Lakerology

May 30, 2004

As the Los Angeles Lakers returned to their ancestral homeland of
Minneapolis last week, there were signs that their fortunes had
improved ever so subtly since the franchise left the Land o'
Lakes for the Land o' Flakes 44 years ago.

For starters, Americans are infinitely more interested in Shaq &
Jack (Lakers icons O'Neal and Nicholson) than in Harv & Marv
(original Timberwolves owners Harvey Ratner and Marv Wolfenson,
who brought NBA basketball back to Minneapolis in 1989). Indeed,
as the Lakers squared off against the Timberwolves in the Western
Conference finals, it was only natural for us to find Los Angeles
more seductive than Minneapolis, given the respective images they
conjure. (L.A.? Chauffeurs. Minnesota? Gophers.)

Yet our fascination with the Lakers isn't always healthy. Last
Friday night sportswriters perusing the Game 1 halftime stats
found, amid the flurry of paper handouts, a four-sentence
statement from Shaq's agent, who disclosed that one of the
estates owned by O'Neal, in suburban Houston, had been the site
of an "unfortunate incident" earlier in the day. The housekeeper
for the mother of O'Neal's oldest daughter had been stabbed to
death, allegedly by her own son. After the game, while
introducing O'Neal at a press conference, a Lakers spokesman
politely explained that the center would not entertain questions
about the homicide because "his manager has [already] issued a
statement." But in that moment, the number of professional
reality softeners in O'Neal's orbit--spokesman, manager,
housekeeper--betokened a man whose life (with its manifold
mansions, its multiple mothers) was, to say the least, dizzying
to behold.

Staring at a notebook, I needed a minute--and several possessive
apostrophes--to sort out the victim's relation to O'Neal: She was
... Shaq's daughter's mother's housekeeper? And all the while
O'Neal, who has a childlike aspiration to make a second career in
law enforcement, sat impassively at the podium, his baseball cap
emblazoned fbi.

Of course, sanding off the sharp corners of reality does have its
benefits. Reality softener Phil Jackson euphemized Kobe Bryant's
sexual assault case, calling it "Kobe's situation" and "things
going on in Colorado." But even with legal questions to the two
most prominent Lakers forbidden, Lakerologists were left with
plenty to ponder. There are queries large (Why do the Lakers
sometimes decline to show up for games?) and small (What is up
with that Gene Wilder-as-Willy Wonka quiff worn by Rick Fox?).

No one foresaw such global interest in the Lakers back in 1947,
when the Detroit Gems were moved to Minneapolis and renamed for
the cargo ships that plied the Great Lakes. "I hand-delivered a
check for the full purchase price of the Gems to the airport in
Detroit," recalled Minnesota sports-scene fixture Sid Hartman,
with some bewilderment, while surveying the current Lakers last
weekend in the Target Center. "The check was for $15,000."

Today, of course, the Lakers are priceless, worth whatever one
man is willing to pay for their residual glamour. Of which there
is quite a lot, to judge by the reality-softening arm candy of
owner Jerry Buss, whose own exquisite hairdo trumps Trump's.

Incidentally, Hartman is one of the men, seated courtside at the
Target Center, onto whom Kevin Garnett claps up a cloud of talcum
powder before games. The victims always look as if they've just
sneezed into a pile of cocaine--which might be, come to think of
it, an apt pregame ritual, given the Caligula-style conspicuous
consumption everywhere else in the arena.

Invited to praise Garnett on the eve of the series, Jackson
wisely declined to "add to the accolades" the league MVP has
already received--perhaps because those escalating accolades only
encourage ... Escalades. Timberwolves star Latrell Sprewell's
Escalade bears his name in script in several places, inviting the
eye in before it is abruptly spurned by black-tinted windows. The
Cadillac's spinning platinum rims are mimicked by the spinning
platinum rims on Spree's sneakers. (Really.)

Yet in interviews Sprewell--whose fashionable eyeglasses you
suspect serve no vision-correcting purpose--is pleasantly,
hypnotically bland. For many such stars, reality has been more
than softened; it's been anesthetized. A few years ago Rasheed
Wallace answered every question in a playoff press conference
with the words, "Both teams played hard," a mantra that one NBA
employee later had emblazoned on a T-shirt. When O'Neal repeated
that magic phrase after Game 1 last Friday night, I half-expected
a duck to drop from the ceiling and Groucho Marx to materialize.

Such cliches--"This is a very good Laker team," said
Sprewell--are reality softeners in their own right, fuzzing into
soft focus what is otherwise a sharp, exhilarating game. Their
effect is narcotizing but not entirely displeasing, like an hour
in a favorite hammock. As my travel-weary colleague Jack McCallum
put it after another familiar-sounding press conference last
week: "Changes in latitudes, changes in platitudes."

Of course, reality can be softened only so much--and only for so
long. Nobody escapes it entirely. In Minneapolis, Kobe Bryant
wore a diamond earring the size of a walnut in his left ear and
silver dog tags on a chain around his neck. When he shifted in
his seat, the medals swung from side to side, like the gong in a
grandfather clock. No one had to ask for whom that bell tolled.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY

What is up with that Gene Wilder-as-Willy Wonka quiff worn by
Rick Fox?

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)