In honor of me turning 30, I’m compiling 30 different top-30 lists on a wide variety of topics ranging from trivial interests of mine to meaningful life moments. Read the introductory post for more background information on my 30 at 30 project. Reminder: there is no scientific rationale for these lists. They were composed by a panel of one—me.
30. Phoenix Suns go undefeated during the seeding games (yet still miss the playoffs)
Highlighted by Devin Booker’s buzzer beater against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Suns were one of the best stories of the NBA restart, rattling off an improbable eight straight wins in the Bubble. Unfortunately for Suns fans, their record was so bad entering the restart that the 8-0 mark was not enough to catapult them into the playoff picture.
29. Lakers beat Clippers in first game back
The opening night of the restart was highlighted by the Battle of L.A. in Orlando. The Clippers took two of the first three matchups between the two title contenders during the regular season, although the Lakers had won the most recent battle in March before the shutdown. In the Bubble matchup, the teams played with a playoff-like intensity. Paul George hit a 3 to tie the game at 101 in the final minute. But LeBron James put back his own miss with 12 seconds remaining for what would prove to be the game-winner in a 103-101 Lakers win that essentially clinched the Lakers’ path to the number one seed.
28. The first round duel between Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell
The Denver Nuggets came back from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Utah Jazz in the most entertaining first-round series in the Bubble. The main reason why it was the most entertaining series was the high-scoring duel between Murray and Mitchell. They set an NBA record for combined points between two opposing players in a playoff series (475 points), including four 50+ point games. Plus, Murray’s 360 layup to avoid Utah’s Rudy Gobert was on the shortlist of top highlights from the postseason.
27. The Clippers collapse
Experts and fans alike expected a Lakers-Clippers showdown in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers and Clippers both jumped out to 3-1 series leads in their respective second-round matchups. The Lakers closed out the Rockets in Game 5. Meanwhile, the Clippers blew double-digit second-half leads in Games 5 and 6 against the Nuggets before falling short in Game 7, being outscored 50-33 in the second half of the series finale.
26. Bucks’ walkout leads to NBA boycott
In response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks’ players agreed to forfeit Game 5 of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic in protest. The Magic refused the forfeit, and the rest of the NBA teams followed suit in refusing to play basketball in a sign of solidarity. Basketball stopped again, and it seemed possible that the Bubble experiment would end without the NBA crowning a champion.
After some emotionally charged players’ meetings, the league and the players eventually came to an agreement to resume play. The players returned under the condition that the league would increase their focus on raising awareness to combat issues of social and racial injustice and allow more access to voting.
25. The Lakers’ bench
I will comment on specific players later in this post, but I did not want to overlook the crew at the end of the bench, guys who may not have played the most important role on the team but nonetheless contributed on or off the court, whether in games or practices, in some small way to the Lakers’ championship season. Congratulations to Kostas Antetokounmpo, Devontae Cacok, Quinn Cook, Jared Dudley, Talen Horton-Tucker, J.R. Smith, and Dion Waiters. Also, a special shout out to Avery Bradley, who sat out the Bubble for family reasons but was a key contributor to the Lakers’ regular-season success prior to the shutdown in March.
24. Damion Lillard wills Blazers into postseason
With apologies to Phoenix, no team was more impressive in the seeding games than the Portland Trail Blazers, and no player did more to solidify his superstar status than Damion Lillard, who was named the Bubble MVP. With Steph Curry and the Warriors absent from this year’s postseason, Lillard gave fans of the undersized gunner someone to root for, as he routinely shot and made 3-pointers from 30-plus-feet away.
23. Lakers cool Lillard, end Blazers’ season
When Portland opened their round one series against the Lakers with a win, some analysts thought the top-seeded Lakers could be in serious trouble. Instead, the Lakers won the next four games by an average of 12.5 points per game. The Lakers shot a dismal 35 percent from the floor, including 5-32 from 3-point range in Game 1, but they adjusted and never looked back. Anthony Davis scored 43 in the closeout Game 5 to help the Lakers advance to the second round.
