Road trip puts shine on L.A. life
After stops in Milwaukee, Detroit and Minneapolis, it's clear the Lakers have it good
Imagine your hand is an airplane, and the table in front of you is the runway. In order for your hand to land safely on the table, you want your fingers straight and your palm facing downward, moving in a patty-cake motion.
Now imagine your hand is the Los Angeles Lakers team charter. It's 1 o'clock Wednesday morning in Pontiac, Mich., you just played in Milwaukee on Tuesday night and the pilot is fighting wind and rain as he descends the vessel toward the runway.
It's just minutes before you're supposed to land and instead of playing patty cake, your hand looks like it's ready to karate chop.
It wasn't quite as dramatic as that scene in "Almost Famous" but it was close enough. Lakers director of public relations John Black called it the worst landing in his 21 years with the team.
It certainly should have been enough to put a jolt in everybody onboard to take a step back and just be grateful. Grateful the plane didn't veer off the runway. Grateful no one was hurt. Grateful to be alive.
It's fitting the traumatic touch down occurred on this particular road trip for the two-time defending champions.
Because there's nothing like three games in four nights in Milwaukee, Detroit and Minneapolis to remind the players on this team just how fortunate they are to live in Los Angeles and play for the Lakers.
You kind of expect half the team that was drafted by the franchise -- Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum, Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic and rookies Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter -- to take their situation for granted somewhat. All they've known in their professional careers, for the most part, is playing for a Hall of Fame coach in Phil Jackson, being employed by a Hall of Fame owner in Dr. Jerry Buss and living in the Southern California sunshine year round.
To the other seven players -- Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Steve Blake, Shannon Brown, Matt Barnes, Ron Artest and Theo Ratliff -- every stop on this three-game road trip that wraps up Friday in Minnesota reminds them of the pot of purple and gold they've stumbled upon in L.A.
"Teams like this don't come around too often," said Barnes, who should know after spending the first seven seasons of his career playing for seven different teams. "The majority of the teams are teams like we played [Wednesday in Detroit] that are fighting for everything and don't have the opportunity on a team that thinks a championship is realistic."
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Since Buss bought the team in 1979, the Lakers have won 10 championships and played in the NBA Finals 16 times. They are almost always in contention because they are willing to spend to get the best talent available. This season, the Lakers payroll is $95.7 million, more than twice that of the Wolves' $44.7 million roster.
Playing for a championship is only part of the equation. There's also the weather.
"It's a beautiful thing to be able to get up this time of the year and go outside with your kids and it's sunny out and nice out," said Steve Blake, who knows how the other side lives, having spent winters in Washington, Portland and Milwaukee as a pro.
Like Barnes, Blake has bounced around. He's playing for the sixth team in his eight seasons in the league, but finally has a legitimate shot to win a ring. He needed only to look down the sideline to the Pistons' bench on Wednesday at his old University of Maryland college teammate, Chris Wilcox, to see how good he has it. Wilcox is similarly playing for his sixth team in nine seasons, but it's a cellar-dweller.
And if it's not the winning or the weather, it's the fans. The Lakers are eighth in home attendance percentage this season (99.7 percent capacity) and sixth in road attendance (96.2 percent). Basically, they're playing in front of a sell-out crowd every night.
For the Bucks, Pistons and Timberwolves, who rank 24th, 26th and 28th in combined home and road attendance, respectively, about the only time they'll get to feel the rush of a packed house is when a team like the Lakers comes to town.
"When you do go out on the road, even the opposing fans bring it so it gets you up for every single game," Blake said. "In an 82-game season, sometimes it can be rough to get up for every single game but it helps, it helps to be with this type of team that every game is so important that people look forward to. It's fun."
The Lakers, quite simply, offer it all. Odom started his career in L.A. -- playing for the Clippers. They went 15-67 in his rookie season. Odom, who experienced so much real tragedy in his youth, made sure he appreciated his situation despite it being imperfect.
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"Even when I played for the Clippers, losing was tough but we figured we still got to live in L.A. and experience big-city life playing basketball front stage," Odom said.
I tell Odom he's right, but remind him that there are players like his former teammate Corey Maggette who now plays for the middle-of-the-pack Bucks who makes about the same amount of money as Odom but has no rings to show for it, lives in Wisconsin and when his team goes on the road, nobody comes to see them play. It's a completely different NBA experience.
"True," Odom said. "There are some other places where the weather has people inside and they're not winning."
The rest of the Lakers Lucky Seven have something to be grateful about every day they're with the team too. Gasol won rookie of the year in Memphis but never won a playoff game. Ratliff has gotten hurt during the season before but never had the incentive of rehabbing hard to rejoin a championship-caliber squad. Brown's career was heading him in the direction of being a faceless journeyman before he joined the Lakers and became a headliner in the dunk contest at last season's All-Star game. The worst day of Artest's career happened in Detroit when he went into the stands and threw punches; Wednesday, Bryant playfully punched Artest's arm and put him in a headlock as they watched the Lakers' second unit finish up a blowout win.
Imagine your hand is a team. With its fingers spread, it's weak. With its fingers together in a fist, it's strong.
This road trip and the eye-opening lessons it has provided, is bringing the Lakers together.
"Every game is like a home game for us, really, even when we're on the road," Barnes said. "It's a special opportunity, like I said; you can't take none of it for granted. ... Teams like this don't come around."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.