The Lakers lost season: a prospective on losing

ImageAs a Lakers fan, this has been the worst season I can remember in a very long time. The back-to-back NBA titles in 2009 and 2010 seem as if they were decades ago. It’s a year that, much like last season, has been defined by major injuries to key players. I could go into detail about all the trials and tribulations, but those have been, and continue to be, hammered on by beat writers covering the Lakers. The bottom line is, this year’s team is little more than a D-League group. For those non-NBA fans reading this post, the D-League stands for Developmental League and it’s comprised of players who either didn’t make it in the NBA or have been sent there by their respective teams to get playing time because they aren’t good enough to see minutes in an actual NBA game.

As such, the players on this year’s Lakers simply don’t have the talent to compete with the league’s top level talents like Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Truth be told, they don’t have the talent to compete with most non-All Stars of the league either. These Lakers are role players who, in a normal season, would play 15 – 20 minutes a game tops. Instead, they are forced to play 35 to 40-plus minutes because all the players who were expected to be starters are sidelined with lengthy injuries. The results, of course, speak for themselves: 18 wins, 34 losses. Sadly, there are still 30 games left to play. Records are falling every game, and not in a good way.

I expect many fans have stopped watching the team this year, but I’m not among them. I’ll keep watching for the rest of the season because A) they are my team and I’m not a fair weather fan, and B) losing is a part of life. No team can win it all every year. Many teams have never won an NBA title, or even come close. That doesn’t mean the players on those teams aren’t trying their best (with the possible exception of Andrew Bynum, good luck Pacers, lol). It can’t be easy to go out each season and lose more games than you win, but that’s often the reality of professional sports.

It’s also the reality of life. Just because we aren’t at the top of our chosen fields doesn’t mean we aren’t contributing to said fields. As a writer, I’ve accomplished only a fraction of what I’d hoped to at this point in my life: two non-fiction books sold via the conventional route. I had expected my resume to include at least three novels by now, but it hasn’t happened. Does that mean I’m a failure? Some will answer yes, but I’m not among them. There are tons of good writers out there who haven’t sold any books. That doesn’t make them failures. Like professional sports, writing is a tough business. It takes talent and a good amount of luck to hit it big. Maybe it turns out I’m more of a D-League player. So what? Those guys are full of passion and love for the game, even though they aren’t getting paid millions of dollars to suit up. I don’t need a six figure advance to write a good book; I just have to write stories that people enjoy reading.

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The enduring inspiration of Kobe Bryant

kobe march articleOur regular readers know I’m a huge NBA fan, and that I count Kobe Bryant among my heroes. He shares that treasured status with Elvis, who I have admired since I was a shy but determined to make something of myself 12 year old girl. Kobe has been on my short list—and it’s truly short, as he and Elvis are it—since January 2006, when he had that 81 point game against Toronto. I watched, mesmerized at how he was able to single-handedly bring his team back from the brink and turn what was on track to be a humiliating home loss into a highlight reel that would be watched over and over again for years to come.

This past Wednesday, I watched in a similar state of awe as Bryant worked his magic again, this time against the under-achieving New Orleans Hornets, a team which has won only a handful of home games all season. At one point, the Lakers found themselves down by 25 points in a game they absolutely had to win to keep their playoff hopes alive. They still trailed by 18 (75-93) to begin the fourth quarter, one that had Hornets fans on their feet, cheering what was certain to be a major upset, a tiny flicker of feel good in their season of lost desires. Twelve minutes later, the Lakers walked off the court with a 108-102 win. During those twelve amazing minutes, Kobe scored 18 points on seven-for-eight shooting and added four assists. He finished the game with 42 points, 12 assists, and 7 rebounds. Granted, he had some help from Dwight Howard, who posted his best game as a Laker with 20 points, 15 rebounds, and four blocked shots, the last of which was critical to preserve the win. But I know, as does every Laker fan, that it was Kobe and his refuse to lose attitude that won the seemingly unwinnable game.

It’s no secret that it’s been a tough season for the Lakers. What was expected to be a championship contender has struggled to stay within striking distance of the playoffs all year. The reasons are many: major injuries to key players, a coaching change (of which I still say thank you, Dr. Buss), too many new players, a difficult schedule, and the recent passing of legendary team owner Jerry Buss, may he rest in peace.

