As the Los Angeles Lakers returned to their ancestral homeland of Minneapolis last week, there were signs that their fortunes had improved ever so subtly since the franchise left the Land o' Lakes for the Land o' Flakes 44 years ago.
For starters, Americans are infinitely more interested in Shaq & Jack ( Lakers icons O'Neal and Nicholson) than in Harv & Marv (original Timberwolves owners Harvey Ratner and Marv Wolfenson, who brought NBA basketball back to Minneapolis in 1989). Indeed, as the Lakers squared off against the Timberwolves in the Western Conference finals, it was only natural for us to find Los Angeles more seductive than Minneapolis, given the respective images they conjure. ( L.A.? Chauffeurs. Minnesota? Gophers.)
Yet our fascination with the Lakers isn't always healthy. Last Friday night sportswriters perusing the Game 1 halftime stats found, amid the flurry of paper handouts, a four-sentence statement from Shaq's agent, who disclosed that one of the estates owned by O'Neal, in suburban Houston, had been the site of an "unfortunate incident" earlier in the day. The housekeeper for the mother of O'Neal's oldest daughter had been stabbed to death, allegedly by her own son. After the game, while introducing O'Neal at a press conference, a Lakers spokesman politely explained that the center would not entertain questions about the homicide because "his manager has [already] issued a statement." But in that moment, the number of professional reality softeners in O'Neal's orbit—spokesman, manager, housekeeper-betokened a man whose life (with its manifold mansions, its multiple mothers) was, to say the least, dizzying to behold.
Staring at a notebook, I needed a minute—and several possessive apostrophes—to sort out the victim's relation to O'Neal: She was... Shaq's daughter's mother's housekeeper? And all the while O'Neal, who has a childlike aspiration to make a second career in law enforcement, sat impassively at the podium, his baseball cap emblazoned FBI.
Of course, sanding off the sharp corners of reality does have its benefits. Reality softener Phil Jackson euphemized Kobe Bryant's sexual assault case, calling it "Kobe's situation" and "things going on in. Colorado;" But even with legal questions to the two most prominent Lakers forbidden, Lakerologists were left with plenty to ponder. There are queries large (Why do the Lakers sometimes decline to show up for games?) and small (What is up with that Gene Wilder-as- Willy Wonka quiff worn by Rick Fox?).
No one foresaw such global interest in the Lakers back in 2947, when the Detroit Gems were moved to Minneapolis and renamed for the cargo ships that plied the Great Lakes. "I hand-delivered a check for the full purchase price of the Gems to the airport in Detroit," recalled Minnesota sports-scene fixture Sid Hartman, with some bewilderment, while surveying the current Lakers last weekend in the Target Center. "The check was for $15,000."
Today, of course, the Lakers are priceless, worth whatever one man is willing to pay for their residual glamour. Of which there is quite a lot, to judge by the reality-softening arm candy of owner Jerry Buss, whose own exquisite hairdo trumps Trump's.
Incidentally, Hartman is one of the men, seated courtside at the Target Center, onto whom Kevin Garnett claps up a cloud of talcum powder before games. The victims always look as if they've just sneezed into a pile of cocaine—which might be, come to think of it, an apt pregame ritual, given the Caligula-style conspicuous consumption everywhere else in the arena.
Invited to praise Garnett on the eve of the series, Jackson wisely declined to "add to the accolades" the league MVP has already received—perhaps because those escalating accolades only encourage...Escalades. Timberwolves star Latrell Sprewell's Escalade bears his name in script in several places, inviting the eye in before it is abruptly spurned by black-tinted windows. The Cadillac's spinning platinum rims are mimicked by the spinning platinum rims on Spree's sneakers. (Really.)
Yet in interviews Sprewell—whose fashionable eyeglasses you suspect serve no vision-correcting purpose—is pleasantly, hypnotically bland. For many such stars, reality has been more than softened; it's been anesthetized. A few years ago Rasheed Wallace answered every question in a playoff press conference with the words, "Both teams played hard," a mantra that one NBA employee later had emblazoned on a T-shirt. When O'Neal repeated that magic phrase after Game 1 last Friday night, I half-expected a duck to drop from the ceiling and Groucho Marx to materialize.