Epic stories are the road more traveled. They are by definition, big. They have great peaks and valleys either real or symbolic. Great expectations in of themselves can represent the higher ground. And the losses in all their many shapes and forms, from injuries to games played to the painful realization of failure, act as fuel from which to feed the many travelers who chronicle things of an epic nature.
The season seemed flatten out just a couple weeks ago. Those who narrate a team as a matter of practice or purpose are always there of course. But for creatures who travel further, the story had not yet reached critical mass. The notion of an under-performing team clawing its way back to even marginal contention is interesting. It’s at least a programmer. But it’s not the same as the bottom falling out. There are not the same visceral possibilities. Things have changed since then. The contractors are assembling their tools and arranging them on anonymous motel bedspreads.
Lakers management went all in this season, more than once. Signing Steve Nash in the twilight of his career was a smart money move. It plugged a big hole and cost very little. The courtship of Dwight Howard was bigger and riskier. The Buss family and Mitch Kupchak knew well that they were dealing with a problematic personality, knew well that they were gambling on a surgical procedure. Still, the image that came out of the fixer looked bright and glossy and filled with wonderfully saturated hues. This was a tentpole deal, a potential boxcar bonanza.
Five games into a snake-bitten season came the firing of Mike Brown. And then, the surface courting of a legend who had delivered much in the past, and the late night reversal that led to the announcing of Mike D’Antoni as the new Lakers head coach. The conversations with Phil Jackson were nothing more than a sham. They knew what they wanted and they were picking up the remaining stacks of chips and placing them down. They were all in. They were betting the bank for one season – that a run and gun offense and an aging, injured team could adapt. It hasn’t. It has been an unmitigated disaster.
There is still a chance of course. It is the same improbable chance that keeps us watching games deep into the fourth quarter, when the odds look impossibly high. We know that fortunes can change, we have seem the unlikely runs in sports, we have watched high rainbow shots as time runs out, catching nothing but net and the win. Those are the games and the moments in time that are tantalizing, surreal, epic. And these are the moments that are heartbreaking.
The Lakers are not in the fourth quarter. They are at the beginning of the middle of the season and it could well be the beginning of the end. This is the hard part of the road, where gulfs can start to widen, where fingers are pointed, where decisions again begin to shape the future. This is where the creatures that circle overhead can see the staggering wildebeest.
Tonight is another game on the road, against the Memphis Grizzlies. Kobe Bryant searches for answers, caught between trying to involve teammates, following D’Antoni’s vacillating instructions and delivering 29.2 points per game. The Lakers are trying to avoid their seventh straight road loss. There are details and schemes that begin to lose importance, shape-shifting as the window closes. All that matters now are the numbers, and one more crumbling chance to hold off the creatures and contractors. Just one more night.