But Kobe isn’t one to make excuses, so neither will I. The Lakers should have a much better record than 31-31. Nonetheless, they are still alive and kicking because Kobe will not accept anything less than qualifying for the playoffs, even if it kills him. And frankly, most days I’m surprised it hasn’t. Here is a 34-year-old guy who still goes to the gym at 4:30 in the morning to work on his game, which often includes taking some 800 practice shots. He takes ice baths after games to keep the swelling down. Not ice packs on the joints like I use for my tendonitis and arthritis, but ice baths. He maintains a healthy diet of lean meats, fruits and veggies. Namely, he does everything humanly possible to keep his body in top shape. A body that has logged an enormous number of miles over his 17 year career.  As a result, as incredible as it is to say, he is playing better this year than he ever has.

There is talk of retirement when his contract ends after next season. Talk that I can certainly understand from Kobe’s standpoint. I can’t imagine how hard it is to do what he does every single day. As a basketball fan, however, I want the Mamba—or, as he has recently been dubbed, Vino, to keep doing all those things and more so he can play forever. Frankly, I just can’t imagine watching Laker games without that fine wine, number 24, dripping his magic on the court. Regardless of who has donned the Purple and Gold in the past and who will proudly do so in the future, I am certain of one thing: there will never be another player who displays the type of lead-by-example work ethic of Kobe Bean Bryant.

Greatest Laker ever? Yes, and it’s not even close. Best NBA player ever? At this moment, it’s probably a dead heat between Jordan and Kobe, but when all is said and done, I truly believe Vino will prevail.

This morning I was thinking that if I possessed even a fraction of Kobe’s determination, I would likely have penned several best sellers by now. I suppose there’s still time, so I best sign off this blog and get to writing them.

 

 

Mike Brown fired: Thanks Dr. Buss

Well, well. I guess Dr. Buss did read my post after all! Thank you for listening, sir. Thank you very much.

Okay, obviously I’m not so delusional as to believe anyone in the Laker organization read my plea on this blog for Brown to go, but there were thousands of similar posts all over cyberspace, so it’s safe to say our message was received in one way or another. As a collective, we made our voices heard and the Laker ownership listened. They listened to us, they listened to the big wigs at Time Warner Cable who are literally shelling out billions of dollars to broadcast Laker games—but most of all, they listened to their own hearts and minds and did what was best for the team. (Thanks, Jim Buss for swallowing your ego, I know that must have been hard.) The Lakers have always been about winning championships, dating back to their days in Minneapolis with George Mikan. Clearly that trend was not going to continue under Mike Brown.

I’m only a fan, but from my prime seat on the couch, it’s my expert opinion that Brown’s biggest failure was his inability to adapt to the game’s flow. From what I understand, he was a great x’s and o’s man. He could draw up brilliant plays with the best of them. But what he never seemed to get is that basketball is a game of runs. A game of punches and counter-punches. Whatever one team is doing well in a quarter or half is pointed out to the opposing team by its coach, and adjustments are made. Brown never made those in-game adjustments, and that’s why he’s not an NBA-caliber head coach. All the pundits around the nation are going to say how unfair it was to Mike Brown to give him only five games. But in fact, he had all of last season, a full month of training camp this summer, and 8 preseason games to prove he could coach a team whose starting five is considered the first or second best in the entire league. The result was one win in those 13 games. And the worst of it was, the team wasn’t showing any improvement.

Brown claims to have been caught totally off guard about his dismissal—and that’s yet another clue as to why he isn’t head coach material. Recently, when asked when he thought the team might start to show improvement, he said that hopefully after Christmas they would start to gel “a little bit” and after the All Star Game (which is in February) he thought they would start to stack up wins. Meanwhile, he would no doubt have continued to play Kobe and D Howard and Pau 37+ minutes per game, ensuring that they would be worn out once the playoffs arrived in May. Just last week, when asked about how well the Clippers were playing, he said he didn’t know because he only watched two teams in L.A., the Lakers and his son’s high school team. There were numerous other quotes that suggested Mr. Brown’s priorities were a bit out of whack, that he simply didn’t understand the Laker culture of winning now.  So, at the risk of sounding classless and rude: good riddance, and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Let’s play ball already!

Note to our regular readers:

From time to time, Julia and I have agreed we can use this blog to rant, rave, and vent about topics that might not have anything to do with writing. Today is one of those days, so all of you who don’t care about basketball and the NBA, my apologies for having bothered you today.

Normally as the month of November rolls in, robbing me of Fresno’s perfect fall weather—sunny and in the mid 70s to low 80s—I settle in after a long day behind the computer to watch TV, namely NBA basketball, and more specifically, the Lakers. The league’s regular season begins around the 30th of October. Thanks to NBA League Pass, I am able to watch not only the Lakers but any other team playing on any given night. (This is a very good thing for Jody, since his favorite team is in Oklahoma.) 

