It’s been a difficult two years for a typically well-rewarded Lakers fan base. For the first time since 2005 and just the fifth since the 1960 relocation to Los Angeles, the Lakers will miss the postseason. This team is historically bad, and solutions for a fast makeover are few and far between. Uncertainty is a foreign, unsettling concept for this franchise. But through the adversity, fans have been able to cope by raging with solidarity against their grievances.
Mike D’Antoni. Jim Buss. Dwight Howard. David Stern. The Clippers.
All targets of distrust and disgust, all forces of evil blamed for the downward spiral. Misery loves company, and in this regard, Lakers fans have remained largely unified company.
Next season, however, could throw that brotherhood for a loop, as two very distinctly different sects of Lakers fans may find themselves uncomfortably pitted against each other.
Lakers fans vs. Kobe Bryant fans.
The independence of these two cliques has never been secret. There are fans who care first and foremost about the franchise, and there are fans who see the franchise first and foremost as a vehicle for Kobe’s greatness.
By and large, these factions have coexisted comfortably through the years, but their priorities are more mutually exclusive than one would rationally expect.
Then again, Kobe Bryant is anything but an ordinary superstar, and Kobe zealots are a breed different than I’ve seen in my entire life watching and covering sports.
The Mamba is regarded by this contingency as half basketball god, half political prisoner. An indestructible force of nature, yet encased in bubble wrap to protect him from the slings and arrows of jealous haters consumed with denying the Mamba’s greatness. True Kobe-ites will gladly step into traffic to protect him from an oncoming car, but feel disappointment it wasn’t actually a bus.
In fairness to Kobe’s vigilantes, getting his back has often felt like getting hit by a Greyhound. Bryant’s career has been shaped by persistent PR turbulence. Feuds with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. Getting (too much) blame for the three-peat core’s dissolution. Colorado. The 2007 offseason, in which he demanded a trade to Pluto. His relentlessly demanding relationship with teammates. An-court persona that would raise Hannibal Lecter’s eyebrows. Throw in the reductive -- and idiotic -- idea that Kobe’s first three titles on “Shaq’s teams” somehow counted less, and the guy has spent considerable time between the crosshairs. Bryant may be more popular than polarizing these days, but likability will never be his calling card.
Of course, Kobe Bryant is also an indisputable icon, an athlete destined to go down as one of basketball’s all-time greats, and a lifer for one of sports’ most storied franchises. The fervent didn’t choose him by accident. Even Lakers fans who don’t worship at the altar take considerable pride knowing Kobe is one of their own.
However, that sect pledges its loyalty to the franchise first, and these fans are hyper-aware of where life currently stands for the Lakers. The future has been mortgaged bone-dry after surrendering multiple picks to acquire Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and to jettison the contracts of Derek Fisher and Luke Walton. The new CBA was designed to prevent teams like the Lakers from reloading through economic superiority.
Painful as these losses have been, another underwhelming season might be necessary to create a sustainable, bright future. For the first time in eons, the Lakers are in position to build from the ground up, and whatever critical designs are in place can’t be altered to placate a 36-year-old player who has more than 54,000 career minutes played (playoffs included) and is coming off consecutive significant injuries. Even if that player happens to be Kobe Bryant.
And that’s where the situation gets sticky. During Kobe’s March news conference to confirm his knee injury was season-ending, he expressed “not a lick” of patience for a slow rebuild. Some interpreted this as Kobe putting pressure on the organization, but I question his leverage. Under (a very expensive) contract through 2016, if Bryant demanded a trade, his salary, age, injury history and complicating no-trade clause make the request borderline impossible. This isn’t like when he wanted out as arguably the league’s best player in his prime. All 29 other teams would have bent over backward to get him. I have to imagine even Kobe recognizes the present-day contextual difference.
In my opinion, Kobe wasn’t speaking so much to the front office as to the fans. He even cited them while explaining the premium placed on winning: “A lot of times it's hard to understand that message if you're not a die-hard Laker fan." Bryant, himself a Lakers fan growing up, is too smart and calculated for this phrasing to be incidental. It felt like a call to arms for fans to voice mutual displeasure over operating at anything less than “Championship or bust.” And for every Kobe-first fan who’ll stump on his behalf, who shares his impatience, who feels the organization “owes” him better than a swan song of mediocrity, there’s a Lakers-first fan who feels rebuilding the roster twice around Kobe between 2008 and 2013 equals a “debt” paid, especially after he wasn’t inclined to take an extension sacrificing “highest paid player in the NBA” status for increased cap flexibility so that ASAP rebuild would be easier. Frankly, there are Lakers fans who will blame Kobe if the rebuild takes an extended period of time.
And therein lies the schism.
So what would a purple-and-gold civil war look like, beyond incessant arguments throughout the Twittersphere and in comment sections? Ultimately, a sobering reexamination by both parties of (eventually) 20 years of Lakers basketball.
Were Kobe catered to any further, or were it to become clear his presence (for a variety of potential reasons) has stuck the team in neutral, Lakers-first fans could develop a sour taste for arguably the greatest player in franchise history, a wholly unique career filled with riches and rare basketball artistry. Life with Kobe is never easy, but the good has easily outweighed the bad. Scales tipped in the opposite direction on his way out would be unfortunate.
Conversely, ignoring Bryant’s wishes could prompt bitterness from Kobe-first fans toward a franchise ultimately still close to their heart. However, that loyalty line has long been drawn in the sand, and Kobe twisting in the wind for two years (or milked for the financial windfall of a farewell tour) could be viewed as an unforgivable act. The transition to post-Mamba life will be tough for this crowd under the best of circumstances, much less messy ones.
Los Angeles is inherently something of a divided city. The geography is sprawling, with traffic snarls creating even more buffers. Good neighborhoods turn bad on a dime. Its ethnicities reflect more or less the globe, and some pockets keep to themselves. L.A.’s image is equally shaped by the Hollywood jet set and street gangs. But as someone who spent years bartending in Santa Monica, Pasadena and several places in between, I can attest to the bonding powers of a Lakers broadcast. Perhaps nothing in L.A. bridges more racial and socio-economic differences. Lakers fans may reek of entitlement, but despite popular belief, they aren’t flaky bandwagon riders. This is a rabid, passionate base, slavishly devoted to the franchise and its considerable list of icons, with Kobe Bryant the latest in line.
Will it be the name on the front or the back of the jersey that matters most moving forward?
Andy Kamenetzky has covered the Lakers and the NBA for ESPN.com and the Los Angeles Times, and can be heard regularly on ESPNLA 710. Follow the Kamenetzky Brothers @kambrothers, and download their podcast on iTunes.