The Lakers’ glorious past and pathetic present were both well represented at Staples Center on Sunday night, and normally the confluence of such a disparity is disruptive, like the turbulence when two weather fronts meet.
I still remember Lakers legends Jerry West and Magic Johnson fuming when the Lakers were swept by the Utah Jazz in the 1998 playoffs. West called it “ridiculous” and said players “should be embarrassed.” Johnson said, “I’m really upset at this.”
There was no such anger Sunday night, not even as the Lakers were picked apart by the Golden State Warriors 136-115 to drop their record to 1-9.
Maybe criticism wasn't at the forefront of people’s minds because of the reason they gathered: to celebrate Elgin Baylor’s 80th birthday. Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens flew in from Seattle. Dick Barnett, one of Baylor’s teammates in the Lakers’ early years in Los Angeles, came out from New York. Former Lakers players Tommy Hawkins, Lucius Allen and Michael Cooper were on hand as well. All of the fans at the game received replicas of Baylor’s No. 22 Lakers jersey, and he was honored at halftime with a lengthy video tribute. All in all, a wonderful homage to one of the NBA’s all-time greats.
Maybe they abstained from criticism because their minds are occupied elsewhere.
When Magic chatted with Cooper, his teammate through five championship seasons in the 1980s, the topic was the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, which Cooper used to coach and Johnson now owns.
As West made his way out of the building, he said, “We’re a fun team to watch.” He was talking about the Warriors, whom he currently serves as an executive board member.
The Lakers are still part of their identities, but they’re no longer their business. West left the front office in 2000 and Johnson sold his ownership stake in 2010. You could make a case that the exodus of the valuable institutional knowledge of Johnson and West is one of the reasons the team is in its current state.
The older generation of Lakers felt more nostalgic than ornery. Hawkins sat next to Baylor and talked about the team’s early days in Los Angeles, when they played at a nearly empty Sports Arena and didn’t have a full-time radio play-by-play announcer. Hawkins recounted one of his favorite stories, the time he and Baylor combined for 78 points -- 71 of them by Baylor.
But watching Kobe shoot and score seemed to be enough to satisfy the fans, who were oddly complacent throughout the game. No boos rained down, not even when the Warriors went ahead by 38 points. Most of the fans even remained in their seats well into the fourth quarter, even after it became apparent that neither Bryant nor the Warriors’ starters would return to the court. Lakers games feel more like a tourist destination than a sporting event these days. Come look at the banners and the Laker Girls and Jack Nicholson, say you’ve seen Kobe do his thing, and don’t worry about the outcome of the game.
One of the patrons who stayed until the end was Shaquille O’Neal, who was “in father mode” and took his kids to the game at their request.
O’Neal said Kobe and all of the residents of Lakerland just need to hang in there.
“It’s not what L.A. fans are accustomed to,” O’Neal said. “Just got to weather the storm.”
There’s sunshine in O’Neal’s life. He has an ownership stake in the Sacramento Kings, who are 6-4. The Lakers legends have moved on. Even on a rare occasion when they were all in the same building again, there was no collective angst about the franchise’s descent to the bottom of the Western Conference.
It’s not their problem.