Standing in the center of the Lakers locker room after last Friday's loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, you heard the same question ricocheting out of opposite corners.
"How would it be different if Kobe was here?"
This is the same unanswerable Ma Nishtana you hear when bullshitting with the Auto Zone employee installing your battery or your best friend who screams epithets every time a report surfaces about Steve Nash's malfunctioning nervous system.
Unless you spent the last 18 months searching for your mantra in a Marrakesh hashish den, you probably heard about the climax that crushed the Lakers' already-frail playoff chances. Following a wrathful stretch that channeled the aerial unstoppable ghost of the "K.O.B.E" era, the Lakers legend tore his Achilles tendon. There are roughly 4,000 tendons in the human body, and the rupture occurred in the only one named after the vulnerable heel of a Grecian demigod.
If some lame with a laptop at the Bourgeois Pig crafted this scenario over his fourth pour-over coffee, his agent would refuse to take his calls. But it actually happened, and in its own perverse way, it was the only logical outcome for such a snake-bit season. The chakras were permanently blocked. The jello never seemed to jiggle. Defensive communication was dim. Offensive ball flow was largely stagnant. I'm sure other squads in human history have been equally hexed, but you usually you have to build your stadium on an Indian burial ground or steal a sow from a witch to experience luck this lousy.
Dwight Howard showed up with a bad back, yellow American Apparel headband and the mental toughness of an Adventure Time character. Steve Nash's once-indestructible bones turned to gingerbread. Mike Brown was fired -- a tacit admission that he was the wrong hire in the first place. Pau Gasol missed more than 30 games, thanks to knees that aged in dog years. A labral tear in Jordan Hill's hip sidelined him for the second half. Jerry Buss, the most beloved owner in Los Angeles sports history, ascended to the immemorial "Showtime" above. And they still played at a 56-win clip for the second half. Finally, after a seven-game Kamikaze streak of 40-minutes plus per, Kobe's body betrayed him.
Cue the playoffs sweep by the San Antonio Spurs. Dwight Howard was lured to Houston following a failed Lakers pitch at the Beverly Wilshire, where he posted up like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. His escape to Texas was sealed with a series of Slim Thug tweets, and the promise that he would be given a special office at NASA to build Lego Space Stations with strippers. Maybe.
In response, the Lakers signed former USC star, Nick "Swaggy P" Young and brought back Jordan Farmar from Turkey. Chris Kaman returned to Staples Center to ensure the support of balding blue-collar Inland Empire fathers. They acquired a pair of promising lottery reclamation projects in Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry -- pronounced "Zah-Vee-Ay," sort of like "Frahnk," the wedding planner in Father of the Bride. Mike D' Antoni had a full training camp to implement his system and build solidarity.
As for Kobe, the 35-year-old spent the off-season rehabbing, getting ink and Instagramming inspirational quotes. As the Nike Ad once commanded: The Kobe System is about adaptation. If he's going to defy time, he'll have to manipulate gravity. The slashing spidery game will morph towards something more closely resembling late-model Jordan -- with an emphasis on brute old man strength, fancy footwork, and the savvy accrued from 18 years in the NBA. Black Mamba has become #Vino. But he's already told reporters that his off-season weightlifting regimen has left him more powerful than ever before. You can almost see Kobe in his Orange County compound, bicep curling 180 lbs, while Kanye's "I Am a God" blares at insane volume in a room packed with infinity mirrors.
After a dozen games, the 2013-14 squad is 5-7. By the standards of the last four decades of Lakers basketball, it induces flashbacks to the Sedale Threatt years. But within the measured expectations of a team comprised of mostly solid 6th and 7th men, it's been fun to watch. They're vulnerable to haymakers from the opposing rotations, but can capably exploit an opponent's weaknesses. They've gotten hammered on back-to-back nights, which is expected from a team that's half-old, half-young, and absent a closer. Yet they dropkicked the Clippers on opening night and revenge-killed the Rockets in Houston. They hung tough with the Spurs and might have beaten the Grizzlies, if not for a Zach Randolph fourth-quarter blitz of off-balance 18-footers.
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Jordan Hill has emerged as a hyper-kinetic combination of Anderson Varejao, A.C. Green, and Chief Keef. Steve Blake is balling the best he has in years, exhibiting the scrappiness of a hoodlum in a Guy Ritchie film. Jodie Meeks is deadly from the corner. Pau Gasol has declined from his 2008-10 apex, but consistently racks up double-doubles, and remains a model of dignity. Swaggy P adds energy and understands that every L.A. professional sports franchise needs at least one member dating a totally random celebrity. And thus, he's graciously stepped out with Iggy Azalea, a blonde Australian rapper best known for the song "P.U.S.S.Y."
Nonetheless, the Trading Places epoch is afoot at Staples Center. For the first time ever, the Lakers are the underdog. And while Clippers fans will continue worming out of the woodwork should they make a playoff run, the Lakers remain L.A.'s idée fixe - at least as long as Kobe Bryant continues to wear purple and gold.
In a city obsessed with the idea of eternal youth, Kobe reflects a scarcely subliminated desire to keep time at bay. The future has never been murkier, and Kobe represents the only familiar form of stability. After all, he's been an institution in L.A. since before the Getty Center opened in Bel-Air. Sequels may be a cliché, but almost everyone loves a sequel.
The most pressing uncertainty is how this team-by-committee will absorb the addition of the ultimate not a team-by-committee guy? Kobe has returned to practice and a return could come this Sunday against Sacramento ... or next Tuesday in Washington ... or next Wednesday in Brooklyn. Aside from the Yeezus concert, Kobe elicited the loudest cheers in Staples Center this year, when he emerged at halftime last Friday to donate a check for typhoon relief in the Philippines. The only thing you can be assured of is that that decibel high will be eclipsed very soon.