Let’s face it. It’s time to put the puppets away. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James will not be meeting in the 2009 NBA Finals. For the casual fan, this might be a deal-breaker, but it shouldn’t be. The sub-plots run deep. With a solid Finals, the rejuvenation of the NBA that first broke with the 2008-2009 could build up just enough momentum to carry the league through to the summer of 2010. As P Diddy would say, “Let’s Go!!1!”
Before we jump ahead to the positives of a Lakers/Magic Finals, let’s quickly put our ghosts to rest on what was not meant to be. A Cavaliers/Lakers match-up would have been an ABC executives’ wet dream. Nike already had their hands up the the teams’ superstars’ asses. The average fans would have gathered at water coolers discussing the highlights they caught on SportsCenter in the morning. Progress would have been made for all of four to seven games, and at the end of it, not one would be able to name more than three players on either team.
The 2008 NBA Finals was special because it put a solid bookmark on the mid-00s era. It’s no stretch to say the Spurs and Pistons played a boring brand of basketball, one that wasn’t good for the game itself or the legacy of the league. With the Lakers and the Celtics came a storied history, a renewed rivalry. This year gives us two teams with startling differences. It shouldn’t be hard for each non-affiliated fan to pick the team they want to root for.
The Lakers represent the machine. They are the Empire. The venerable Coach Phil Jackson is aiming for what would be a record 10th Championship win, the vilified superstar still looking to get out of the shadow of a friend and teammate turned enemy, the right-hand-man, Pau Gasol, who plays the X factor in the post, and well-put together supporting cast that realize a loss this year could send any one of them packing. Despite being from the fun-loving, sports-semi-caring city of LA, it’s the Lakers who bring the scowl, the fight, the sheer desire to win. This is not always a good thing.
Rooting for the Lakers, in many ways, is rooting for history. Years from now, the league will be better for Kobe having gotten his ring on his own. Right now, Kobe has yet to win a championship as the best player on his own team. How many other players whose greatness has been argued so vehemently has found themselves in the same position? None. Chances are, Bryant’s not going to get his six to match Jordan, but with the way the game has changed over the past ten years, four would give the great debate a fantastic bit of legitimacy.
The Magic are everything the Lakers are not. Led by young, fresh, baby-faced Dwight Howard, the Magic seem to always be smiling and always hitting their jumpers. After Howard at the 5 spot, any one of Orlando’s 1-4 can hit a J from anywhere on the court. It’s this match-up problem that led to the Cavaliers early exit, and Orlando’s fun-loving spirit unseated the King before he could take his throne. It’s the classic last cup in beer pong question: do you embrace the pressure and understand one good shot keeps you in the game, or do you pretend it’s any other shot, aware that any pressure could ruin your flow. The Lakers want to embrace the pressure. I’m not even sure the Magic know what the word means.
It’s debatable how many Magic fans rode out the years since their last championship run, but the organization has given little for fans to talk about. The original era of the Orlando Magic ended in the summer of 1996 when Shaquille O’Neal left the squad after just three years as the anchor of O-Town’s post game. You know where he left for: the bright lights and cameras of LA. When Shaq inevitably makes it to Springfield, there’ll no doubt be a Lakers jersey hanging by his name. Any legitimate sports fan should still hold a grudge for Los Angeles. While any signs making mention of the move would be more than just a little petty, that spite should still fill the crowd in Amway Arena.
With a successful Finals, the NBA will build a smaller fanbase, but one that will last much longer than the alternative, seemingly destined match-up. The LA market will pull it’s share, but it will fans outside of Orlando to care about the team. If any coming-of-age star can win people over, it’s Dwight. Now it’s just a matter of getting those fans ready to be won over.