Monday, August 11, 2008

SwaggerJack: The Laker Girl Life

Holly MacKenzie is a contributing writer for SLAM Magazine and Hardwood Paroxysm. Her SwaggerJack column runs regularly here at the Paroxysm. This week she outlines the life of a Lakers fan, one moment at a time.

Before you all get crazy on me, I have an “s” on the end of Lakers in the above title, no need to think I’ve gone off the deep end and feel that my everlasting love for the Lakers has earned me a spot on their dance team. Oh no, I am much, much to vicious after a tough loss to even muster a goodnight let alone dream of poofing pom-poms around.

This piece has been floating around in my head since Graydon’s HustleJunkie post last week, where he compared the game of basketball to a dance. While I completely agree, it got me thinking. If basketball is a dance, then it has a melody and I think everyone can attest to the fact that there are specific songs out there that transport you to another time with memories so fresh and vivid it feels like you could reach out and grab that time, no matter where you are when you hear them. For myself, and most basketball fans I’m sure, there are games that do this. Games that take me back to high school, missed shots that remind me of broken dates, broken hearts and broken (championship) dreams. Buzzer-beaters that inspire and propel me forward, the game has taught me more about life itself than anything else in it.

Almost all of these defining moments that came at the hand of palm to orange sphere involved a man wearing a Lakers logo upon his chest. I’ve tackled eight of my favorite Kobe moments here, in my first ever contribution to Hardwood Paroxysm (thanks again, Matt), but really, my love affair begins long before Kob. Without the Lakers, there would be no basketball in my everyday. The only way to do this is to choose some of those memories that represent both the Lakers and myself as I think back about what basketball has taught me.

#1 My first life altering, future-changing, career-defining moment came from a game I cannot even remember. It was winter and I was stuck inside away from the cold. I was young, possibly four, probably five and I was sitting in the living room, playing with the remote. I remember flipping because I liked hearing the “chut” sound as the channels flip (I still do, actually). Somewhere along the way, I stopped on a channel and I saw him. His beautiful smile lit up the screen and my heart along with it. The moment was Magic, literally. Earvin Magic Johnson leapt off of that screen and into my life, smiling, dribbling and gracefully gliding across the court. This was my introduction to basketball and the beginning of my Laker passion.

From that moment on, I was hooked. I didn’t know the rules of the game, or much of anything about it, but I learned. I was like a rookie, stuck on the bench with nothing else to do but observe the action unfolding on the court before him. Over time, the game became like second nature to me and those Laker boys were my second family. Even if they had no idea I existed, let alone dreamed in shades of purple and gold.

#2 Since most of the memories of my childhood are happy ones, and almost all of the ones involving basketball from this time are good, there is one that sticks out as being about pain. Lots of it. November 7th, 1991, my boy Magic was on the screen again, only this time the Magic was gone. In its place was the grief-stricken look of a man who has just discovered he does not have time on his side. This was the day that I learned about HIV. I don’t even remember how my mother began to tackle this topic with me. I only knew that I had lost my father to a boating accident at three and now I was hearing that my next favorite man would be stepping away from the game. I don’t even think I did understand what was wrong with Magic, only that he was sick and that sometimes people have to go away.

#3 I will keep the Kobe draft day trade story short, only to say that I was fascinated by Kobe ever since the day I saw highlights from his press conference announcing he would be declaring for the draft. At 12 years old and dreaming big dreams, watching this skinny kid dive head first into his own, felt right to me. When the Lakers-Hornets trade went through, it felt like it was my gift from the two Jerry’s. After being consumed by this draft and where Kob would end up, he ends up on my team, in exchange for Vlade Divac. That was the sweetest stroke of genius and twist of fate that I could ever dream up.

