There’s a myriad of firsts surrounding this second round series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder. For the first time since 1999, the Lakers advanced in the playoffs without Phil Jackson as their head coach. It’s the first time the Lakers haven’t had home court advantage in the playoffs since the 2008 NBA finals. It’s the first time the Lakers have entered a series as the underdog since the opening round matchup against the Phoenix Suns in 2007. The hardest “first” to come to terms with is the strange sight of watching Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant compete for a sixth championships in different colored jerseys.
I’m not here to discuss how the Thunder ran the Lakers out of the gym in Game 1 and pin-point what went wrong in the blowout (short answer: everything), there are other writers who have done a great job of covering that already on this site. Instead I’m here to reflect on the privilege of growing up watching the most consistently durable backcourt the NBA has perhaps ever seen.
Ever since I started watching basketball in grade school the Lakers always had Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant starting in the backcourt. To the eight-year-old me, they were like superheroes. Kobe was Batman and D-Fish was Robin. The problem with establishing their significance in the same breath as superheroes is that the legend of Batman and Robin is timeless while the shelf life of a professional basketball player isn’t.
That’s the crossroads I’ve been faced with in these past two years. While their bobble heads sit on my desk forever unchanged (and widely smiling), in reality Derek and Kobe’s waning athleticism have diminished their production on the court. Every fan base around the league, besides San Antonio, has had to face this problem several times before. Toronto with Vince Carter, Orlando with Tracy McGrady, Houston with Steve Francis and Yao Ming, you name it. I should consider myself extremely blessed as the players I chose to admire as a youth have been able to protract their careers into my early adulthood. But it doesn’t make it any easier to come to grasps with.
We’re all guilty of it to some degree, it’s human nature to romanticize about the past as it conjures a batch of positive memories that no one can ever alter; my friend once said when you look back at past events you tend to remember what made your happy and erase everything else. Life is a constant struggle between reflecting about the glamorous depths of the past and improving in the present in order to better yourself for the future. Heck, Mitchell and Ness have established a multi-million dollar clothing line capitalizing on the nostalgia of sports fans.
It’s the Peter Pan dilemma, but unlike Peter our bodies grow while occasionally our minds don’t. The experience of watching sports doesn’t apply to life’s normal conventions, as there’s only one version of the team that made you fall in love with the franchise; thus naturally you’ll hold them on a pedestal for as long as you support them. That’s what Derek and Kobe symbolize for me: relics of the past that have performed well past their expiry dates. From the time I’ve started watching basketball to now, every other position for the Lakers have been a revolving door of players being plugged in and out. The Samaki Walkers and the Jordan Farmars come and go, but Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant remain constants.
It’s partially why I was blinded to the improvement of the rest of the league until it slapped me straight across the face Monday night. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s stars are more talented than Kobe Bryant’s Lakers, but I’ve been reluctant to face that fact all along. Every time Charles Barkley would comment on how Kobe’s decline is evident, I didn’t buy it because in my head Kobe is still the guy who scored 81 points by himself.
Or every time someone criticizes Derek’s inability to be a starter anymore in this league, my mind flashes to an instant when Fish still had hair, was equipped with his signature headband and never failed to beat the other nine guys on the court to a loose-ball. These two players weren’t only basketball players to me, they were role models who shaped large portions of my childhood. Bryant’s fiercely competitive approach to everything he does, Fisher’s calming presence he brings to huddles, the list goes on and on; these are qualities I’ve borrowed from their professional life, and applied them to my personal one.
It’s also why the generation of fans before mine vehemently defend Michael Jordan to the grave despite the girth of records Kobe has gradually surpassed Jordan in (for the record I do believe Jordan is a better player). To them Kobe will never be MJ and to me Kevin Durant will never be Kobe.
All the things I’ve written above accumulated to make Fisher’s trade to Houston, and the eventual signing with the Thunder, life changing. Superheroes, role models, unrelated big brothers are never supposed to be thrown in as a salary dump to make room for a new hero, but that’s the reality the Lakers pushed upon a generation of fans in March.
Quick tangent: Fisher’s move to Utah was easier to swallow as it was a personal choice for a chance at more playing time. Heroes routinely strive for more success. Plus he eventually came back to the good guys.
Bryant’s public indifference towards the trade was suspect as its difficult not to have any feelings towards someone you’ve collaborated with for that long, but Kobe’s not human so he may not be lying. But Kobe did eventually admit to missing Derek in his own way when he gave an interview to ESPN a day after an unexpected loss to the Houston Rockets, saying he usually discusses tough losses with Derek on the team bus on the ride to the hotel but he wasn’t there after the loss to the Rockets.
Fisher has now faced the Lakers three times in a Thunder jersey, each time filling whatever role was necessary for victory.
Here we are now, in the midst of a series that is looking like it will shift the autonomy of the Western Conference for the next decade or so (let’s hope not but judging by game one, it’s likely). For the two wily veterans who grew up in Hollywood, this certainly isn’t a cinematic ending. Either way this series ends, one of Lakers’ constants will move on without the other one. One of my favourite songs as of my late is Leona Lewis’ Yesterday, the chorus goes a little something like this: “They can take tomorrow and the plans we made… All the broken dreams, take everything. Just take it away but they can never have yesterday.” The Thunder may go on to win this series, but fortunately no matter what happens in these next couple games nothing will be able to modify my irrevocable memories of Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher fostered during yesteryear.