L.A. Lakers are now Public Enemy No. 1
Before ESPN's Doris Burke had even finished interviewing Rajon Rondo after yet another virtuoso performance, I received a text message from a Philly friend who was gloating about the Celtics' win. I hit him back: "You're from Philly, man. How can you possibly pull for Boston?" His response: "Man, them days are gone. And I just really loathe the Lakers to unhealthy levels."
He's not alone. And this, my people, represents a significant shift in NBA fandom and, uh, hatedom.
The Celtics were the most hated NBA team of my youth, by far. Didn't matter if you lived in New York, Chicago, Philly, D.C., Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta or wherever. If you lived east of the Mississippi River, you loathed the Boston Celtics. And chances are you probably dug the Showtime Lakers, because they weren't beating your squad three or four times every season or ending its season for good in the playoffs, unlike the Celtics. Hate for the Celtics was about jealousy and the fatigue of losing.
But you know what? Both the Celtics' and Lakers' reps seem to have changed for folks in my generation -- even us east of the Mississippi. The Lakers have become the most hated team in basketball, especially for real hoops fans. The Lakers remain the overwhelming favorite for casual fans, because they're a glamorous team in a glamorous city led by a glamorous star. On the other hand, no current team is the object of as much bile and venom -- again, especially from real fans who actually care about the NBA -- as L.A. How did we get here? Here's a timeline of some pivotal moments:
1992 -- Larry Bird retires: He was Boston's chief villain. With him gone, you hated the C's a little, a tad, a smidgen less.
1993 -- Reggie Lewis dies: After the Len Bias tragedy in 1986, even die-hard Celtics haters had to feel sympathy for the franchise when Regg passed.
1996 -- Lakers acquire Kobe and sign Shaq: To this day, Kobe -- second to Allen Iverson as the most polarizing player of his era -- has been perhaps the chief reason for the hate. Plus, the Shaq-Kobe duo went on to dominate the beginning of the millennium. Opposing fans hate a team that can't be beaten.
1997 -- Celtics lose the Tim Duncan lottery: After four post-Bird seasons without 50 wins, the C's tanked their way to just 15 wins to get the drop on the No. 1 pick. Instead they got the sixth and Ron Mercer. This meant Boston remained wholly irrelevant for all but one of the 10 years after Bird's retirement. Few people waste emotional capital hating a team that doesn't matter.
2002 -- Lakers conspiracy theories in full effect: With L.A. down 3-2 to the Sacramento Kings in the Western Conference finals, the Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter, leading many Lakers haters (and neutral fans) to wonder whether the league and its referees wanted to ensure a Game 7. It's easy to hate league darlings. The Lakers won Game 7, then beat New Jersey for the three-peat. By this point, the Lakers' bandwagon was outrageous and full of fair-weather yet rabid fans across America -- many of whom were/are every bit as obnoxious as the stereotypes of their Cowboys and Yankees counterparts. To some extent, Lakers haters hate Lakers fans as much as the team itself.
2004 -- Lakers choose Kobe over Shaq: It made perfect basketball sense. Kobe was a free agent; Shaq wanted a big-money extension. The Lakers chose the 25-year-old who also happened to be the best player in the world over the center starting the downslope of his career. NBA fans loved Shaq, though. There was no large contingent of Shaq-haters. Fans took it as Kobe playing prima donna and forcing the Lakers to tell Shaq to get to steppin'. It was perceived as a sucka move by a sucka franchise. Kobe hate was at an all-time high. The Lakers and Kobe were now Public Enemy No. 1.
2007-08 -- Boston trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen; L.A. trades for Pau Gasol: The reason everyone from Charlie Murphy (a New Yorker) to Outkast's Big Boi (an Atlantan) root for the C's is that for the past three years they're always stocked with folks' favorite players. Everyone respects Allen. KG has a huge fan base in barbershops, bars and the entertainment industry. Meanwhile, L.A. seemed like Kobe and a bunch of foreigners to many, which doesn't go over well in nationalistic America. Then Boston played a hard-core, street-tough brand of ball in the Finals and punked the Lakers. Every real ball fan had to applaud the C's, and those same fans were offended by the Lakers' performance.
This is the Lakers' seventh Finals appearance since 2000. For a team that many already didn't like, the situation reached overkill. We can infer that some fans are merely tired of the Lakers, but for others, it's hate. The thing is, it's likely that the Lakers will represent the Western Conference three or four more times within the next five or six years. The hate will just get even more venomous.
Vincent Thomas is an NBA.com and SLAM Magazine columnist and a frequent commentator on NBA TV and ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter @vincecathomas or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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