#4 December 6th, 2000. It’s not even halfway through the season and it is a match up between the Lakers and the Warriors and yet, the game sticks out to me when I think back to nights spent watching the Lakers. The game itself was actually pretty special, a 21 year-old Kobe lighting up the Warriors until Antawn Jamison started returning the favor and at the end of OT the Warriors won while the two young guys finished with 51 points apiece. I remember this game because my grandmother was in awe of what she had just watched. Being on the East Coast, the 11:30 pm tip off didn’t really go over too well with my mother, especially when we only had the game shown on the satellite TV that was in the living room. The only solution was for me to spend game nights at my grandmother’s house and in the process convert her into a basketball fan. My Laker love grew to enormous proportions in the living room of her home, she and I awake while the rest of Nova Scotia was sleeping.

#5 This next memory also took place at my G-ma’s house. It was the 2000 NBA finals. Lakers. Pacers. Rik Smits. Reggie Miller. Game four. June 16th. It was a Friday night and my Grandmother had a Bingo game or church meeting, something along those lines. I was alone sitting in my favorite chair, remote on the armrest, Pepsi in my glass and popcorn in a bowl. I didn’t get to eat any of that popcorn. The Lakers (in Indiana), inexplicably folded, died and surrendered, allowing the Pacers to win the game, 120-87. I remember lying back in the chair, wanting the game to be over. Wishing someone could take me out of my misery. I’m pretty sure that this was the first game out of only a handful to this day where I have stopped recording midway through because I knew it was over. By the end of the game, I had a heavy heart and a broken tooth, clenching my teeth just enough in frustration that I now had physical pain to match the emotional. I also had an excuse for my tears. Told you, I’m too intense to be a cheerleader.

#6 I’m at my aunt’s house, babysitting three of my cousins who are all in bed. It’s the Lakers and the Mavericks and I am able to watch since my aunt has ordered NBATV specifically for me. I have already told her babysitting will not happen on game nights if she doesn’t have the games. I’m watching my guys and it is not going well. By the start of the fourth Q, we are down 27 points. For whatever reason, I didn’t turn this tape off; I had faith that we could figure out a way to get back into the game. With the VCR recording, Kobe and Co. got to work. I watched, moving from my spot on the couch to stand and pace, then to another spot on the floor only a couple of feet away from the TV, transfixed. As Kobe dropped in shot after shot with the net barely daring to ripple, I began to breathe easy because I knew this was happening. We were winning this game. Before I realized what was happening (and probably as a direct result of the joyful scream I let out when I watched the usually calm Brian Shaw hyping everyone up in a time out), I noticed my youngest cousin, Kevin, had joined me. Peeking around the corner, in his pajamas, eyes wide in wonder, he was staring at the TV just like I had the first time I saw Magic. We watched the rest of the game together, jumping and yelling, high-fiving like complete morons, oblivious to the world outside of the STAPLES center and beyond our TV. At the end of it, my Aunt returned to find us awake and eating cookies and milk because really what else can you do at 3am after you’ve just watched your cousin witness his first Kobe game winner?

#7 January 12th, 2002. Lakers. Bulls. As I am watching the Lakers play the Bulls and Shaquille take his normal beating under the basket, suddenly things go awry. After taking a hard foul from Charles Oakley, Shaq loses it. And by losing it, I mean taking a swing at Brad Miller. A swing so close to hitting the entire arena shuddered to think of what would have happened had his fist connected with Miller. I remember this moment because obviously, who doesn’t, but also because I immediately called my then boyfriend to tell him to tune in to the craziness, but instead of getting an audience to watch with, I got my first non-basketball related broken heart. While Shaq was this close to losing it all, for the first time in my life I realized there are certain things that not even basketball can fully cure. At least not immediately.