22. Davis, James overwhelm Rockets in Round 2
Round two followed a similar script much like Round 1. The Rockets won Game 1 against the Lakers, opening the fourth quarter on a 16-5 run to blow the game open. Then the Lakers won the next four games by an average of 12.75 points. The key adjustment for the Lakers was limiting JaVale McGee’s minutes against the small-ball Rockets and eventually starting Markieff Morris in his place. The Lakers also got a spark from Rajon Rondo. Along with scores of other Lakers fans online, I griped about Rondo getting 25 minutes in his first game action back from injury. He opened the series poorly, posting a -10 in the box score in Game 1. To his credit, Rondo was +37 the rest of the series and served as a key contributor to their series win. Also, LeBron James physically imposed his will on Russell Westbrook. I have never seen Westbrook get dominated athletically like that before.
21. JaVale McGee
A starter for all 68 regular-season games, McGee’s played less than 10 minutes per game for the Lakers in the postseason. Although his on-court role lessened, particularly in the later rounds, McGee never sulked. Instead, McGee became the team’s biggest cheerleader, hooting and hollering in support of his teammates from the bench. His “Life in the Bubble” vlog was quality entertainment, too.
20. Markieff Morris
The 30-year-old Morris signed with the Lakers in February after agreeing to a buyout with the Detroit Pistons. He gave the Lakers added versatility by providing them with a big man who could stretch the floor and shoot the 3-ball, something neither JaVale McGee nor Dwight Howard offered. In fact, Morris led the Lakers in postseason 3-point percentage by shooting 42 percent on his 69 attempts. While his most notable play of the postseason may have been his major gaffe in Game 5 of the NBA Finals when he passed the ball out of bounds with the Lakers trailing by 1 in the final seconds, Morris contributed key minutes in most of the postseason series the Lakers played, including earning some starts against Houston.
19. Lakers frustrate Jokic early, contain Murray late to defeat pesky Nuggets
The Lakers continued the pattern with another 4-1 series win in the Western Conference Finals. Although the series only went 5 games, Denver put up a more consistent fight than either Portland or Houston. With the exception of Game 1, every Lakers win was close entering the fourth quarter, and the Lakers had to earn every game. Dwight Howard helped get Nikola Jokic in foul trouble in Game 1, limiting the Nuggets’ star center to only 25 minutes. Then in Game 5, the Lakers, led by the tenacious on-ball defense of LeBron James, put the clamps on Jamal Murray, limiting the Nuggets’ guard to just 19 points on 7-17 shooting. Of course, the highlight from this series came in Game 2, which earned its own spot later on this list.
18. Dwight Howard
When Dwight Howard joined the Lakers in 2012, I was ecstatic. When he re-joined them entering this season, I was irate. He had worn out his welcome elsewhere, playing for six different teams over the previous eight years. His production had dropped off considerably from the All-NBA performer he was earlier in his career. Yet somehow, this year was different. Howard embraced his role coming off the bench as a screener, rim runner, defender, and rebounder. He gave great energy in the limited minutes he received. While 2012-13 remains one of the most disappointing seasons in Lakers history, Dwight’s redemptive season was one of the most unlikely subplots that made this 2019-20 campaign so memorable. In the Denver series, Howard was inserted into the starting lineup for Games 4 and 5, both of which the Lakers won. His physical play bothered Jokic and helped L.A. advance.
17. Kyle Kuzma
Few Lakers have been as scrutinized as Kuzma this season. With Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart shipped out in the Anthony Davis trade, Kuzma was the lone holdover from the Lakers’ youth movement. The Lakers picked in the top seven of the draft in six of the last seven years, yet none of those players were on the Lakers roster to begin this season. Only Kuzma, whose draft rights were acquired in the deal that saw former number two pick D’Angelo Russell go to Brooklyn, remained. No one had their role affected more by the acquisition of Anthony Davis than Kuzma. Last year he started 68 games and played 33.1 minutes per game. This season, those numbers dropped to only 9 starts and 25 minutes per game. So it is not surprising that his production dropped as well. His first postseason was inconsistent, and he never fully ascended into the role as the Lakers’ third offensive weapon the way fans hoped. Nonetheless, Kuzma never publicly complained about the reduction in his playing time and made great strides on the defensive end to remain a regular part of the Lakers rotation. If the Lakers look to tinker with their roster heading into 2020-21, Kuzma’s name will undoubtedly be floated in trade talks. Whether he remains with the Lakers or winds up elsewhere in a deal, if Kuzma can continue to improve on defense and find ways to unlock the offensive skill set he displayed his first two years in the league pre-AD, he will carve out a meaningful role for himself.
