Friday, August 27, 2010

When the going gets tough for the Lakers, I get going

Last night ESPN Classic interrupted its award-winning coverage of the 2003 World Series of Poker and broadcast Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals.

The game's forever remembered for Robert Horry's game-winning 3-pointer.

It's the shot that tied the series at 2-2, in a seven-game battle the Lakers finally won in overtime in the final game. If Horry's shot hadn't gone down, the Kings would have led 3-1, with two of the next three games at home. Most likely, they would have been the Western Conference champions. Ralph Nader never would have had cause to complain about the officiating in Game 6, the Lakers wouldn't have won a third straight title and the Kings likely would have defeated the Nets in the Finals. It was a pretty big shot.

What sometimes gets forgotten about that game is that the Kings led 40-20 after the first quarter. They eventually stretched the lead to 24 points. The game included one of the all-time comments by Bill Walton, which is certainly saying something. With the Kings up 50-26 - yes, 50-26 - Walton said, "One thing the Kings have to worry about is being too far ahead, too early."

A few seconds went by. Marv Albert finally said, "I've never quite heard that philosophy. Let's ask Rick Adelman if he likes the lead he has."

A stubborn Bill explained that if you get a big lead, when the opposing team makes a comeback, the home crowd gets even more excited than normal and the momentum builds even more than it would in a close game. You can sort of see what he was trying to say, but it's obviously an absurd statement, the type of comment that can only be conjured up by someone who is either under the influence of mind-altering substances or liberally used them as a younger man.

Walton added, "The great teams I've been a part of, on the road you want to be tied at half." Marv ended the conversation by saying, "Bill, can you take a break and join us in the fourth quarter," a request that went unanswered.

Of course the Lakers did come back and the crowd did get into the game and Walton probably thought it all proved the point he made two hours before Horry's game-winning shot.

That game's memorable to me for the way it ended and the way I watched it, or, to be more accurate, didn't watch it. It took place the day before Memorial Day. I watched it at my parents' house. They were gone all weekend, wandering around cemeteries in Iowa. When the Lakers fell behind by 20 in the first quarter and 24 in the second, I turned the TV off and took a walk around Janesville. I couldn't handle watching the destruction or listening to Walton and Steve Jones's description of that destruction. I didn't think it would change the Lakers luck. I don't think turning off the TV somehow affects a game 1,500 miles away. No, I did it because I didn't believe in their chances. I turned it back on a while later and they had sliced into the lead. The Lakers now only trailed by 8. I could watch again. And I was watching when Horry's shot dropped through the net.

The Lakers have won 5 titles in the last 10 years and in three of the biggest games, they've made big comebacks: Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the Kings game and the Game 7 victory this year over the Celtics. During all three of those games, at some point I turned off the TV and went outside, disgusted by what I was watching inside. And all three times...the Lakers won.

Against Portland, I left near the end of the third quarter, a quarter that ended with the Lakers trailing by 13 points. Early in the fourth, they trailed by 15. I was working at the newspaper that night - another Sunday game - but instead of returning to work, I drove around aimlessly for about 20 minutes. Our office only had a tiny black-and-white TV and the NBC station barely came in. We didn't have the Internet yet at our computers; only one main computer had online access and it had slower service than the original Army computers that first used the Internet. I sat at my desk, reading track and field results, fuming. The Lakers had won 67 games that year and had a 3-1 lead against Portland. Now it was all falling apart faster than Bill Walton's logic. I checked the clock and figured the game was over. The announcers that day were Bob Costas, along with, again, Walton and Jones. I turned on the tiny, worthless TV, just to see the final minute and the final score. When I flicked it on, the screen remained fuzzy. But the sound was clear. And what I heard was Bob Costas saying, incredibly, improbably, remarkably, "A 20-point swing. Once down 16, they lead by 4." Wait, who, what? I could hear the Lakers crowd cheering, loudly, which would be an odd thing to do if Portland was getting ready to celebrate.

The screen came into focus in time for me to see Scottie Pippen miss a jumper with less than a minute to play. And then, on a black and white TV that made it feel like I was watching the 1962 NBA Finals instead of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, I watched Kobe hook up with Shaq on their most famous play:

Like with the Kings game two years later, I went home after work and watched - and watched again and again - the tape of the game, especially the key parts I missed after storming out in frustration and desperation.

And then there's Game 7 against the Celtics. Early in the third quarter, as the Lakers fell behind by double-digits and Kevin Garnett screamed again and Kobe missed again, I left our apartment and walked around our block, heading north on Broadway, past Twin Donut, up to Park Terrace West and back down the 100 steps that lead back to Broadway. It wasn't that I thought the game was over - which is what I thought during the Kings-Blazers game - but watching the offensive ineptitude and picturing the grim future was just too much. Of all the damn teams, why'd it again have to be the Celtics? They were supposed to be dead months earlier, but their corpse-like stars somehow reanimated themselves in time for the playoffs and were now going to add another heartbreaking chapter to the Celtics' eternal dominance over LA. I needed a walk. Needed to smell the garbage left out on the street. Needed to hear some honking horns and the passing subway. Needed to stop watching.

When I returned the Lakers still trailed but now it was under 10 and they had some momentum. I watched the rest of the game and saw the end of another classic Lakers comeback.

So next year, sometime in June, when the Lakers trail the Heat by 13 in the third quarter of Game 7, you can probably bet that I won't be throwing anything at the TV. Instead I'll be walking around upper Manhattan, swearing at the Lakers and praying to the basketball gods. And based on past experiences, I'll be a happy man by the end of the night.

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