Sunday, January 26, 2020

It's an L.A. Thing

I was born and raised in East L.A., and my parents still live in the same house I grew up in, but I haven't lived in Los Angeles for any great length of time since I was 14. It was always home, though, and the Lakers were one reason why I proudly identified as an Angeleno through all the many places I've lived, both by myself and with a family that eventually came to include two sons.

As a result, today's absolutely devastating news about Kobe Bryant and his daughter felt a little bit like a loss in the family, because the connection to Los Angeles and the Lakers that he represented to so many of us was profound, deep, and omnipresent.

I grew up in an absolutely crazed Laker household. I was a kid for the Showtime Era and as a result, Magic Johnson has always been my all-time favorite player. (We'll save the "greatest Laker" debate for another time; today's not the day, in my opinion.) I have lots of memories of watching him on TV on what was then KHJ Channel 9, with this intro music pouring into our living room:
As I mentioned, the Lakers were always an easy way for me to stay connected to home, in ways big and small. I remember sitting in the dining hall of my prep school as a ninth-grader on November 7, 1991, when my friend Sid Saraf ran up to me to tell me that Magic Johnson was diagnosed as HIV-positive and was retiring from the Lakers. I never thought I would ever match the shock of that as a Lakers fan, but today matched it.

By the time Kobe entered the league in 1996, I was a sophomore in college, but he quickly took over as that Laker-esque connection to home. I remember watching in agony his air-ball game against the Jazz in the 1997 playoffs at the Stanford Daily offices. The following season, over winter break, a bunch of friends from college who lived in L.A. and I got together and went to a Lakers-Celtics game at the Forum and I got to see Kobe in person for the first time. He was not yet a starter, but he scored 17 points and had 1 assist off the bench that night in a 108-102 loss to Boston. Definitely a sign of things to come. 

When Kobe, Shaq and the Lakers were championship contenders in the spring of 2000, I was a rookie reporter at the Oregonian. It just so happened the Lakers were in the conference finals against... the Portland Trail Blazers. It was all hands on deck for our sports department, and I got to be on hand for Game 7, when the Lakers rallied from 15 points down in the fourth quarter. I was behind the basket and up a few rows in the auxiliary press area when Kobe lofted the ball to Shaq for an iconic dunk that sparked a new run of titles for the Lakers (and as a bonus led to one of my all-time favorite Chick Hearn calls; sorry, Portland friends!)

I could go on and on with my memories of Kobe, but it was always about so much more than that. Kobe was an authentic and consistent touchstone for what my dear hometown was all about. He was a relentless worker. He was married to a woman of Mexican descent and spoke Spanish. He had achieved fame and celebrity. He absolutely got L.A., all of it, and fans of every stripe adored him for it. If he's not the most important figure in L.A. sports history of the last 30 years, he is absolutely on the short list.

(And I'll be the first to admit Kobe was difficult to root for at times during his career. This is definitely not an apologist's tribute.) 

As I continue to process whatever grief I feel, and read the tributes pouring in, it finally hit me this afternoon during a long walk: this must have been what it was like for my parents when John Lennon died in 1980. (My folks are also Beatles fanatics, something they've passed on to me, and I to my sons.) The parallels are strangely eerie: both driven icons in their respective professions. Both suddenly and tragically dead in their early 40s. Both seemingly on the cusp of a wonderful second act in their lives, but gone before it was fully realized. 

Paul McCartney once said of Lennon: "John Lennon was a great man. But part of his greatness was that he wasn't a saint." 

I think you could say the same for Kobe Bryant. And much like with Lennon, we'll always have the memories. But that doesn't make their losses any easier, because of what they represented to their fans.

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