NOW THIS IS GOING TO BE FUN?
Something stinks in Los Angeles: Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are a shocking 24-28.
The Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Miami Heat on Sunday. This is not wildly important. What's important is that the Lakers continue to be a mess. Barring a shocking turnabout, they will not win the NBA title. It's quite possible they may not make the playoffs; as it stands right now, they wouldn't even qualify. They have lost more than 50% of their games. They are inhaling their second coach. They have been playing a little better lately, including Sunday in Miami. But that's not important, either. What's important is that they usually play like strangers who met on an airport shuttle bus. What's important is that they bicker. That is the role they are playing.
The Lakers have made a huge deal out of being a Big Mess. The spectacular underachievement of the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers—it is not a collapse; you have to build something in order to then collapse it—is practically its own industry by now. LakerFail has been a media-saturating saga for months, starting with the firing of coach Mike Brown in early November through the struggles of replacement coach Mike D'Antoni to the recent weeks of intrasquad bad feelings among the team's biggest names. LakerFail is treated with the instant-update gusto of an international war zone or an election night; it is often given far more attention and space than the very real successes of contenders like Oklahoma City, or San Antonio, or even the defending champion Heat. Can Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard cease their psychological warfare? Is D'Antoni the right coach? Will they sneak in as the Western Conference's eighth seed? On and on it goes. It's as if the security of Western civilization hinges upon Los Angeles's return to basketball adequacy.
Or does it? Maybe it's totally sufficient for the Lakers to be bad. Maybe being a Big Mess is their role this season. Because it is very easy to detect, amid this mania over LakerFail, and the supposed "concern" for the Lakers, a certain amount of unrestrained glee, even fascination, especially as one drifts further away from the purple and gold in Southern California. What fuels the glee, of course, were enormous expectations for these prematurely preordained Lakers. They created from hoarded parts: pre-existing stars Bryant and Pau Gasol were joined in the off-season by All-Stars Howard and Steve Nash, and there was an assumption that this boldface, Frankenstein'd outfit, while not assured of a Finals run, would give heavy competition to rivals like the Thunder and Spurs. New hires Nash and Howard appeared side-by-side on the cover of Sports Illustrated, under the headline NOW THIS IS GOING TO BE FUN.
It has not been fun. Funny, perhaps. Not fun.
But it hasn't diminished the fascination with the team. Sports adores a Big Mess. A Big Mess is its own kind of obsession, too—ugly, raw, pocked by infighting, open to debate and second-guessing. (Admittedly, it's a lot more fun to play "What's wrong with the Lakers?" than "What's right about the San Antonio Spurs?") The interest in these Lakers is not very different than the obsession in the recent iterations of the Boston Red Sox, a baseball team that plummeted spectacularly from contention in September 2011, fired its manager and then spent most of 2012 walking around the AL East with an aluminum pail over its head. Or the New York Jets, a franchise that feels less and less like a football team and more like an avant-garde sketch-comedy outfit. Why, late in the season, was it possible to hear long, animated discussions of what poor soul should be sentenced to quarterback a team that had long been out of the playoffs?
Because the Jets were a Big Mess. And people love a Big Mess.
It's possible to see here the influence of a generation's worth of reality television. Everybody knows that in reality TV, merit means little. What matters is the messiness—the squabbling and self-obsessiveness and removal of dignity that makes a person feel comfortable wrestling their sister on her wedding day. We gawk harmlessly at the self-immolation; it makes us feel better. That's the formula. Nobody wants to watch some perfect family getting along, showing respect and love for each other.
Zzz. Nope. We want a mess.
The Lakers did not want this. And they are not the worst basketball team in the NBA. No way. Not as long as the Charlotte Bobcats exist. After next weekend's All-Star Game, it may be hard for Los Angeles to reverse the bad energy of the season's first half. Howard has been uncomfortable all season; frustrated Kobe looks ready to get in his car and drive south to Patagonia. If the Lakers make the playoffs, it may be a short stay.
Still, they have made their mark. They have served a purpose. They have entertained. This season, the Lakers have been the Big Mess.
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