Dear Mr. Kupchak,
That final game against the Thunder, hell the whole series, was so painful. I watched Game 5 on a plane back from New York to Austin, where I live, and about cried. Another masterful season by Kobe Bryant lost. That's the short version. The long version is for another letter. But, there was hope when I finally got home at 1:30 a.m. and listened to what Kobe Bryant said in the post-game press conference. I know you probably read this or heard it in person, but it’s worth sharing again, I think.
“I’m not the most patient of people and the organization’s not extremely patient either. We want to win and win now. I’m sure we’ll figure it out. We always have and I’m sure we will again.”
“I’m not fading into the shadows, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m not going anywhere…We’re not going anywhere. It’s not one of those things where the Bulls beat the Pistons and the Pistons disappeared forever. I’m not going for that shit.”
“It’s tough to really process (so soon) exactly what we need with improvements and what area we need to improve on, but that’s something that we’ll definitely think through and we’ve really been great at as an organization. Mitch has really done a phenomenal job this past decade in building title teams pretty quickly. We just have to do it again."
So here’s why I’m sharing this. Kobe is the voice of the Lakers. To that extent, his voice is my voice. Although I shouldn’t really be a Lakers fan, I am, and I’m a huge one. And, frankly, if Kobe trusts you to improve the team, I should too.
I know you were an All-American at North Carolina and an Olympian then played with the Lakers in the ‘80s and have the rings to prove it. I know you were Jerry West’s understudy in the front office. I know you’ve been criticized and ridiculed, but have endured it all over the last decade since Mr. West’s departure. I know you pulled off the Pau Gasol trade that revitalized the franchise. I know you almost pulled off the Chris Paul trade that would’ve put another nail in the Clippers’ coffin. I know you made the decision to set Derek Fisher free. I know you care about the Lakers just as much, if not more, than anyone at the organization. I know, with the exception of your boss (the Buss’s), that only you can make good on helping Kobe Bean Bryant win that elusive 6th NBA title.
I share this because there’s something else I know about you. I know you are going to do something to make sure next year’s team is better than this year’s team; not only because Kobe needs to win another title to tie Michael Jordan. No, that’s only part of the reason. The true reason is because the failure of this team – and last year’s team – is due to one reason, and one reason alone: too many players on the team don’t know what it means to be a Laker.
If you’re not shaking your head in agreement, then you can feel free to stop reading. But I have a feeling you agree. The funny thing is, I didn’t grow up a Lakers fan but have only recently started to understand what it means to be a Laker. I’m on the fan dome side, but it’s still about being a Laker.
So what does it mean to be a Laker? Well, before I go there, let me share a bit more about how I came to be someone rooting for your organization.
Having grown up in South Carolina – a state with no major pro sports teams – I can honestly say that I’ve come to be Lakers fan through sheer happenstance. You see, when I was six years old, I lived in Texas so it was easy to become a Dallas Cowboys fan. What six-year-old kid in Texas doesn’t have a favorite football team? When I moved to Greenville, South Carolina, two years later I became a fan of the Atlanta Braves. Why? Because their Double-A baseball team played in Greenville where I even got to see Michael Jordan play a game. I think he struck out.
But my allegiance to the Lakers is different. It’s solely because of one guy: Kobe.
Back when I was growing up in Greenville, I was exposed to high school basketball (as a fan, I never had any game) through my oldest brother Kahron who is now a Spurs fan, but I won’t talk about that. K played at the YMCA where a local kid named Kevin Garnett played. When I was 10, Ray Allen was named Mr. Basketball in South Carolina, and Garnett would’ve won a couple of years later but he transferred to a prep school in Illinois for his senior year before jumping to the pros. Obviously, him jumping to the pros helped to pave the way for Kobe to do the same the following year.
Isn’t it pretty rad that South Carolina produced two future Basketball Hall of Famers; too bad they play for the Celtics, right? Anyway, my point is that I started rooting for Kobe way back when he was a high schooler. Remember when he went to prom with singer Brandy? Yeah, he was something like a LeBron James without the Sports Illustrated cover.
Well, sort of. You see, a lot of people see this polished player today with a killer instinct and a nickname like Black Mamba and they think Kobe was destined for greatness all along. While I think that, and the Lakers certainly thought that, it wasn’t as clear-cut as it has been with LeBron. Kobe was drafted 13th! Sure, he wasn’t as NBA-ready as LeBron, or even Kevin Durant (who even went to my alma mater, University of Texas, for a single year), but he was drastically underrated coming out of high school. If you re-drafted the last 25 years in the NBA, Kobe gets taken in the top 3 every time. Only Tim Duncan and LeBron James are clear favorites for the #1 spot ahead of Kobe. But that wasn’t the case in 1996. So Kobe started with the kind of chip on his shoulder that my favorite player John Stockton started with (Stockton was drafted 16th in 1984, as you may remember).