16. Danny Green
After the Lakers failed to lure Kawhi Leonard in free agency this past summer, they were left with limited options because many of the other marquee names had already signed elsewhere. The Lakers’ biggest offseason signing ended up being Leonard’s former teammate Danny Green. Fresh off a title in Toronto, Green had a championship pedigree dating back to his time in San Antonio and even in college at North Carolina. There is something to be said for building a winning culture by adding players with a history of winning, and Green fits the bill. In his 11-year NBA career, he has never missed the playoffs. His 3-point shooting dropped from a career-best 45.5 percent last year in Toronto to 36.7 percent this year in Los Angeles, which is below his career average of 40 percent. Most notably Green missed a go-ahead 3-point attempt in the closing seconds of Game 5 of the NBA Finals that could have potentially been the defining highlight of his career had he made the shot. Unfortunately for Green, the shot came up short. However, he responded with a solid performance in Game 6, scoring 11 points on 4-10 shooting, including 3-7 from 3-point range. He was also a key part of the lockdown Lakers defense that stifled the Heat. Once again, Danny Green is a winner and a champion, and one missed shot, no matter how big the moment was, is not going to change that.
15. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
KCP started only 26 games this season, taking a bench role behind Avery Bradley and Danny Green. But in Bradley’s absence from the Bubble, KCP started all 21 playoff games. The first game went terribly, as he shot 0-9, including 0-5 from 3. After that though, he thrived in his starting role, as he became the Lakers’ third best player during their playoff run and led the team in postseason 3-pointers made. As the playoffs went on, KCP was one of the few Lakers I felt confident in when he released a 3 that it was going to go in.
14. Rajon Rondo
I confess. I was among the vocal anti-Rondo crowd on Twitter throughout the season. When he made his playoff debut against Houston, I doubled down on my desire to keep Rondo off the court, preferring his minutes went to Alex Caruso. I was wrong. Playoff Rondo is real. I have been converted. While I believe KCP was the Lakers’ third most important player in the playoffs, one could argue that Rondo deserves to be considered in that discussion. His basketball IQ shone brightly in the playoffs, and he left his fingerprints on the games more often than not as a facilitator on offense and an agitator on defense. Plus, he was able to hit the outside shot at a respectable rate, enough to keep defenses honest and not be a liability. There was a time when I thought the Lakers would have to win the title in spite of Rondo; instead, they won in no small part because of him.
13. Alex Caruso
Alex Caruso: NBA champion. How sweet is that? Caruso is my favorite non-superstar Laker. He plays with the ideal mix of energy and intelligence. His on-ball defensive technique is excellent, and his instincts as a passer and cutter make him an especially great teammate when paired with LeBron James. Although he became a meme and a cult hero for Lakers fans because of his receding hairline and “surprising” athleticism, make no mistake about it, Caruso is no joke. The Carushow is here to stay! The fact that Frank Vogel inserted Caruso into the starting lineup of Game 6 of the NBA Finals should tell you all you need to know about the faith the coaching staff has in Caruso. While single-game plus-minus can be misleading, I think his team high +20 in Game 6 was representative of his impact on that game. He does not often fill up a traditional box score with points, rebounds, or assists, but Caruso makes consistent winning basketball plays. My personal favorite is when he picks up the opposing team’s point guard 94 feet from the basket after a Lakers made basket and deflects the inbounds pass off the opposition to steal a possession for his team. He has proven himself worthy of being a rotation player on an NBA champion. If Caruso can improve his outside shot, look out!
12. Frank Vogel
When the Lakers parted ways with Luke Walton following the 2018-19 season, Frank Vogel was not a sexy choice to replace him. Candidly, he was no one’s first option. Yet it turns out he was a great hire. The worries about a Jason Kidd-led coup never materialized. Between the death of Kobe Bryant and the COVID-19 pandemic, Vogel and the Lakers dealt with more than their fair share of adversity. However, Vogel navigated the longest NBA season in history exceptionally well. Despite a roster that included Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard and later added J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters, the Lakers had little-to-no in-house drama this season, which is a major credit to Coach Vogel and his staff. Add in the masterful team defense the Lakers played throughout the year, especially in the playoffs when it mattered most, and it is clear that Vogel made his mark on this team.
