Monday, June 23, 2008

The Other Side of the Celtics' Victory

I'm a Celtic fan, but I live in Santa Barbara and have many friends who are Laker fans. I sympathize with them. They are uniformly disappointed, frustrated, even disgusted with the Lakers for the way they lost the finals. If I were a Laker fan, I'd feel the same, and I'd be particularly upset with the lack of team play.

Witness game four, the key to the series, in which the Lakers surrendered a 24 point lead, a "Collapse for the Ages" according to the LA Times headline. The Lakers dominated the Celtics in the first half, even though Kobe, the regular season MVP and by all accounts the most gifted player in the league, had missed all his shots save for three free throws. Some--Laker fans, members of the media, even Celtic fans--saw that scenario as a good thing for the Lakers: They were up big and Kobe hadn't even got going yet. But the Celtics had a different thought: Kobe would come out in the second half looking to get his.

The Lakers' predictability and Kobe's predictable selfishness keyed Boston's historic comeback. Knowing what was coming, Paul Pierce asked to guard Kobe, and he did a fantastic job of contesting Kobe's jump shots. In one particularly memorable play in the middle of the Celtics' big 21-3 run, Pierce blocked Kobe's shot, retrieved the carom, and ignited a Boston fast break.

Pierce's defense was just part of the overall team effort to stop Kobe. Pierce and Kobe both knew that, if Kobe drove past Pierce, the Celtics were all waiting to swarm Kobe, swallow him up, not allow a decent pass let alone a shot close to the basket. As it was the entire series, if Kobe were to get his, it would be through jump shots, which he kept jacking up over the taller Pierce. The rest of the Lakers stood around and watched as the Celtics took the third quarter, the game, and the Lakers' heart.

The next day, Jackson pointedly said that Bryant would be motivated by something Boston's Kevin Garnett said. When asked to elaborate, Jackson said, check the transcripts.

If you've paid attention to them (the Lakers) all year, usually the first half is team ball, second half is usually Kobe takes over the games. They weren't nearly as aggressive as they were the first half. It just looks like they wanted to get the ball to Kobe and him sort of finish it off.... We were giving Kobe every look we've got in the book, from different matchups to trapping him, to a guy on the bottom. We were just making other guys make plays.

Garnett's words certainly struck a chord with the coach, and Kobe's play down the stretch in game five suggests that he also heard them and heeded them. He deferred to Gasol, even directing the ball away from himself to Gasol, since that is where the Celtics' defense was weakest.

The Lakers managed to win game five, but not convincingly. With Kobe out of the offense except to draw defenders away from the basket and give room for Gasol to operate, the Lakers looked and acted strange, out of character, desperate. Without a dynamic Kobe, the team was lost. Only the most die-hard Laker fans expected them to win even one game of the final two in Boston. A rout in game six was hardly surprising.

The problem isn't so much Kobe's need to be the star; the problem is that the Lakers are built around Kobe's need to be the star. It's one thing to make Kobe's unsurpassed talent the center of a team; it's another to make Kobe's narrative of greatness the center of the team. It's a Hollywood formula, eagerly embraced by the NBA and the media: Kobe's the hero on a quest to carry a team to a championship and everyone else is the supporting cast. This formula has informed the Lakers' organizational strategy for the last four or five years. Every organizational decision fits this overall formula.

In contrast to the Celtics' corny and profound but nonetheless appealing--and victorious--"ubuntu" ethos, "I am what I am because of who we all are," the Lakers are what they are because of who Kobe is. His scolding and scowling at his teammates and at his coach tell the tale of what "team" means to the Lakers. They don't have the opportunity to do things for the benefit of the team; they do things for the benefit of Kobe.

This depressing drama is, of course, not new to Lakers' fans, except that Kobe's selfishness was supposed to be a thing he'd outgrown in his transformation into a leader on and off the court, the heir to Michael Jordan's championship passion, demanding of his teammates only as much as he demanded of himself. The collapse in the second half of game four proved that to be all public relations, in the end a cruel fraud. The 2008 Lakers were about Kobe getting his. Or failing to get his.

