12/16—Lakers at Milwaukee
The Lakers have just gone through the craziest 36 hour period of the season, maybe of the last five seasons. It’s 4:40 am in New York as I write this, and I’m not sure the team and the players fully appreciate the marathon they’ve just run. It was like a sequel to “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” With that in mind, here’s a running diary of what happened from the start of the Bulls game Tuesday in Chicago, until the time we arrived in New York tonight.
Tuesday, 4 pm CST
I arrive at the United Center at the same time as Kobe Bryant who is three hours early. When I ask him how his fractured right finger feels, he just shrugs and says "we'll see." This exchange follows:
Me: "Shoot straight, will you?"
KB: "I just hope I can shoot--period."
Turns out he can shoot just fine. After trying a third different splint from trainer Gary Vitti, he scores 42 points to lead the Lakers to another win, running the team record to 19-4.
Tuesday, 11 pm CST
Instead of following the usual protocol, Phil Jackson decides to keep the team in Chicago and bus to Milwaukee for the game against the Bucks the next day. This has never happened in the seven years I've traveled with the team.
Wednesday, 10 am CST
The team boards two buses headed for Milwaukee, 90 miles away. It is nine degrees in Chicago when we leave, and 19 degrees in Milwaukee when we get there. So they've got that going for them. The team heads straight to the Bradley Center for practice, where they stay until 2 pm. The team luggage truck breaks down four times between Chicago and Milwaukee, and everybody gets their stuff late.
Wednesday, 2 pm CST
The Lakers check in to Milwaukee's oldest hotel, The Phister, which is rumored to haunted. The team will checks in at 2 pm, and will check out three hours later. Rod Hundley, who is filling in for Stu Lantz as the Lakers TV color guy on this trip, mentions that he stayed in this hotel when he played for the Lakers in the 60's. This is not a good thing.
Wednesday, 5 pm
The team arrives at the Bradley Center, and almost everybody looks tired. It occurs to me that if they lose this game, Phil will probably scrap this whole "travel on the day of the game" thing in the future. Since that keeps us in places like Chicago and San Francisco, and out of places like Milwaukee and Sacramento, I will now openly root for the Lakers. I interview Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings before the game, and he tells me that even though he grew up in Gardena idolizing the Lakers, this is "just another game." I don't believe him. To open the game, they play the classic Emerson, Lake and Palmer song that starts with "Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends." Seems appropriate.
Wednesday, 7 pm
It becomes obvious that the team doesn't just look tired, they are tired. The exception is Pau Gasol, who seems to be everywhere. The Bucks lead by one at the end of the first quarter and by two at the half. The Lakers seemed to take control of the game in the third, and led by three points going into the final quarter. But in the fourth, the Bucks rally back and it's a tie game in the final seconds. Kobe has a shot he usually makes from the left elbow to win the game, and inexplicably, the Bucks single cover him with Charlie Bell. Kobe misses and the game goes to overtime. I figure this is bad for the Lakers after the long day they've had, and mention to the guy next to me that these games only seem to go into overtime on nights that we have a flight. We're scheduled to fly to New York right after the game, which is now three hours old.
By the way, I was right about Jennings. He is nowhere to be found in the final minutes after making only four of 11 shots. Scott Skiles, the Bucks coach, benches him for Luke Ridnour.
The overtime is all Milwaukee for the first four minutes. But up by six with a minute to go, everything goes wrong for the Bucks. They miss free throws. They foul Kobe while he's driving, down by four, and the shot goes in. The game comes down to the last shot, with the Lakers down one. Kobe gets the ball, and again, the Bucks single cover him with Charlie Bell!
While wondering how it is that coaches get paid as much as they do, I watch Kobe go to the exact same spot he went to at the end of regulation and win the game. If anybody can explain to me any rational reason to leave Kobe single covered at that point, you can have my job.
Kobe finishes with 39 points (that's 81 in two games), and Gasol plays his best game as a Laker--26 points and 22 rebounds.
Thursday, Midnight CST
We board the flight to Newark and it's like that scene out of the movie "Almost Famous." The plane is shaking, and seems to be blowing all over the place. The worst turbulence we've had in three years. People are saying things like "I love you, man," and they're only half-kidding. All of the traditional in-air card games are stopped, and Lakers PR Director John Black blurts out: "I want to apologize to everybody that I've yelled at during my career."
If you know John Black, you know this is something he would absolutely never say unless he thought that plane was in serious trouble.
Fortunately, the pilot lands the plane in Newark, where we have now lost an hour and are looking at 2:30 am EST.
Thursday, 3:15 am, EST
We arrive at the hotel in New York City. Three cities, two games, six bus rides, a haunted hotel, a broken luggage truck and near-crash landing.
The team has Thursday and Friday to recover before their third straight back to back set, on Saturday in New Jersey and Sunday in Detroit.
As the song says, "Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends...."