Friday, January 17, 2003

SYMPATHY FOR THE LAKERS: Eric Neel causes me to have a twinge of guilt for my incredible Laker hatred:

I know where my heart should be tonight.

I remember dry, sun-kissed afternoons when I tried to dribble, stop and pop the way Jerry West would; remember hoping my yellow wristbands would provide some secret to balance and precision, some mainline to Clutch.

Without even trying, I can still see Michael Cooper's socks, Bob McAdoo -- McAdoo alone in the corner -- Silk Wilkes' easy launch, and Spencer Haywood's double-jointed fingers. I see Worthy spinning baseline in my sleep, and wake up thinking about the 10-foot-high and tight-as-a-drum rotation the ball had coming off Kareem's fingers.

I know who I am.

I know my blood isn't red, or even purple, but "Forum-blue" and gold. I know Ervin went for 42, 15 and 7 in Game 6 of the Finals in 1980. Know what games sounded like coming out of the radio in my grandfather's kitchen, and know what it was to feel the crush of tens of thousands, all joyful-crazed and misty-eyed, at the championship rally in '85. I know, too, great as Kobe is, he can be better, a lot better.

I am a Lakers man.

And if you ask, I'll tell you this isn't something you choose, it's something you are. I'll say there's no opting in or out, no day-passes in Lakerland. It's an inheritance and a lifelong commitment, a Corleone sort of thing. And I like it like that. I'm proud to be part of the family, eager to show off my creds to tourists and locals alike.

But today ... today there are twinges and pangs, there is a certain unsettled something in me, a kind of wandering in my soul.

I'm not thinking about history and devotion today, I'm thinking about style and flavor, about my taste for the game.

And the thing is, truth be told, I'm none too fond of muscled put-backs.

I've got no love for lowered shoulders.

Three-hundred-plus-pound rim-rattlers don't impress me much (that's not true -- they impress me -- hell, they scare the bejeezus out of me -- they just don't delight me), and the rush-and-a-push-and-the-land-is-ours approach to working the block doesn't light my fire, either.

I've hesitated to admit this, even to myself, but here it is: I can't quite (never have been able to) wrap my head and heart around the Big Fella. I'm a Lakers man, yes, but not a Shaq man.

I take no pleasure in saying so. I know, after three straight titles, it sounds petty and ungrateful. And I swear, I've tried to love the Diesel -- the Diesel is family, after all -- but I can never quite get there.

I've managed to appreciate the yeoman's work the Daddy does, and to feel for him as he struggles at the line, but I've never gotten carried away by him, never reveled in his game (this isn't entirely true, actually -- 'cause there was that alley-oop from Kobe, late in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Blazers that lit me up pretty good, and I do groove on the Big Man's mischievous grin -- but I'm afraid it's mostly true).

I think of the new world that's coming when I take over and all the Lakers fans are sent to Reeducation Camps to become Clippers fans, and good men like Eric Neel being caught up in that. I allow a single tear to roll down my cheek and then--nothing. My heart feels nothing.

Seriously, if you're from Los Angeles you even have a choice between evil and non-evil--between Lakers and Clippers. I can't fathom willingly becoming a Lakers fan; I guess Eric's from a time from before when CLIPPERMANIA ran wild on the streets of LA.

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