Sunday , May , 23 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

The Original Odd Couple

Peanut butter and jelly. Excuse my abstract opening, but it’s the first and only image which springs to mind whenever their two names appear in the same sentence. Only in L.A., of course, could such an odd combination survive and thrive. If they had been suggested as partners in a ’70s buddy cop B-movie, the script would have been laughed out of the office; they’re just too different. Take a smack-talking leviathan from New Jersey via Orlando and Louisiana and a cocky high schooler fluent in Italian and what do you get? In any other scenario, win totals which don’t add up to the available talent and a headache for both General Manager and coach alike. Somehow, some way, this laughable experiment was a migraine for opposing teams as the Lakers’ management was left reaching for the Excedrin only during the occasional spats which were magnified by the media spotlight.

The Original Odd Couple

How did it happen then? Lord only knows. Even Los Angeles shouldn’t have been a sufficiently large city to accommodate these two egos. Amazingly, Saint Phil worked a miracle and found enough shots for both the dominant force of our time and the flashy swingman who was starting to lead even the most tentative of analysts to make the comparison between he and you know who. Coach Jackson and Jerry West had put two sharks in the same tank and they appeared to playing nicely.

Those with a degree in the freakin’ obvious chose to point out that any team with arguably the league’s best guard-forward and centre and one of the strongest one-two punches in league history should be winning championships. But these two? Three times in a row? It still didn’t seem credible. Their big brother/little brother front looked about as forced as Kobe’s lyrics in his little venture into the music world. Perhaps they found a common bond in their second careers as rappers. Perhaps they each understood the pressure the other was subjected to. Perhaps they chatted about the last episode of Friends after training sessions. Whatever it was that helped them tolerate one another enough that Mark Madsen could enforce the stereotype of white guys as bad dancers on the championship float each year, it was a secret to us. As far as I could see, the only similarity they had was that they were sharing the limelight with their total opposite.

Let’s consider their last championship season. Big was putting up 27, 11, 4 and 2 blocks, another monster statline for the man mountain that was one corner of the infamous triangle offence. Kobe was hardly slouching himself as he boasted a rounded 25, 5.5, and 5.5 every night. If we assume that each basket they assisted was a two-pointer, this pair was accounting for sixty-seven points a night. Even if several of those assists were to one another, they were still responsible for around two-thirds of the team’s point output. Although they were pushed to the brink in their notorious seven-gamer with the upstart Kings, they had the swagger and look of a three-peat championship team. Fans thought the Lakers as likely to lose a game against New Jersey as the Globetrotters against your local middle school squad, and they were right in thinking so. Writers started to dust off words like “Era” and “Dynasty” as the colossal grin on Shaq’s mug spoke volumes.

Then there was a hiccup, known to most as the ’02-’03 playoffs. Prior to the season, it had been the trendy thing to question the Lakers’ dominance and to half-heartedly throw out teams like the Kings, Spurs and, humorously, the Mavericks as heirs to the NBA crown. These writers broke out phrases like “imminent takeover” and “shift of power” in the belief that they really weren’t that hot, that they couldn’t maintain their stranglehold on the league for another year. Unfortunately for both the Laker faithful and the bandwagoners which are as much a reward for the title as the trophy and the rings, they were right as well.

Shaq fumed, Kobe cried and Phil mused. The coin flip was whether this setback would dishearten them to the point that they gave up or stoke the fires of their passion to take the Larry O’Brien back home to Cali. Shaq had once famously claimed that he would retire at thirty and Kobe had tacitly indicated that he wanted to be the man elsewhere. The off-season was a tense time for the left coast. Rumours were rife as half-founded reports of comments and opinions passed about the media like hearsay on a playground.

Then the bombshell dropped.

Kobe came back looking drained, as anyone would in the same circumstances. The fire in his eyes was replaced initially by a look of consternation and then resignation. The strut was now a slouch. His frame was visibly diminished as the twenty-odd pounds of muscle he’d added the previous off-season seemed to have disappeared. Was it still the same ol’ Kob’ we’d see this year? For a minute it looked as if the kid who had turned up at his coming-out press conference in shades was gone for good. Maybe now was the time for him to step down and let LeBron, ‘Melo, Dwyane and the rest vie for his spot.

Kobe wasn’t having that.

As the season progressed, he started to heat up, started to make people realise that he could back the hype up and silence the haters. I’ll admit it; I was a hater and I probably still am. While he plays like this, however, I have nothing to give him but praise. This young man has saved the Lakers’ hides numerous times this year when, in a similar situation, anyone else would only be looking out for their own behind. Not only has he managed not to allow what happens in one court to bother him on the other, but he has also often had to move between the two in a matter of hours. It would be enough to break a normal man but, much like his idol, he has learnt to live off the pressure, to use the words of the dissenters as fuel. I am in awe of this as much as his anti-gravity feats of contortion and late-game heroics.

What of Diesel then? Well, the big fella came out of hibernation in the second round of these playoffs and has asserted his dominance over every other centre who cared to get underneath him on a super-sized slam. Shaq is back and he looks like he’s having fun out there again. Over the last seven games he has put up 15 boards and 4.28 blocks per, proving that he still owns the paint, all the while attacking the rim like the Diesel of old. It’s been said before, but, when Shaq’s on, he comes closer to being totally unstoppable than anyone who has ever set foot on the hardwood. He can pass out of the double-team like few others, clear out as much space as he wants inside and, gulp, he’s even starting to hit some free throws with the game on the line. He’s a potential M.V.P. every year simply because there’s not a player on this planet that can match up with him.

As I type, the Lakers are fresh from beating the defending champions four games in a row, looking at the 2-0 nothing rut into which they slipped as little more than a flat tyre on the road to the promised land. They are one game into the western conference finals, having snatched a win in Minneapolis from the feisty T’Wolves, a contest in which the dynamic duo combined for 50 points, 21 boards and 11 assists, a modest outing considering their recent run, but impressive nonetheless. The Wolves are on the back foot already and looking scared. Two sharks smell blood in the water and they’re about to finish off whichever little fish dare to swim near them.

Peanut butter and jelly? It’s that time again.