We went to Game 7 last night and it was, well, agonizing.
Agonizing for most of it, that is, while we watched Kobe play what were probably the worst three quarters of basketball of his career. Then, sometime in the third quarter, things started to look up for the Lakers. I’m not going to go into a lot of basketball talk here because I know it will mostly just bore you but suffice to say that Game 7 was the kind of game that, if you’re there and you’re a fan, it’s almost painful to watch because it’s so uncertain what is going to happen. But then even while you know that, you also know that it’s the kind of game they’ll be putting on ESPN Classic and dissecting for years, precisely because of that uncertainty.
When you go to a game like this, it’s mostly the superfans who are there. The ticket prices are ridiculously inflated, and the significance of a game 7 between the Lakers and the Celtics is really only understood by a certain group of people. There were far fewer Celtics fans at this game, too — presumably because they did not expect to win, and because of the tendency of some Laker fans to point at anyone wearing a green article of clothing and say, “Fuck you! No — seriously, fuck you.”
It is a kind of religion, basketball, among these people. Strangers high-five each other on the way in and out of rows, offering words of encouragement like, “We can still DO THIS,” when the team is down. And every once in a while you will catch yourself in a bit of magical thinking, like when I thought that it just didn’t make sense, in the narrative of this season, that we would lose this game, and so I refused to believe that we would, even when we were down by thirteen points in a game where getting an advantage of even one basket is like pulling teeth.
At some point, somebody in our section started chanting, “Kobe! Kobe!” and before you knew it everybody was, and all of the sports columns would make a big deal of that moment, with the fans reinforcing Kobe, despite his not playing like himself. It was straight out of a movie.
But for me the real story wasn’t Kobe but what the rest of the team did when faced by his absence as their star — most particularly Ron Artest, who is notorious in basketball (and all of popular culture at this point) for his tendency to do crazy things on a public stage, most notably the time, during his tenure at the Indiana Pacers, where he was suspended for going into the stands and punching a fan in the face.
Artest is talented, like all of the NBA players, but not quite enough to carry a team on his back. And even if he were, the pressure would be too much for him. This is a guy who thanked his psychiatrist for “keeping him calm” last night after the game on national television. When he started playing for the Lakers, Mr. Right-Click and I started cracking jokes about how we were “banking on crazy,” because how can you tie all of your hopes on somebody whose behavior is impossible to predict, much less control?
The story goes that Artest’s trade to the Lakers started as a result of his talking to Kobe Bryant after the Lakers’ loss to the Celtics in the finals in 2008. Artest told Kobe that he personally would help him win a championship, and that he knew he was the one who could do it. Because this is a Ron Artest story, you should know that this conversation took place in the locker rooms — while Kobe was taking a shower, where Artest (in a suit) cornered him, and forced him to hear him out. The trade took a year to happen, and the Lakers won a Championship without Artest, and for most of this season Artest has struggled with the Lakers, not able to learn the offense.
But last night was Artest’s game, and damn if he didn’t make good on his promise to Kobe. Because even if he isn’t the best player on that team, Artest was the only one who played consistently well the whole game. Last night all of Los Angeles banked on crazy, and the craziest part was that Crazy came through. In the least likeliest of outcomes, the crazy outsider came through when the shining star could not.
Good for him.
That’s what I thought, when I saw Artest wandering around, shaking hands and trading hugs with Andy Garcia and Dustin Hoffman, while the rest of his team was up on the platform accepting the Championship trophy. Even after this huge victory, he doesn’t know how to act.
But still, good for him, because even if somebody is always going to have to be there to lead him back into the fold — Artest contributes something in a way that nobody else can. And now he has his game, however crazy and improbable, even if it’s Kobe standing on top of the scorer’s table with the game ball in his hand.
Now he has his game, and maybe he needs it more than anybody else.