The Charlotte Hornets – a logical team for me to root for, I suppose, from the other Carolina state – drafted Kobe, which seemed prudent for their squad, but I was never a Hornets fan. I was a Kobe fan. So when Mr. West and you guys in the Lakers front office made the trade – Vlade Divac for this 17-year-old string bean shooting guard from Philly with the middle name Bean – I immediately fell in love. Candidly, I rooted for the Jazz pretty hard-core to beat the Bulls because I loved the consistency and work ethic of John Stockton but I saw the writing on the wall; Kobe would soon take the mantle as the NBA icon for reliability and hard work.
I want to give you credit because you seem to have understood this all along. That’s why you got Phil Jackson to harness his early Jordan-like temperament and talent and matched him with Shaquille O’Neal, a guy whose offseason work ethic was often questioned. Kobe was the glue because he had the killer instinct like Jordan and the “I’m the man” streak like Shaq, but needed the massaging of the Zenmeister. I know Mr. West gets much of the credit for that first three-peat, but I know you were there behind the scenes and then proved your worth front-and-center with the back-to-back titles in 2009 and ’10, something even the Spurs have failed to do with Duncan and coach/exec Gregg Popovich.
I want to give you credit because you’ve taken a lot of criticism, but you’ve proven that the decision making authority is in a pretty good place when it’s with you. The Bynum draft, the Gasol trade, the Artest pickup, the Fisher trade, the Paul attempt. I see your work ethic and reliability too. I know us Kobe and Lakers fans can count on you to do what’s right.
Does that mean firing Mike Brown? Maybe, but I trust you. Does that mean trading Gasol and/or Bynum to go after Dwight Howard and/or Deron Williams? Maybe, but I trust you. Does that mean getting more reliable 3-point-shooters at the point guard position than Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake? Maybe, but I trust you. The most important thing is that you harken back to what made the Lakers great when you were playing with Magic and Kareem, or even earlier with Wilt and Elgin Baylor and Mr. Logo, and more recently with Shaq and Kobe and now Kobe. Great players? Yes. You’ve spent your career working with several of them. Great role players? Most definitely. You were one of them. Great Lakers? I only see one of them on the roster today. I understand your decision to cut Derek Fisher, trade Lamar Odom and so on, but I hope you realize that the Lakers didn’t lose because of a lack of talent, but because of a lack of Laker-ness.
To be a Laker means to be a winner, first and foremost. To be a winner means never quitting, which we didn’t see Kobe do against the Thunder.
To be a Laker means to coach with a level of passion, creativity and leadership that guys like Pat Riley and Phil Jackson exuded. Does Mike Brown fit that description? I can’t tell.
To be a Laker also means to be entertainingly dominant, which Gasol simply isn’t. To be a Laker means to respect the game and your opponents, which Bynum seems to struggle with.
To be a Laker means to live for the brightest spotlights, which Ramon Sessions seemed fearful of. To be a Laker means to take those gutsy shots and make them as guys like Robert Horry and Rick Fox and Derek Fisher used to do. Steve Blake seems to have the guts, but not the gifts.
To be a Laker means to play with fire, even if you’re a bench guy, which I see in a guy like Jordan Hill and used to see in Shannon Brown before you let him go.
To be a Laker means to know, deep down, that you are the better team, but play the full 48+ minutes to prove it. This Lakers team we’ve seen these last two years seems to not fully grasp that last part. They gave a good show of confidence (who couldn’t with Kobe on the roster), but they didn’t back it up.
Regardless, I’m not really trying to advise you on what should happen with this Lakers team, at least not specific personnel decisions, because you seem to know exactly what to do. Maybe not today or this offseason, but I know you hear the clock on Kobe’s career ticking. He does too. He put in a gutsy performance against the Nuggets with a stomach bug and then the 43-point game, followed by his 42-point; 5-dunk game against the Thunder just to prove he’s not ready to fade away just yet, but it will eventually happen. I give it 2 maybe 3 seasons tops.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it may have been Kobe who converted me into a Lakers fan, but it’s your excellent behind the scenes work that has made it so enjoyable up until these last couple of playoff exits. I trust you to bring the Lakers back to the promised land. Kobe knows he needs you, and so do us fans.
In the utmost admiration and respect,
Lakers fan since ‘Kobe