Los Angeles doesn't really do civic pride. We're too aloof and jaded for that sort of thing. We're a secular, sunglasses indoors, windows up, bowling alone type of town (except that when we bowl, it's usually at some swanky alley with a Jerry's attached that lets you order duck at four a.m.). People love the Dodgers, but you can count on one hand the number of playoff games they've won in the last 20 years. We don't have a pro football team, and for all the fervor inspired by USC football, it's a private institution that charges 40K a year for the privilege of rubbing shoulders with the sons and daughters of people named Chip. The Lakers are the nexus that binds us. The Lakers are ours.
I know a lot of people who thought that the parade was a really stupid idea. Last night, at dinner with my father and some of his friends, I was subjected to a lengthy harangue about the economic crisis, the city and its citizenries financial woes, and the rioting knuckleheads of last Sunday night, who obviously forgot that rule number one of winning is act like you've been there before.
But if you could've seen the crowd that clotted from Staples Center all the way down to the Coliseum, there was no conceivable way that any indigenous Angeleno could've denied that this was the best idea since the subway to the sea, and infinitely more tangible. I saw everyone from ancient, doddering George Mikan-era fans rocking purple and gold, to wobbly toddlers holding “Kobe Diem” signs. Cholos in Khakis, Chucks, and Ben Davis high-fiving Bel-Air brats (who probably play ball at Bel-Air Prep). Lawyers standing shoulder-to-shoulder with plumbers. Publicists howling alongside pediatricians. All of them standing next to randoms dressed as a Transformer named Bumble Bee. For an hour or two, the skeins of poverty, class division, and elitism unraveled. We all loved L.A., even if most of us still haven't caught on that Randy Newman was one sly and wry motherfucker.
The entire city had the day off. Except that we didn't need to feign illness or concoct elaborate plots to steal our girlfriends from under the thumb of Mr. Rooney. Our bosses understood–or at least they should've. This is the Lakers–it wasn't a seven-year itch, it was the pain of a phantom limb. As Magic Johnson once famously (and perhaps apocryphally) told an over-exuberant Mychal Thompson freshly arrived from San Antonio: “This is Los Angeles, we don't celebrate winning conference championships.”
We watched wretchedly through the lion's share of a lame decade. There was 2004, where Detroit swiped our lunch money and gave us atomic wedgies. There was the year where we started a guy named Smush. There was last season, when Boston unleashed the Kano in the uncensored version of Mortal Kombat: ripping out our hearts, watching its last throb, and handing it off a rubicund Irishman named Sully to use in a kidney pie.
Like the same drive that compels tens of thousands to flock here each year, the 2008-09 Lakers started off with an unimpeachable sense of destiny–the blithe belief that in the land of sun and smog, providence will play fair. And like some played-out noir, we suffered through a dozen red herrings, false leads, and femme fatales (Google “Andrew Bynum” and “Playboy Mansion”). For the last three months, no self-respecting local could talk about anything else.
That explains why there were 96,000 people hanging from the rafters of the Los Angeles Coliseum. That explains why there wasn't an available parking spot from the 10 freeway to Florence and Normandie. That explains why by the time the Lakers entered the arena, you couldn't get within a block of the place unless you'd arrived at dawn. It was an undulating sea of purple and gold, hawking 2009 championship T-shirts and over-sized fingers, pennants and flags. A 150,000 person-plus blob, clogging Figueroa for an evanescent wave at the players rolling past. That's dedication–and in a town known for its sun-stunned flakiness, it felt hard fought and deserved.
Standing on the Coliseum floor, everyone from Pete Carroll to preternaturally jaded journalists had to look on dumb-founded. Taking a break from his packed schedule of networking and newscasters, even Antonio Villaraigosa introduced the team–saliently geeking out. It was one of the most powerful, and (gasp) inspiring moments I've ever witnessed in this town. No less than DJ Quik said that it was the biggest public gathering he'd seen since the 1984 Olympics. When the Lakers descended down the purple steps, it was the closest any of us will ever know what it was like to watch the Roman Legions returning home after a tour of Gaul (or defeating the contemporary French analogue: Mickael Pietrus).
As ridiculous as it seems, we saw ourselves in the champs, themselves equally giddy, unable to stop beaming and goofball body bumping. Phil Jackson arriving in a golf cart, still wearing his X hat–the wise, craggy big Sky Buddha, with a half-bullshit, half-brilliant New Age mysticism seemingly divined from some Topanga hideout. Sun Yue, the team's lone Asian player representing the Pacific Rim bond between Los Angeles and Asia. Georgia-raised Josh Powell, braids puffed out, looking like a lost member of Goodie Mobb. D.J. Mbenga from The Congo by way of Belgium. Everyone flocking to Los Angeles from different parts of the globe, from diffuse regions united in their search for (purple and) gold.
As the roles increased, so did the roar. Shannon Brown, the recent transplant made good in his newfound home. After this, he'll be back. How could he not? The native sons, UCLA alumni, Trevor Ariza and Jordan Farmar hailed to pure euphonious din, the latter giving a short speech extolling the virtues of sacrifice–both crowd and announcer sentimental about the local products, living the life that every kid with a “90” in their ZIP code, once dreamed of. Sasha Vujajic, the misguided but lovable Euro, who eats at Café Med and smokes Gauloises. Bynum, the frail ingénue. Luke Walton, hat turned backwards, making Celtics jabs directly aimed at his bombastic father, who bedeviled us during the Showtime years.
Then the stars, with an attendant noise so loud that the floor felt like it was rippling Pau Gasol, flapping along with avian grace, addressing the crowd in Spanish, complete with Barcelonan lisp. The only thing he didn't do for us this year was recommend us a good Almodovar film. Lamar Odom, the eccentric left-handed, candy-eating space cadet, whose laid-back demeanor always seemed more beach-bum than Queens-bred. So laid-back he didn't even speak to the rapt crowd–just soaking it all in. Derek Fisher, the stalwart back-bone of town and team–a beacon of integrity, with a throwback diligence seemingly alien in the city or contemporary sports–thanking the fans for their support, particularly those who had camped out all night.
Finally, Kobe, bearing a beatific smile, abandoning the spinchter-clenched, pelican-jawed underbite, that he wore every game. Emblematic of the town's supremacy and narrow self-absorption, bestowed with so many natural attributes that arrogance and awesomeness are often lamentably conflated. He seemed the most at ease that he's ever been. The announcers repeatedly made light of the fact that this is a young team, even pressing Kobe to halfway admit that he was going to return.
“Where am I going to go?” he shrugged. “This is my home.”
And even though it's tough to imagine that we live in the same city (maybe because Kobe lives in Orange County), for the rest of the summer, all of us will walk with a bit more swagger in our step, our self-confidence restored. We needed this, alright. So that when the hundreds of thousands of people dispersed, and we all made the long trek down Vermont, and we listened to the cars bumping “To Live and Die in L.A,” for the first time in a long while, it was a sentiment that we could all agree upon.