For those you who don’t follow the sport, you probably don’t even know, let alone care, that the NBA is on strike. All of November’s games have been cancelled by the league’s commissioner, David Stern. Given how the league’s owners and players have been fighting over the details of a new collective bargaining agreement since June, there has been virtually no NBA news all summer. That means no trades, no free agent signings, no summer league, no training camp. Nothing. Natta. Nil. And all of that means that once an agreement is finally reached, there will be a period of at least another six weeks for teams to get their houses in order before any actual games can be played. So realistically, fans can’t expect to have any games to watch before the first of January, at the earliest. There will be fewer games this year because of that lost time, which, for older teams like the Lakers and Celtics may actually wind up being a good thing. But for fans in general, what it means is we will spend less time watching our favorite sport.

I don’t like that, but I can live with it. But I have to wonder about the tens of thousands of people who depend on the NBA season for their weekly paychecks: Arena vendors, parking attendants, ticket takers, referees, security guards, game announcers and camera crews to name a few. No games means no jobs. And it goes beyond the people who work at the arenas. There are thousands more business owners who look to basketball fans to eat at their restaurants, drink at their bars, and park in their lots.

In my 2007 book, Hoop Lore, I discuss how difficult it was for the NBA to attract and maintain a solid fan base over the years. When compared with the NFL and major league baseball, the NBA still falls short on that end. But the league has been making solid progress since the early 1980s, when Magic and Bird arrived on the hardwood, and after them, Michael Jordan. There was a reversal of fortune in the 1990s for too many reasons to go into here, but suffice it to say, the league managed to rebuild again and secure what is probably its best ever following on a worldwide scale. Sadly, all of that is now in jeopardy. Apparently, little was learned from a similar situation in 1999.

I don’t have a horse in this race. I feel both owners and players are equally responsible for the mess they have created. The current minimum annual salary in the NBA ranges from about half a million dollars for a first year player to $1,350,000 for veterans. The average player makes about $5.5 million, and the league’s superstars upwards of $20 million. Owners are whining about losing money hand over fist. Even if this is true, Forbes estimates the average NBA team is currently worth $369 million, which suggests those owners are probably not struggling to pay their mortgages.

The real problem with all of these numbers is that the fans, those of us who buy the tickets and merchandise and cable subscriptions that make those insane numbers possible, are finding it rather hard to accept that millionaires and billionaires are squabbling over what amounts to pennies in our eyes. Maybe they haven’t heard the country has been in a deep recession for the past four years, and as a result, no one is making as much money as they were five years ago (if they are lucky enough to have a job at all). Or perhaps they just believe they are so unique, so special, so important that the everyday makeup of society doesn’t apply to them. Either way, they need a wake-up call. And very likely, that call will come in the form of plenty of empty seats in arenas, smaller TV ratings, and an overall disgruntled fan base that will be looking elsewhere for their sports entertainment. March Madness, anyone?

The Drive to Succeed

I used to consider myself a very driven person, the type who maps out goals and does whatever it takes to reach them. Back in the late 80s when I first started writing on a serious basis, meaning I actually believed I could write a book and sell it, I became pretty consumed. I read and read and read. Books on writing, books on editing, books on marketing. Competitive titles within my chosen genre and outside of it. Often times, I was reading three or four books at the same time. In between those efforts, I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. I was determined to make it as a writer.

Although my determination hasn’t wavered over the years, it has mellowed. I reached my initial goal of selling a book with the 1999 Nixon-Presley title, and followed that up with Hoop Lore in 2007. What I haven’t done is sell a novel or reach the point where I can make a steady living as a writer. Maybe someday I will, but if not, I don’t plan to spend the rest of my life bemoaning my so-called failures.  

Everyone has goals. Whether those goals are obtainable or not depends largely on how hard we’re willing to work to achieve them. Or more to the point, whether we’re willing to make achieving them the most important thing in our lives. Elvis made music the most important thing in his life and the lifestyle surrounding that thing killed him at 42. Kobe Bryant makes basketball the most important thing is his life. Kobe seems too obsessed with being and staying the best NBA player in the world to get swallowed up by the fast-paced lifestyle that surrounds him the way Elvis did, but I often find myself wondering whether number 24 ever has time for anything but thinking, breathing, and playing basketball.

Say an angel drops out of the sky and offers me the chance for a do-over in which I become a bestselling author. Do I jump at the chance? Sure, until said angel adds that the do-over entails erasing everyone and everything else that has made me who I am today. “You’ll have to concentrate 100% on your writing,” the angel explains. “You won’t have time to get married or raise a family. There’ll be none of those needy, furry, four-legged creatures running all around the house saturating your carpets with hair and your heart with love. You won’t spend sunny mornings puttering around in the garden. You’ll never get addicted to Elvis Presley or the NBA, and you certainly won’t waste your evenings watching old TV shows on DVD.

