The Sixth Man (cont.)
The questions are fabricated, my answers are for real.
"What should I do? Should I be who you want me to be?"
-- L.J., Miami
People want you to win, LeBron, and that's all there is to it. There has been an awful lot of talk based on your promise to win championships -- a promise I believe you'll fulfill -- but all the speculation and hype generated over you the last couple of years has turned itself suddenly into a high-interest, underwater mortgage. Now people want you to pay off that mortgage. Others have been asked to pay off mortgages in recent years -- Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Peyton Manning, Phil Mickelson -- so it's not like you're working new ground.
Once the IOUs have been fulfilled and the red ink has turned to black, then it's going to be hard for people to remember that you were ever in debt to begin with. All of a sudden, your credit will be good everywhere. In the meantime, that Nike commercial is your complicated response to a question that cannot be answered instantly.
Q: "What should you do?"
A: Win a championship.
Q: "Should I be who you want me to be?"
A: I think the answer is yes, in that both you and the public want to see you win a ring already. Unfortunately for you, that's not going to happen for another seven months, and if the Lakers are healthy, I think you'll need even more time than that.
"Why does every [expletive] guy ask me about my [expletive] knee? Stop worrying about my [expletive] knee. I don't give a [expletive] what Phil Jackson says, leave me alone about my [expletive] knee."
-- K.B., Los Angeles
Have you ever noticed how often Kobe Bryant curses in public these days? He never used to swear during interviews, but now he does so routinely. Ever since he won the first championship without Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant has been more willing to let people see him for who he really is, and it hasn't always been pretty. He says some crass things at times, but if you don't like it, that's your problem. The freedom of not caring what people think appears to have liberated him.
The truth is that Bryant's knee is one of the biggest stories of this season. If his knee and index shooting finger are healthy, the Lakers will be prohibitive favorites to win a third straight championship. But if anything is wrong with Kobe, everything could go wrong for the Lakers. Opponents, fans, Jackson, media -- everyone will be watching for signs, good and bad, about the state of his knee.
"So I like to wear women's clothing on occasion. What is the big deal? It is the differences in us that make life interesting."
-- S.O., Boston
For the first time in his 19-year career, Shaq is the underdog. Where others see a gauntlet that he can't possibly navigate, he sees the potential for a parade. Beat LeBron and Dwyane Wade in the conference finals, then beat Kobe in the Finals. These are the three greatest players he has ever teamed with (apart from Karl Malone, of course) and the league's oldest player has given himself a chance to have the last laugh against all of them. And if he loses, well, he wasn't supposed to win anyway.
As for Shaq's choice of costume for Halloween, I give him credit for daring to show so much shoulder.
How to conduct the national anthem.
This is from conductor Keith Lockhart, who led his Boston Pops orchestra onto center court before the Celtics' opening-night win over the Heat last week.
"The Pops is an orchestra founded on celebrations and unique get-togethers far outside of the concert hall. People know us for playing for 800,000 people each July 4 on a little thin strip of parkland under whatever weather conditions God has prepared for us that day. Compared to that, this was a walk in the park, and we've done other big sporting events -- the 2002 Super Bowl, Fenway lots of times, the Revolution, the Bruins. It's a short-order-cook sort of job.
"The practicality of it is that you have 45 seconds to get the mics out and get the people on the court to perform. This game was a big deal against the dreaded Miami Heat, so we actually came in about 5 o'clock for a sound check. Then we played the audio through in one of the players' locker rooms. The biggest hazard during the warmup was that you had both teams on the floor, and every time someone missed a shot, a stray basketball might come perilously close to hitting a French horn.
"It's very tumultuous down there at the middle of the court. There is an incredible amount of noise, and then it abates somewhat when you start. And then it becomes a focus job for a minute and 15 seconds.
"The Pops is a different kind of orchestra. It's part of our job to connect to everyday life, to things that our audience connects with. I'm not at all trying to diss the purist class -- the music of Beethoven and Brahms and Mahler that all of us were weaned on and that we still play. But our job is to connect to pop culture, and what is more popular than sports?
"It was great to go to a game like that and, afterward, walk into the crowd and get high-fived by the fans. We had great seats, courtesy of the Celtics, 12 to 15 rows back, dead-center court, and my wife joined me and we stayed into the third period.
"I like the Celtics' chances to be back to the Finals in June. I hope they make it back -- we'd like to be back."