11. Bam Adebayo’s block of Jason Tatum’s dunk attempt
LeBron James’ chasedown block of Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the NBA Finals remains the greatest block in NBA history in my opinion, but Miami’s Bam Adebayo added his name onto the shortlist of greatest blocks when he denied Boston’s Jason Tatum. To set the scene: It was Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and Miami led 116-114 with 12 seconds left in overtime. Tatum drove with the intent of throwing down a tomahawk jam. An average human would have had a dislocated shoulder or broken fingers, but Adebayo made the defensive play at the rim to seal the win for Miami.
10. OG Anunoby’s buzzer beater
The Celtics found themselves on the wrong side of history on another great play earlier in the playoffs. The Celtics were leading their second round series with the Raptors 2-0 and leading Game 3 103-101 with just 0.5 seconds remaining. Toronto’s Kyle Lowry fired a perfect crosscourt pass over the outstretched arms of Tacko Fall to OG Anunoby. Anunoby caught it and released immediately, draining a buzzer-beating 3 from the corner to stun the Celtics and prevent the defending champions from falling into an 0-3 hole. Even though Toronto ultimately lost the series, this pass and shot was unforgettable.
9. Luka Doncic’s buzzer beater
Similarly, this buzzer beater ultimately fell short of catapulting the team into a series win. Nonetheless, Luka Doncic’s game-winner against the Clippers was a star-making moment for the young Maverick who has quickly become one of the game’s best players. With Dallas trailing L.A. 2-1 in the series and 133-132 in the game, the Mavericks inbounded to Doncic with just 3.7 seconds remaining in overtime. Kawhi Leonard began the play matched up on Doncic, but after a screen, the smaller Reggie Jackson switched onto him. With the lesser defender on him, Doncic took four dribbles before hitting a step-back 3 to win the game.
8. When the Lakers led 24-8 on the scoreboard on Mamba Day
August 24 is known as “Mamba Day” in honor of the late Kobe Bryant, who famously is the only Laker to have two different jersey numbers retired (8 and 24). In a typical year, the NBA is in offseason mode on 8/24, but this was not a typical year, and the Lakers found themselves playing a playoff game on Mamba Day. It was Game 4 of their first round series against Portland. The Lakers wore their special black snakeskin Mamba-inspired jerseys, and they played like an inspired team, jumping out to a 15-0 lead. Then, with 4:58 remaining in the first quarter, the score read: Blazers 8, Lakers 24. People on social media were not the only ones to note that special scoreboard moment. Speaking after the game, LeBron James said, “When I looked up and saw we were up 24-8, I was like, okay, he’s here in the building. It’s a beautiful, beautiful night for our franchise and something we will always remember—this moment.”
7. Zero positive test for COVID-19
When the NBA stopped its season in March due to the first player testing positive for COVID-19, it was unclear if the season would ever resume. I have to give credit to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts and everyone else in the NBA brainrtrust involved in the planning process because the NBA Bubble in Disney World was an unqualified success as far as health was concerned. Given the hundreds of people who were involved in the operation, having zero positive tests from July through October was incredible. Congratulations, NBA, for showing the country what organized leadership and thoughtful planning look like.
6. NBA/NBPA unite for meaningful causes
As written in The Undefeated‘s article “‘Black Lives Matter, people’: How the NBA’s social justice efforts dominated the season“:
“Before the restart of the season in July, many players had participated in the nationwide protests against racism and police brutality sparked by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police. Some players were concerned that their voices wouldn’t be heard if they played basketball in a bubble. Ultimately, the NBA and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) agreed to resume the season with a commitment to use their platform to address social justice issues.”
Whether it was seeing BLACK LIVES MATTER written in bold black letters on the court for every game played in the Orlando Bubble or hearing players speak out in post-game interviews against racial injustice or about the importance of voting, the NBA and the NBA players used this restarted season to show the “shut up and dribble” people that life is bigger than basketball. As an NBA fan, I was proud to see so many players use their platform to advocate for positive social change.
