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A different kind of pressure in L.A.

LOS ANGELES -- Pressure is a strange dynamic in this city of tea drinkers. My theory about basketball audiences is that they behave like they're sipping green tea here, while in the northeastern basketball capitals of New York and Philadelphia and Boston the fans like their beer, and then of course in Europe they are fueled by shot after shot of espresso.

When the home crowds back East are really getting into their Celtics or Sixers, what you don't hear is a lot of high-pitched shrieking from women and children. Instead you get the bellowing howls associated with a dark forest on an overnight camping trip: the hoarse, impending-hangover roars of thousands of angry men who sound like they prepared for the game in a bar (in between smokes outside on the sidewalk).

That's how it sounds to me, anyway, compared to the crowds here that arrive ``fashionably'' late and leave not a moment too early in support of their Lakers. People from older cities with real downtowns like to criticize the fans here as not caring enough, but I say these Lakers fans have it just right. Gauging by the volume and relative infrequency of their outcries, you can tell not only when they are happy or displeased with their Lakers, but also that they aren't going to let a team ruin the rest of their day. Because at the end of that day it's show business.

Now of course there are exceptions to all of these stereotypes, including Lakers fans who could fit in with maniacal New Yorkers. "But our fans here are more laidback," acknowledges Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw, who began his career as a point guard in Boston before he played for the Lakers. "It's not like a feeling that you get when you're at a college game, where your fans are just totally into the game and making noise the whole time through."

Newcomers from out of town may arrive here thinking there is no better job in America than to play for the Lakers, because their fans are too well-balanced to scream bloodthirsty demands that violent felonies be committed on the visiting team -- or else. The Lakers fans don't generally play that card.

Instead they arrive at the game each night as if it were the premier to a Hollywood blockbuster. The way to understand this is to imagine Kobe Bryant as the star of a full-featured comedy. The audience in the theater isn't laughing before the film begins. Those laughs have to be earned by Kobe. He has to shake-and-bake Mickael Pietrus and clobber the Frenchman with crazy fallaway jumpers if he wants to hear positive reinforcement.

In Boston they come into the gym laughing (and shouting and threatening) like loons. (I don't mean to imply that they've all been drinking; it just sounds that way.) In Los Angeles, however, box office and bravos must be earned on a performance-by-performance basis. Now that is pressure.

"I love our fans, first of all. They're the best fans there is," says Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic. "But it's not as crazy before the game as it is in different arenas, especially last year when we played (Boston) in the Finals: A half an hour before the game they started singing and going crazy.

"But for our fans, you've got to earn their cheering and trust. As soon as they see we've started the game good, they're there for 48 minutes."

Another means of gauging the pressure on Bryant is to look around at all of the self-possessed fans surrounding him. On any night he might be playing for Denzel Washington, Leo DiCaprio, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Tobey Maguire, Andy Garcia, Penny Marshall, Glenn Frey and of course Jack Nicholson. Maybe all of them are serious fans who follow Kobe as intently as students of acting have studied Olivier; but what about the thousands of other fans nearby who may be easily distracted?

Near the end of his career, Larry Bird used to talk about looking into the crowd at the old Boston Garden and seeing the familiar faces who had attended his games for years, and the strength he drew from their loyalty. Now imagine if you're Kobe, and when you're having a tough night of it you glance into the crowd to find the familiar faces looking over their shoulders for a better view of Dustin Hoffman.

It could be unnerving. "There's so much other things going on, so many people that come just to see the other stars, that sometimes the game takes a backseat to all of that," says Shaw. "But when it's time and they feel that things aren't going well for us, they can show that they are feeling anxiety and they want the team to perform better. They have a way of displaying that as well."

Coming to games here makes me wonder if the bullying powers of fan noise have been overrated. "It doesn't seem to me like I'm having to yell as much in a huddle," says Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy of his experiences here. "Cleveland was brutal -- to be heard in that series it was brutal."

As loud as they were in Cleveland, the Magic had no problems dictating the play while winning the conference finals in six games. Then the Magic came here Thursday, where the audience politely enabled Van Gundy to be heard loud and clear, and the Lakers smoked Orlando by 25.

One of the lamest devices in the NBA is the use of the jumbotron imploring the fans to scream in hope of intimidating the opponent. I have no evidence to back this up, but it seems to me that the visitors score at a much higher rate because they're suddenly focused on the challenge of shutting up the yokels. Which happens as soon as the enemy scores: The fans go entirely silent, in a pout, which further inspires the visiting team; the least the fans should do is to continue screaming, if only to deny satisfaction to the enemy.

"The crowd getting into the game gives an emotional lift to the home team, and I think that helps them -- which I guess ends up hurting you (as visitors) a little bit," says Van Gundy. "But I don't think crowds intimidate the visiting team. I could be wrong, but I think very few people at this level are intimidated by the crowd."

Unless, of course, they're playing in Europe, and especially in Greece, where I have seen the equivalent of SWAT police units in full riot gear with shields, helmets and truncheons surrounding the court to protect the players. Even so, coins, plumbing equipment and other ingenious weapons rain from the stands onto the court.

"Our fans were pretty crazy," says Vujacic, a Slovenian who used to star in the Italian league. "They were throwing some water bottles at visiting fans, and I know the bottled water hit the mother of the player of the other team because it was a huge game, and she finished in the hospital. They go crazy after the game: You can't get out of the parking lot because the fans, either they're mad or they're happy. You don't know sometimes. If they're mad, they're going to destroy the buses. If they're happy, they're going to still destroy the bus, but with all the happiness possible."

From that atmosphere Vujacic arrived here in 2004 to play in the greatest of all leagues for one of its most ambitious franchises. He was surprised by the greeting.

"At first I didn't understand what was going on," he says. "Where are the fans? Where are the drums? Where is the songs and everything? But after awhile, I realized that it's a different kind of a lifestyle. And I like it, I really like it now, and I got used to it. It's a lot of pressure, and you've got to love the pressure."

Unspoken pressure is the worst kind. But imagine the celebration if Bryant succeeds in winning his fourth championship here. The noise will be plenty loud enough then.

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