On a Friday afternoon almost two years ago, the Los Angeles media hastily assembled in El Segundo for the official announcement of the next great era in Lakers basketball. After coming out of nowhere to win the Steve Nash sweepstakes, the Lakers had now just rubbed together Andrew Bynum, draft picks and loose change and wound up with the best center in basketball. General manager Mitch Kupchak pointed to the retired jerseys up on the wall at the team’s practice facility and openly dreamed of a decade later, when Dwight Howard’s purple and gold No. 12 would be among them. The Lakers had done it again.
Two Fridays ago, with the ink dry on nine new player contracts and the NBA calendar settling into a warm snuggle, the Lakers capped off a three-day run of showing off the spoils of another busy summer with the cherry-topping to it all.
First came Jeremy Lin. Then Ed Davis. New coach Byron Scott would be put through the wringer four days later. But on this day, Kupchak, dressed not in a suit but a crisp white polo with dark horizontal stripes, took his place at the dais and expressed his surprise that the Lakers had gotten lucky once again. With a cool $3.25 million, they had won the amnesty bidding for Carlos Boozer, at least the third power forward the team acquired this offseason.
"This is a little bit early for us -- 10 o’clock," Kupchak said as he took his seat at the podium. "But it’s a Friday and I know you guys appreciate getting in and getting out a little earlier than you normally do."
This is where we find the Lakers heading into their 54th season in Los Angeles. After 11 championships (16 overall), 47 winning seasons (54 overall) and all those legend-building moments, one of the most successful franchises in all of sports is now a don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry sideshow as unpredictable as the guy chosen to lead it last season. Fresh off the worst season in their L.A. tenure, one that ended with Jordan Hill, Ryan Kelly, Wes Johnson, Jodie Meeks and Kendall Marshall in the starting lineup, the Lakers whiffed on all the big free agents and ended up with a pu pu platter of middling holdovers, prominent castaways, a pair of intriguing young bigs and Nick Young. Four years removed from their last title, "That sounds crazy, but …" might as well replace the Jacob Riis quote once plaqued next to Kobe Bryant's corner locker.
It would be an appropriate scarlet letter for the Lakers' Sith Lord. By signing a two-year, $48.5 million extension at age 35, Bryant not only hung a millstone on the Lakers' salary cap, he effectively posted a "BEWARE" sign to ward off any player capable of providing the high-caliber help they so desperately need. The problem isn't merely having to play alongside a ball-dominant, domineering, past-his-prime alpha dog, though that was enough to drive Howard right past those "Stay" billboards and into the arms of Daryl Morey. It's that so much of the Lakers' worldview still revolves around that guy, to the point that the team's brass -- despite so very much evidence that the on-court product would continue to suffer should they continue to do so -- bought back in, at a hefty price, for two more years.
And so the Lakers remain stuck in a Kobe-induced purgatory: Beholden to Bryant to cobble together a contender, but without the ability to do so as long as he insists on operating like the Bryant of old; apparently committed to an honest-to-goodness reboot in the summer of 2016, but limited to deals that keep their books as clean as possible past that point. They're the type of team with the brand power and influence to score one of four sitdowns on Carmelo Anthony's free-agency world tour, but not one he would ever seriously consider playing for. They're a big empty suit in a town full of them.
But say this for the Lakers: They're selling it. Maybe hands are being wrung over the team's viability behind the scenes, presumably in some vault with dollar sign-adorned bags scattered about. But the Lakers unabashedly feed into this great mythos about Hollywood life -- celebrities, glamour, winning, pomposity. They dim the house lights at Staples Center, use a house band for in-game jock jams, blare Randy Newman without any hint of irony and call black alternate jerseys "Hollywood nights" -- and they've so far refused to break character, even in the face of the biggest threat to their big-swingin'-franchise way of life.
So even though it's puffed-up superstars in name only such as Lin or a 32-year-old former All-Star power forward coming off the worst of his 12 NBA seasons taking a seat at the dais instead of some of the more traditionally "Laker-worthy" players the club has lusted over from their ivory tower, they still roll out the red-carpeted media blitz with their $3 billion cable deal, still lead the players up to Jeanie Buss' second-floor office at the practice facility and let them gaze at the glistening Larry O'Brien trophies, all while projecting this idea that this is what it's all about. This is the Laker Way. It's the same company line being trotted out for the decision to hire Scott, a fourth-time retread with a 416-521 coaching record, or to pay an injured Bryant a then-record sum half a year before he hit the free-agent market.
It's delusional, really. But also, somewhere deep down, a bit endearing.
Spend enough time in the city and you'll run into your share of Los Angeles stereotypes. The waitress-actresses. The friend of a friend trying to drag you to see his improv troupe on a Wednesday night. The sprawl is large enough here that you can make this city whatever you'd like it to be, but it's impossible to forever avoid the big dreamer packing an Ivy League education and a whole lot of determination. You'll scoff -- you will scoff -- but maybe you'll applaud the bravery, too. It takes guts to be that self-deceiving. Maybe it won't happen for this person -- it won't happen for this person -- but it's hard to be the one to strip away hope when maybe hope is all there is.
You cringe when Scott, flanked by his Showtime buddies, reaches back into the history books and blatantly neglects reality with talk of championship expectations. But appearances are all that's left ever since last December, when the Lakers committed to a player who at this point in his career is defined by just that. The team may not even sniff the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference with Lin, Bryant, Young and Boozer all vying for shots and blame on blown coverages, but a lineup like that is a special kind of crazy. In August, long enough after all those losses and before many more begin, that's enough.
It may not be the sort of "Lake Show" the fan base is used to, but given the position the franchise has put itself in for the next two years, a freak show will have to do.