*“It’s not looking good,” said the blonde, balding 40-something man in a Los Angeles Lakers BRYANT 24 jersey. Standing next to me before organic eggs at Whole Foods in midtown L.A, he uttered this out loud to no one in particular, the way people talk to themselves in public when they’re looking to spark conversation.
At the time, with the Oklahoma City Thunder threatening to completely shut out the Lakers, the man needed to talk to somebody. And, well, I AM male and we ARE in Los Angeles; chances were good, he figured, that the guy standing next to him was a Laker fan, too. And I am.
“We gotta do this,” he said solemnly, never looking away from the eggs.
“And if anyone can,” I replied, “it’s the Lakers.” I then grabbed a carton of eggs and got the hell out of there.
That man’s day was already a drag without me telling him the truth–that, for me, it wasn’t enough that the Thunder would merely beat the Lakers during the seven game series; I wanted them to sweep, to crack the spine of the Lakers and toss the carcass out onto a dark highway, to be run over by any innocent driver who didn’t see the mass out on the road.
I know. Sounds terrible. But I was born and raised in Oklahoma City, and aside from a team out of Enid called the Oklahoma Storm that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar coached to a 2002 championship in something called the United States Basketball League (USBL) and the brief 2005-2007 tenure of the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, Oklahoma never had any truly big time sports until the Thunder (formerly the Seattle SuperSonics) came along in 2008. Thus, I have a right to ride the Thunder Cloud–a birthright.
Still, it felt weird to want someone else to beat the Lakers. They’re the only pro team I’ve consistently rooted for in my life. Which isn’t saying anything, really, because as a kid I wasn’t much of a sports fan. I played a little basketball around my neighborhood. Actually, my ball saw more action than I did; guys on the block would borrow it. Just as well, considering that street ball was too physical for me. During Saturday afternoons on the blacktop at Corpus Christi church, the word foul didn’t mean shit.
Plus, I was into music. The way other boys were into collecting baseball cards or reliving televised NBA games, is how I listened to and read about top 40 music.
To me, New York’s Shea Stadium is where the Beatles launched their first American tour, in 1965. Whatever else went on there prior, I couldn’t have told you. Madison Square Garden was where the Isleys Brothers were performing in the early ’70s when someone snapped what became a Jet Magazine “Photo of the Week.”
Even in 1973 at age 17, when I found myself living in Los Angeles, a town hosting the Dodgers, Los Angeles Rams and the Lakers, I still didn’t pay much attention to sports. Then, in 1979, the Lakers recruited a young man named Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Johnson and an evolved Lakers commandeered the exciting Laker playing style that became known as “Showtime”–Magic’s quick passes without looking, explosive point-runs–and I’ve been a Laker fan ever since. It’s easy to love a dynasty.
However,keeping an eye on the Thunder over the seasons was like watching a ’50s black and white war film where countries on an animated map of Europe systematically go dark, as more territories fall to the enemy. Facing the Lakers in the playoffs, the Thunder put me in a trick bag. I chose hometown sentiment over NBA royalty.
In rooting for the Thunder, I came to see why some folks hate the Lakers. To be sure, the Lakers are beloved. But there are people whose hate for the Lakers is right up there with Bin Laden.
They hate Kobe. They despise the franchise’s rainbow of good-looking fans. They hate Kobe. They gag at the whole courtside celebrity thing. They hate Kobe. They hate that the Lakers know how to win. And they hate Kobe.
I love the Lakers. But when a great team refuses to play as a team–and when the player formally known as (of all things) Metta World Peace continually reveals his inner hoodlum–then, it’s easy to be lured away if only temporarily.
Especially when Kevin Durant and the Thunder–younger, faster and hungrier–play their home games in the same downtown Oklahoma City neighborhood where I created some of my fondest childhood memories. My first job ever was shining shoes (God, that makes me sound like I was born in a log cabin) just a couple blocks from where Chesapeake Energy Arena is now. I met the Jackson 5 for the first time in 1971, literally steps away from the Arena, at the city’s former Myriad Convention Center.
In any case, as the Thunder face the San Antonio Spurs and the Lakers plan vacations, I am torn. I remind myself that this is America, where you’re free to cheer for any team you want–as long as, depending on the circumstances, you don’t share your glee with the wrong people.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].