Friday, May 14, 2004
Livin' la vida Lakers
By Eric Neel Page 2
The second -- the four-tenths-of-a-second -- it was over, I called my buddy Wes.
His little girl Ella was screaming in the background, apparently dancing around their Pasadena living room like a lottery winner.
"I gotta call you back," he said. "Ella's kind of losing it right now."
Winning three straight has turned the Lakers' frowns upside down.
We hung up and I waited for the call back, staring at the phone, bouncing my knees like a meth addict hungry for a fix.
Fisher's shot, the whole last 12 seconds of Game 5, wouldn't be real to me until I relived them with him.
My cell rang and I flipped it open to hear him laughing on the other end. The kind of laugh that comes with knee slaps and head shakes. The kind of laugh you laugh when the girl, against all odds, says yes.
"Four-tenths isn't even technically possible, is it?," I asked. "I thought it had to be at least six-tenths."
"I almost feel bad for the Spurs fans," he said. "I mean I don't, but it's as close as I'll ever come."
"Yeah ... the poor bastards," I said.
And he laughed again.
And then we just sat on the phone for a while, watching the replays on TVs a couple hundred miles apart, not saying anything, worried that somehow we'd kill the feeling, or that the gods would swoop down and take the shot away from us.
We weren't 36-year-old dads with mortgages. We were geeked-out kids itching to find a ball and a court.
I swear, if you don't love the NBA playoffs, I don't want to know you.
If you don't love the way the Spurs and Lakers went at it like Ali and Frazier for 47-plus minutes, trading roundhouses and body-blows, I got no use for you.
Yeah, it was an ugly game, sometimes almost too ugly to watch; but you couldn't turn away from it because there was so much bleeding, beating heart out there.
Shaq and Duncan gave up their offensive games to give each other forearm shivers and drive each other to the baseline.
Fisher took charges and Bowen took 'em right back.
Kobe, Ginobili, George, and Parker squeezed off shots in traffic.
Nothing was cheap. Points came like bits of rock John Henry busted off the mountainside, one exhausting swing at a time.
Then came the Spurs comeback and the Lakers' two-for-forever drought.
I felt like I was Sherilyn Fenn in "Boxing Helena" just watching it, one body part after another cut away. Freaking torture. The world started collapsing during that stretch. First I'm in the fetal position, then I'm in the womb, then I'm a dividing cell, and finally I'm a speck of gene on some double-helix ride to the fiery pits of hell.
Tim Duncan could hit a shot with his jersey in his face, too.
If you don't think a stretch like that is the stuff of epic poetry and tragic novels, I pity you.
Then came Kobe's shot with about 11 ticks to go. He and Malone had worked effective double- and triple-pick sequences all night, but the others were tight fits. This one opened up like a swinging door. My first thought was that Kobe was too open, that he'd come into the shot with too much spring and push. But he dialed it back mid-flight and hit it.
The elation came in waves. It came up and out of the hole I was in for most of the rest of the quarter. It carried with it all the clanging rims that came before it.
More than that, it carried with it the whole weird Laker saga. Phil's future was in it. The way he and Kobe have never clicked was in it. And the lifetime of hunger GP and Malone bring every time they lace up was in it in spades.
The Spurs are a great team and Duncan is a helluva player. But they've got nothing like the drama the Lakes do.
That's part of why Duncan's fadeaway was such a killer. Brilliant as it was, it felt cheap and lucky. It felt unfair. Frivolous. Like it was just there to spite me, to mock my Laker heart. I couldn't respect it. I could only hate it.
And hating it made me sick to my stomach. I wanted to cry. I wanted to break something.
And if you don't see that, and if you've never felt that, and if the NBA playoffs don't do that kind of thing to you, I just don't get you.
Because even on a night when there was more slugging than flowing, even on a night when the game was miles away from its smooth creativity and lyrical genius, in the end, the game hung there, swinging wildly from sorrow to joy and back to sorrow again in fractions of a second. It turned me to mush. It made me feel invincible. And it leveled me like Wile E. Coyote under an anvil.
And that's where I thought it would end. That's the call I thought I'd be making to Wes. The commiseration call. The bitter kids, cursing the fates and smack-talking Duncan in the feeble hope it'd take away the sting.
But then there was Derek, and a ball I can't believe he caught, let alone shot, let alone put in.
And then there was that blissed-out call to Wes and a feeling that mainlined from tonight through Horry in '02 to Magic in '87 to Jerry West from half-court in '70.
I swear, if you think the NBA playoffs are too long, or too slow, or too ugly, you're dead to me.
But if you're with me on that phone tonight, or even if you're sitting somewhere in San Antone, doing the commiseration thing, smack-talking Fisher's lucky ass, and cursing mine ...
You're my friend for life.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2. His "On Baseball" column will appear weekly during the baseball season.