#8 Summer. 2001. I’m at my grandmother’s when my mother calls me. I laugh at her and tell her she is crazy when she delivers the news that Kobe Bryant has been charged with sexual assault in Colorado. I continue to laugh, although a bit more nervously when she tells me to flip the TV to CNN so I can see for myself. Certain she has gotten Kobe confused with someone else, I can still recall that sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach as I somehow found a way to sit while my knees gave way beneath me. There was my guy, my player, my hero, my absolute favorite athlete plastered across the screen as these people speculated about whether or not he could have possibly done the unthinkable. I felt sick. My grandmother was upset, my mother worried about how silent I had become over the phone. It was a long summer of reading articles and court documents, sexual assault cases and various accounts of what had happened in that hotel room. Eventually I felt (and still feel), confident in the fact that nothing illegal happened in that room. Dishonorable, of course, but not a crime. Still, it forever changed the way people react when they find out I am a Kobe Bryant fan.

#9 We are now at my high school graduation. The day I completed my career as a high school student was also the day of the 2003 NBA Draft. It was the year of Bron, Melo, Darko and some guy named Wade. To my annoyance, it was also the year of Brian Cook and Luke Walton (the latter of whom, we are still stuck with). Skipping the pre-prom dinner was a no-brainer for me, I needed to see at least the beginnings of the draft. Going to prom was great, minus the fact that this was before everyone had cell phones and I had to continuously leave the party to go and phone my mom to update me on the last seven or eight picks. I had such high hopes for my boys, that somehow, they’d turn their 24th and 32nd picks into something golden that while I was excited for the future of Bron and Melo, my weekend was spent researching Cook and Luke.

#10 February 2006. STAPLES center. Raptors. Kobe Bryant. 81. 81. 81. This is the night that basketball fans around the world will either never forget or kick themselves for turning off the TV at half time. Watching the game, the Lakers looked lackluster and in danger of losing to the Toronto. At the start of the third it was immediately apparent that Kobe Bryant was not going to let this happen at any cost. Determined, Kobe set out with stone-cold eyes, clenched jaw and an iron will. Jumper after jumper, drive after drive, dunk, steal and splitting defenders one, two and three the Lakers did end up winning that game, but it became an afterthought as Bryant walked off of the floor, arm raised to the sky, 81 points of the Laker total his own and history, in his grasp. I watched the first half of this game alone, after getting into a fight with a boy. Of course. I was in the living room because I wanted to focus on the game and not rehash the details of the situation we were arguing about. Early into the third quarter, I summoned him to the living room and told him “Kobe’s got that look, you want to see this”. By the end of the game, the fight was a distant memory as there was postgame hoopla to take in and a celebration to be had. When this was all over, it was well after four AM and I had to go in to open the gym where I worked in less than an hour. There was no sleep that night. Not that I needed any.

While I have mentioned ten memories above, there are many, many more that factor in to my being a Lakers fan and that deserve to be mentioned here. Because this is already too long, I chose ten. From each of these specific memories, I have learned life lessons. I learned that there can always be magic in your life if you choose the right path and spend your days doing what you love.

I learned that if you do not feel comfortable telling the truth about the way you live your life when cameras are not on you, then perhaps you should re-evaluate what you are doing with your time.

Sometimes things just will not go your way, but it is better to lose a battle and then come back and win the war.

Even when you are down 27, with 12 minutes to go, never give up, or allow any situation you are faced with, to allow you to lose your fight. When your back is against the wall, there is nothing more to lose, so go out and get it back.

There will always be battles that will not be worth fighting and sometimes, you will find yourself about two inches away from losing it all. Pick and choose your battles wisely, that way you can win the important ones.

Everyone on this planet, basketball player, basketball writer, and everything in between, is human. The higher the pedestal, the harder the fall. Don’t idolize someone that you know solely through a game.

In life, just like on draft day, all we can do is make the best decision with the information available to us at the time. While Melo and Wade came after Darko and it still hurts that Leandro Barbosa was sitting pretty while Brian Cook smiled for the camera in his Lakers hat, this is life.

Finally, when you just keep your eyes forward, head up and heart fully in tune to what you are doing, sometimes you can accomplish amazing feats that go beyond even your own wildest dreams.

This game is a metaphor for life, and it is also the greatest teacher of mine. What are your life lessons from the game?

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