do the Green Bay Packers have to say something about Green Bay, or Wisconsin, or the Upper Midwest? It's easy to see why we might want this to matter, and why a sportscaster might wave this particular torch against encroaching dead air. And there is a truth to it. Teams exist in symbiosis with their cities and fans.
How happy this relationship is or isn't depends on the teams and fans involved. The Yankees are avatars for the grandiosity, unembarrassed overstatement and big-dollar bombast of their owners; this is a part of New York, albeit the part of New York most inclined to make a lot of loud noise in some steakhouse. The Mets stand in for another side of New York, a little scrubbier and strive-ier and more overextended, more anxious and less triumphal; this is a part of New York, too. This is reductive, of course. These are billion-dollar businesses with billion-dollar problems, and fans projecting their circumstances and values and experiences onto those teams -- and those teams' successes and failures back onto themselves -- is a pretty spectacular bit of transference, if you think about it. But we don't necessarily think about it, and that's mostly fine. We arrogate the first person plural, we win or lose without breaking a sweat, and we make the teams about us: where we are, who we are. Los Angeles Lakers fans do this as well as anyone.
If it seems like the Lakers and Los Angeles are a uniquely potent example of this mutual projection, it's because both sides benefit from the transaction. The Lakers get to be not merely successful, but glamorous; the fans get to borrow some of that invincible shine in a city that's ordinarily stingy with it. (The Clippers, with their predatory orange deep-sea creature of an owner, also represent a very real version of Los Angeles, although it's not one most people would've wanted to claim as their own.) I still remember, during a visit to Los Angeles that overlapped with the Lakers' latest championship run, seeing cars flying Lakers flags driving through the streets in what seemed aimless celebration after a game. Many of the cars had the little flags flapping from tiny staffs mounted on the hood -- those proud ambassadors from Lakers nation, colors flying, turning their sedans and SUVs into diplomatic vehicles, driving around and honking their horns. Those Lakers are not quite these Lakers, and present a more difficult challenge for those fans. This is a mighty nation, still: rich and proud and strong even in decline. But it's a nation with some problems.
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"Kobe's attempted 41 shots," Lakers announcer Stu Lantz noted during the Lakers' comeback win against Golden State on Saturday, glossing over the fact that just 16 of those went in, and that Bryant managed just one (missed) free throw attempt in the game. "That shows you what kind of condition he's in." Taking that many shots without making a free throw is a legitimate statistical oddity, but taking that many shots in general -- and it was that many, seven more than were taken by the rest of the starting lineup combined -- is nothing new for Kobe, who took that many shots three times in one month during the '06-07 season. But it wasn't just Kobe being Kobe. Or it was that, and some other things besides.
The Lakers are carrying a four-game winning streak into their Christmas Day game against the Knicks, and at 13-14 are as close to .500 as they've been in some time. It helps, at least on offense, that Steve Nash is back at the point, both in the duh-of-course-it-helps-to-have-a-Hall-of-Famer sense and because the Lakers spent much of the season with the third and fourth-string point guards running the show. Or, it might be more accurate to say, dribbling the ball up the floor. Kobe, who did not even deign to speak to Smush Parker during the latter's brief and unhappy time with the team, is of course under no obligation to defer to the likes of Chris Duhon; if anything, he's obliged not to. That Nash hit the game-winner against Golden State was a good thing for the Lakers, but that he was the player who took it might be even better news.
During the team's long Nashless swoon, Bryant's weird, dazzling monomania simply overwhelmed the team. Given the way the rest of the team's stars were playing (Dwight Howard, still recovering from last season's back injury, is rapidly Benjamin Button-ing his way towards becoming DeSagana Diop; Pau Gasol, always weirdly skittish for a great player, has played ineffectual, saucer-eyed and mostly terrified basketball all season), Kobe's crazy on-court coup made a sort of sense. But it also ensured that the team would remain out of balance and out of sorts. His hyper-aggressive gunning and passive-aggressive take on leadership were, as Homer Simpson once described booze, the cause and solution of all the team's problems.
While Kobe's brilliance has diminished -- and it has, as it must, although he's still one of the game's great scorers and clearly its most prodigious will -- his Kobe-ness has decidedly not. If his game is played a bit lower to the ground and a bit more slowly than it was during his invincible years, he remains every bit as ferocious and uncompromising and peculiarly un-human as he ever was (watching him try to high-five a teammate during a nationally televised game is like watching Robocop trying to give someone a hug). Seemingly every move the team has made this season has been an attempt to coax some modicum of deference -- not a giving-up, but a willingness to let others help -- from Kobe. Nash, one of the game's great facilitators, may be the player who manages this, or he may fail where so many others have. It might be that the team's defensive problems will make things difficult all season long, and that Kobe will attempt to hero-ball them out of those difficulties, and that things might go on like this, sourer and sourer, barely into and quickly out of the playoffs.
It's hard to know, yet, just how much fun it will be to watch this either happen or not. But for Lakers fans that have become accustomed to seeing themselves in the Lakers and the Lakers in themselves, this team's struggles present a new and unique challenge. This type of fan-projection is, fundamentally, a happy thing: It's an escape, an opportunity to borrow some transcendence, to become a part of something bigger and safer than our lives. This can work even if the team doesn't win, provided the team throws off some joy in its performance. The play is the thing.
But the Lakers, at present, are a little too recognizably real for this gambit to work the way it should. They're a dysfunctional workplace with a problematic boss and a certain authority-vacuum up in the C-suite. They're small and thwarted where they should be great, and human where they were reliably superhuman. In short, these Lakers are a lot more like Los Angeles -- and, really, like everywhere else -- than ever.
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's “Daily Fix” blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.