Say what? No Jody? No Katie or Carrie? No Jose or Michael? No Dr. Kookiehead??? (Please see my Photo Flap page for more information.) Not get hooked on Elvis? No NBA? And what was that about gardening? (“No need,” says the angel, “you live in a condo.”) A condo! No. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. (“Yep. A condo with no TV.”) What? Surely this angel is out of its mind. No basketball? No Mary Tyler Moore and Chuckles the Clown? No J.R. and Dallas? No Star Trek? No Battlestar Galactica? And, oh my God, no re-watching every single episode of LOST four or five more times? Seriously?

“Time’s a wasting,” says the angel, tugging on its wing. “Ten seconds and counting.”

I need only one. “Thanks,” I say, nursing a twinge of regret, “but on second thought, I’m pretty happy with how things turned out the first time around.”

Why the media hates Kobe Bryant

Katie (my daughter) sent me a link to David Brooks’ NYT column this morning, “History for Dollars,” and pointed out how it parallels my heroes post from a while back. She’s right. Brooks talks about the dip the humanities and liberal arts degrees have taken in recent years, how students have abandoned studies that teach them how to immerse themselves in the emotional aspects of life (including language and writing) in favor of specialized careers they hope will pay them mega bucks upon graduation. And surprise, surprise, he even mentions Kobe Bryant in the mix.

The money angle Brooks raises is a topic in itself, and it certainly isn’t confined to college students. Salaries in the NBA have grown to numbers beyond my comprehension—and probably that of old school players like Jerry West, Charles Barkley, Magic, and Bird as well, guys who played basketball because they couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything else. I’m not saying today’s NBA players aren’t worth a lot of money; they have skills that make them stand out from 99.9% of the rest of us, and deserve to be paid accordingly. So no, my gripe isn’t with the annual salaries of $10 to $20 million being shelled out across the league, rather the lack of passion that accompanies the majority of those stellar paychecks.

I can name on one hand the players in the league today whom I feel play every game as if it’s the most important thing in their life at that moment, and, as previously mentioned, Kobe tops my list. He’s the type who would be doing this for free if that’s what it took to play the game. (Kind of like us hapless writers who keep writing for peanuts, hey?) Kobe’s passion for what he does is obvious to anyone who watches him play—and therein, I think, is why he is among the most hated stars in the league insofar as the media is concerned. They just can’t seem to accept the fact that someone could love what he does that much and be the best in the world at doing it. Or, to put it in simple terms: they’re jealous. And that’s too bad for them because they’re missing a once-in-a-lifetime superstar playing at the top of his game, and doing it with an unsurpassed passion that Brooks calls The Big Shaggy. If the Lakers wind up losing again to the Celtics in this year’s Finals, it won’t be because Kobe hasn’t given his absolute very best. As a basketball fan, I couldn’t hope for anything more.

Can failure be inspiring?

I suppose that would depend on your definition of failure. For writers, failure can mean many different things insofar as its relationship to our careers. Inability to finish a project due to time constraints and/or a lack of self discipline. Failure to secure an agent and/or publisher for a completed work. Rejected contest entries. A bad review. A cancelled contract. All of those things represent an inability to reach our goals writing-wise, but it’s our reaction to those setbacks that determine how others view us as people. Do we get up, brush the dirt from our clothes, and get back on the horse, or do we lie there on the ground, yelling for someone to call 911?

On Monday night, The Lakers eliminated the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Semi-finals, four games to none. Afterward, a reporter asked Jerry Sloan, the Jazz coach, how he felt, having been eliminated three straight years by the same team. Sloan said that while he would have loved to beat the Lakers, losing wasn’t the end of the world because, in the end, basketball is just a game. A job. He knew his guys did the best they could. They just got beat by a better team.

So okay, writing isn’t a game to most of us. But on the other hand, our world won’t end if we never sell a book either. We do the best we can. We write when we find the time. We learn our craft and continually work at getting better. We keep trying. Some of us will make that big sale. Some of us won’t. When all is said and done, the people we care most about, our family and close friends, will judge us by the type of person we are, not by how many bestsellers we’ve penned.

My daughter Katie often tells me that I’m an inspiration. That she admires my drive. My tenaciousness. My refusal to quit chasing my dream. I must admit there are days where it isn’t easy to keep trudging along, but then, as Nixon once said, life isn’t meant to be easy. Maybe it really is the journey, and how we choose to travel it, that matters.