The future holds some promise for Laker fans. Bynum will come back from injury to give the Lakers the toughness inside that they lacked in the finals. Bynum's presence also allows Gasol and Odom to play to their strengths, which are marvelous basketball skills (rather than vilified for their weakness, lack of physical strength). Vuyacic and Farmer will have more experience. Radmanovich will have more time on the bench. Kobe may even finally figure out how to lead a team.

If Kobe does mature, however, I still wouldn't root for him. Other petulant and selfish players who mature in the public eye are far more sympathetic. Paul Pierce's ghetto-to-Finals glory story, for example, includes overcoming genuine obstacles, like poverty and stab wounds and a career spent on the same bad team.

Kobe's story? On and off the court, he needs to overcome his sense of entitlement.

Rooting for Kobe is like rooting for the rich kid with all the tutors and advisers and insider legacy tracks, like rooting for corporate America, the Evil Empire, or George Steinbrenner.

I wouldn't want to be a Laker fan.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Discovering Place

A friend gave us the “Best House Award” not really knowing what’s best about the house, because the best becomes apparent only while living here. It’s discovered; it’s the process of discovery. For example, the birds.

Robin gave me a great pair of binoculars and a whimsical book (first edition, she would have you know) by a local writer from the 1960s, Margaret Millar, who wrote about birding in Santa Barbara. It’s full of birding adventures, local color, prominently featuring the Natural History Museum, and perhaps too much whimsy for me; but I enjoyed it immensely because it inspired my bird watching. A new world has opened to me (or reopened).

This week’s hot weather, fortuitous because it arrived just when I’ve a got a break from teaching, has me sitting in the yard in the afternoon writing. For me, the writing process involves a lot of brooding with a pen and paper, which then gets cleaned up as I sit at the computer. I’ve been at the computer in the morning, but it’s too hot by afternoon, so I sit in the Adirondack chair in the yard under the oak tree and alternately write furiously and stare off into the sky. In short, I’ve given myself an excellent opportunity to watch birds. So I keep the binoculars close by and learn about what goes on around me in between Great Thoughts about Great Things.

Among the many birds I’ve learned to identify with the help of and Google images (I’m still waiting for the bird identification book Kate’s getting me for my birthday) is the lesser goldfinch. I saw him one afternoon earlier this week, quite dapper in his breeding plumage—bright yellow coat and distinctive black cap. He impressed me with the way he hangs horizontally to the thinnest green branch or flower stem, bending it toward the flower or seed he wants. He especially liked the cosmos I planted, but also the grass gone to seed under the lemon tree.

The goldfinch came by again the next afternoon with a couple of paler companions, probably his mate and an offspring. They spent a few minutes flitting around the cosmos, then settled on the giant sunflower, which is still growing, not yet any flowers or seeds, and they proceeded to eat the leaves, peck away and eat them. Green stuff disappearing into their beaks. Big holes in the sunflower leaves. Birds eat greens? Who knew?

That evening sitting on the porch in one of the big Adirondack chairs, I identified the sound of the dark-eyed junco, a sparrow that wears a pronounced executioner’s hood, the only kind of sparrow I can distinguish, a feat of birding I accomplished the day before. So the little guy was foraging in the oak tree and would jump up to answer a call coming from across the canyon, his close call matching the distant one off to my left. The sound is like a circus whistle that starts out slow and vigorous, then gets faster and higher as it fades. Or maybe it’s like a high-speed high-pitched baby’s wail—waaaa-aaa-aa-aa-aa-a-a-a-a-a. Now I hear it all the time, distinct from all the other sounds. How cool. Do birders know all the sounds they hear in the back yard? How cool is that?

I’ve also identified a kestrel, a red-shouldered hawk, house finches galore, scrub jays, towhees California and spotted, a huge flock of cedar wax wings, and much more beyond the crows and pigeons. But rather than go too far down the nature boy path all at once, I’ll just reiterate that birding is part of the deeper pleasure of getting to know the place and its inhabitants. What’s better than discovering a great place, my great place, and its inhabitants?

As I said to Jenna yesterday, “It must be a great place if the worst thing about it is that the dishwasher leaves spots on the glasses.”
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