You don’t have to agree with every aspect of the Black Lives Matter movement to be able to acknowledge that Black lives matter. So many young people look up to these athletes, and I hope the younger generations take to heart the messages that were being promoted by the players they support. I look forward to supporting the NBA and its players as they find ways to continue to promote social justice issues moving forward.
5. Anthony Davis’ buzzer beater
It was Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers led the Denver Nuggets 1-0 in the series but trailed 103-102 with 2.1 seconds on the clock. Rajon Rondo inbounded the ball from the baseline while being guarded by Nikola Jokic. Mason Plumlee was guarding Anthony Davis, but as AD sprinted toward the wing, Plumlee switched off of Davis to double-team LeBron James, leaving AD open behind the 3-point line. Rondo delivered a perfect bounce pass that allowed AD to go right into his shooting motion while Jokic lunged in an attempt to block the shot. The clock read zeroes as the ball swished through the net, giving the Lakers a dramatic 105-103 victory and giving Anthony Davis a Lakers moment that will live on forever. AD hit the shot wearing the Black Mamba jersey and mouthed, “Kobe!” immediately after hitting the shot. It was like a script right out of a Hollywood film, and AD played the leading role in spectacular fashion.
4. NBA Finals Game 5: The LeBron-Jimmy Butler duel
It seems strange to include a Lakers loss at this stage of the list, yet this was the best game of the 2020 NBA Finals and a contender for best game of the 2020 NBA playoffs, especially considering the stakes. The Lakers led the series 3-1 and chose to go off script to wear the Black Mamba jerseys. The Lakers entered the game a perfect 4-0 when donning the Black Mamba jerseys in the postseason, including a win over Miami in Game 2 of the Finals. Let’s call a spade a spade: the Lakers were planning the parade. The champagne was on ice. Winning the title in Kobe’s threads was the Hollywood ending Los Angeles desired and thought they deserved. Unfortunately for the Lakers and their fans, Jimmy Butler disagreed. Miami was not going to be a bystander in the Lakers’ coronation.
LeBron entered Game 5 with an all-time best winning percentage (79.2 percent) in closeout games, and he did not disappoint. He delivered a virtuoso performance of 40 points (on 15-of-21 shooting), 13 rebounds, and 7 assists. Yet Jimmy Butler, who played all but 38 seconds in the game, matched him every step of the way. Butler finished with 35 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. Butler also went 12-12 from the free throw line, including 4-4 in the final minute of the game.
Miami’s Duncan Robinson added 26 points, including 7-13 from 3-point range. His 3-pointer with 3:13 left put Miami up by two, and started a stretch where the next nine scoring possessions from either side resulted in a tie or a lead change. After Butler’s free throws put Miami up 109-108 with 16.8 seconds left, the Lakers had a chance to win the game and the championship. LeBron drove right and drew the attention of everyone. If you freeze the video with 10.4 seconds left, 9 of the 10 players on the court were below the second rebounding line extended. The only player outside of that area away from the crowd was Danny Green, who was wide open at the top of the key. LeBron kicked it out to Green, but the pass was slightly off target, which prevented Green from catching and shooting in rhythm. Instead, Green had to dribble once into his gather before launching a 3-point attempt that came up well short, grazing off the front rim. Markieff Morris secured the offensive rebound with 5.7 seconds left, though he seemed unaware of how much time was left on the clock. Morris could have handed the ball back to Green who was again wide open for a 3. Or Morris could have kicked it to LeBron on the right wing, where he was standing open. Instead, Morris immediately rushed a lob pass in the general direction of Anthony Davis, but the pass was errant and out of reach, especially with Davis playing hobbled down the stretch. Tyler Herro made two free throws to put Miami up by 3, and the Lakers had no timeouts left, leaving them with a last second desperation heave from LeBron that did not come close.
The game did not end the way Lakers fans had hoped, but it was an epic battle of wills between LeBron James and Jimmy Butler that will go down in history among the all-time great Finals duels.
3. Anthony Davis
When the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis in the summer of 2019, I was excited. Full disclosure: I was also sad to give up so many young players that I had watched the Lakers draft and groom over the past few seasons. But ultimately, as much as I liked Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, they were not at the same level as Davis. AD is a true NBA superstar, a franchise foundational piece. And now, he’s an NBA champion.
