Countdown to Christmas: A season's presence waiting under the tree

Few thought we'd actually make it to this point.

For 149 gut-wrenching days, the 2011 NBA lockout churned on. At times it seemed to be standing on its last legs, like when NBA Players' Association executive director Billy Hunter said, "I think we're within striking distance of getting a deal," back on Oct. 27. Then there were the days when the gap between both sides seemed so enormous that the 2011-12 season would certainly be lost, like when NBA commissioner David Stern said "we are about to go into the nuclear winter of the NBA" on Nov. 14.

There were serious concerns from people from every corner of the NBA's expansive universe that I spoke to throughout the dog days of summer. We all tried to convince ourselves that Nike's "Basketball Never Stops" campaign had some truth to it.

Players Aaron Brooks, J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler and Kenyon Martin bet it would never start. They’ll end up playing in China rather than for the Suns and Nuggets in 2011-12.

Support personnel in every organization across the league, including the Lakers’ assistant general manager Ronnie Lester and trainer Chip Schaefer, were let go during the work stoppage.

Sometime in August, I covered a charity golf event that Matt Barnes was hosting in San Pedro. He didn't know if all the work he put in during the offseason to strengthen his right knee and slim down his body would pay off with an "on" season.

Sometime in October, I ran into Lakers rookie Darius Morris at a restaurant in Venice. He didn't know if he'd get to play a game this season and wondered if he had turned in his junior and senior seasons at Michigan for a year's worth of pickup games.

Sometime in November, I caught up with Shannon Brown at the UNC-Michigan State game played on the aircraft carrier down in San Diego. He didn't know if he'd finally get to test the free agent market and find a team to offer him a multi-year deal (after playing in four different cities through the first five years of his career).

Matt is competing for a starting gig with Devin Ebanks these days. Darius got to run out of the tunnel wearing the No. 1 on his Lakers uniform on Monday, and scored double digits in his first taste of NBA action. Shannon didn't get the security he was hoping for by signing a lengthy free agent contract, but he did get roughly a $1.1 million raise by signing with Phoenix for a year instead of staying in L.A.

Like Andy Dufresne, crawling through it and coming out clean on the other side, they’re ready to begin the season.

Aren’t we all?

Bring on Christmas; the day we worried would only be about presents under the tree.

Bring on Kobe Bryant wearing a pair old wildly colored sneakers. Andrew Bynum trying to prove to a team, a front office, a fan base and himself that he can avoid injury and realize the potential we all wonder if he's capable of realizing. Pau Gasol doing things his way, which has been good enough to become a two-time champion and four-time All-Star (but may never be good enough to quiet the skeptics). Derek Fisher hitting big buckets. Metta World Peace taking the same head-scratching shots that Ron Artest did.

Bring on Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." blaring from the Staples Center's public address system and fans cheering for free tacos.

The season was saved. The league is back. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.