Davis was runner-up in the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year vote behind Damion Lillard. Every year since, Davis has been named an NBA All-Star. He has been 1st-Team All-NBA four times and 1st-Team All-Defense twice. He has never won the MVP award, though he earned my unofficial vote for MVP during the 2017-18 season in which he finished third in the official vote behind James Harden and LeBron James. All that to say the accolades were already there entering this season, his first with the Lakers. However, the team success had eluded him in his NBA career. Plus, his trade demand and unceremonious exit from New Orleans was not good brand PR for The Brow. In seven seasons in New Orleans, Davis’ teams made the postseason only twice and advanced beyond the first round only once.
Coincidentally, Davis’ first year in the league was also the Lakers’ most recent postseason appearance. The seven-year playoff drought for L.A. was unfathomable for a franchise that up until 2013 had six times more seasons end in NBA Finals appearances (31) than seasons missing the playoffs (5). Davis was exactly what the Lakers needed to get them back on course, and the Lakers franchise, which has always had a knack for landing generational big men from Mikan to Chamberlain to Abdul-Jabbar to O’Neal to Gasol, provided Davis with the fresh start he desired.
Davis anchored the Lakers’ defense, which had the third best defensive rating in the league during the regular season. His versatility to play the 4 or the 5 on defense and protect the rim while also being able to switch onto perimeter players is why he earned runner-up honors for the Defensive Player of the Year. Plus, he provided an inside-outside threat on offense that complemented LeBron James as well as any teammate James has ever had. Simply put, AD is a cheat code, and adding him to Lakers with LeBron unlocked his talents in a way the league had not seen before.
2. LeBron James
The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor always says, “Don’t take LeBron James for granted.” That is how I felt after watching LeBron lead the Lakers to a title, the fourth of his career. Can we please press pause on the GOAT debates for a moment and appreciate what LeBron James accomplished? In year 17, at age 35, he was the best player in the NBA Finals. Like Tom Brady, LeBron James is redefining what it means to be in the “prime” of your career.
I could spend the rest of this section listing LeBron’s absurd statistical resume and comparing him to Michael Jordan, but if you want a GOAT piece, I suggest you read Zach Lowe’s article, “LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan: Why the GOAT debate is different now.”
As for me, I am going to savor the moment. Losing Kobe Bryant earlier this year was a stark reminder to appreciate people while they are here. When the Lakers signed LeBron in the summer of 2018, I wrote another 30 at 30 article regarding my many feelings about the signing. A little over two years later, many of those feelings have been validated while other feelings I had have been proven ill-advised. One feeling I would add to the list after two years of having LeBron play for my favorite team: appreciative.
I am officially a LeBron fan not only for what he has done for the Lakers on the court but also for what he has done off the court. From his role in founding the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, to his role in promoting the More Than A Vote initiative, LeBron continues to show that his life’s legacy is bigger than basketball. His willingness to use his voice to speak out against social and racial injustice has raised awareness with millions of young people who look up to him. And, as a fellow father myself, I also love seeing LeBron in dad mode supporting his kids.
Based on his performance this season, particularly in the NBA Finals, LeBron James the basketball player is not going anywhere anytime soon. Yet even if this 2019-20 season marks the apex of his Lakers on court tenure, I believe LeBron’s influence on the Lakers, the league, and the larger culture will continue to be felt for years if not decades to come. Indeed, we are all witnesses.
1. Lakers win their record-tying 17th NBA championship
In case the other 29 items on this list have not made it clear, NBA basketball means a lot to me. I was not born for Mikan’s Lakers or Russell’s Celtics. I arrived on earth right as the rivalry between Magic and Bird was taking off and the NBA was entering the “modern era.” The Lakers won championships during three of my first four years alive, making the all-time tally Celtics 16, Lakers 11. Shaq and Kobe showed up when I was in high school, and the new tally was Celtics 16, Lakers 14. Then, shortly after graduating from college, the 2008-2010 seasons happened. Boston beat L.A. in 2008, L.A. beat Boston in 2010, and the Lakers also won the year in between against Orlando to bump the tally to Celtics 17, Lakers 16.
Although Boston made the playoffs in each of the past six seasons, they never made it out of the East. It looked like fans might get another Lakers-Celtics showdown this season, but Boston lost in six games to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals. It would have been extra sweet to win the record-tying 17th title head-to-head against the Celtics. Nonetheless, it feels great to move into a first-place tie with Boston for the most NBA championships. And for all of the Bostonians who want to make the Bill Simmons argument about the Minneapolis titles not counting, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. Franchises win championships; the cities and their fans are just along for the ride. The Celtics franchise has won 17, and the Lakers franchise has won 17.
Beyond tying Boston, this championship was personal for me. It was bigger than basketball. While I am not sure that any single game from this year’s championship run will top the comeback in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals against Portland or Robert Horry’s game-winner against Sacramento in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, the journey this Lakers team took me on was as special as anything I have enjoyed as a sports fan.
Let’s face it: being a sports fan is irrational. Fans like me invest our time, emotional energy, and money (for merchandise, tickets, TV packages, etc.) in exchange for a seasonal pass to ride the roller coaster that is watching the team compete with the ultimate goal of winning a championship. Each season, most teams and their fans fall short of experiencing the thrill of achieving that goal. But we all sign up year after year, season after season chasing the elusive dream and believing “this is our year.” As I have mentioned before, Lakers fans are very spoiled in this regard. We have enjoyed the taste of championship success more frequently than most. But winning it all this year, in 2020? As the kids would say, winning it all this year hits different.
The season tipped off one year ago today and ended less than two weeks ago with a championship. In between, the Lakers dealt not only with the pandemic but with personal tragedy when Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and 7 others died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26. The news hit me harder than any celebrity death in my lifetime. I could not shake the thought of Kobe and his daughter in those final moments together. The timing of the accident was also jarring for me, and not just because Bryant had tweeted his congratulations to LeBron James for passing him on the all-time scoring list the previous night.
The timing hit me hard personally because days before the crash, Jessie and I received tragic news ourselves when we learned that she had had a miscarriage. Suddenly, daydreaming about our baby turned into grieving before we could even wrap our heads around who he or she was. Then, as the coronavirus brought life—and basketball—to a screeching halt in March, we learned that we were pregnant again! Months later, when we learned that Baby was a girl, my thoughts immediately went to Kobe and Gianna, #GIRLDAD, and our miscarriage. A few months later, after the NBA had resumed play, my first niece, baby Harper, was born. She arrived on Aug. 23, Kobe’s birthday, and I have no doubt she was born with that Mamba Mentality. There were complications during Harper’s birth that meant an extended stay in the NICU, but she has been a fighter and an inspiration since day one.
In a year filled with so much collective and personal grief, watching the Lakers became more than an entertaining escape from the challenges of life in 2020. Watching the Lakers became a source of joy for me. In a year that will be remembered largely for who and what was lost, I will also remember that the Lakers won the championship and baby Harper was home with her amazing mom and dad in time to watch the Lakers win! As I said, fandom is irrational, and the connection may be illogical, but for me, it was all part of the same story.
As Game 6 ended and the Lakers’ championship celebration began, my thoughts raced from the players on the team to Kobe and Gianna to Harper and Mike, and finally to me and my kids.
Because for all the joy I felt watching the Lakers win the championship by myself, it means so much more to share that joy with them. Ben woke up the next morning and asked, excitedly, “Did the Lakers win the championship?” I hugged him so hard as I answered with an emphatic, “Yes!” Meanwhile, every time I put on a forum blue and gold shirt, Max proudly proclaims, “Lakers play basketball.” Yes, they do, buddy. Yes, they do.
The Lakers’ season had a fairytale ending. As for my daughter, who is due in mid-November, I do not know the ending of her story yet. Maybe she will grow up to inherit the legacy of Gianna Bryant and become a WNBA superstar. Or maybe she will become an incredible human being like her mom with little interest in sports. What I do know is the beginning of my baby girl’s story is forever entwined in my mind with the 2020 Lakers, with Kobe and Gianna, and with her cousin Harper. My daughter will forever serve as a remembrance of the joy and hope we felt in 2020, despite all the loss. Because yes, there was an incredible amount of loss, but like the Lakers, joy prevailed. And our daughter is the ultimate reminder of that.