Lakers' success may herald new dynasty

Local interest in basketball has been revived by the surprise element in a repeat NBA championship
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The Independent Online

As cities go, Los Angeles has never been too good at rooting for itself. It has always been too big, too sprawlingly anonymous to inspire anything resembling proper civic pride. Not to mention that the fact that its sports teams have rarely managed to get it together to win anything.

Or at least not until now. This weekend, the city's basketball team, the Lakers, astonished pretty much everyone ­ not least themselves ­ by pulling off their second NBA championship win in a row. They did not just defeat the Philadelphia 76ers, they ground them into the dust, just as they had their previous play-off opponents, Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio.

In the best-of-seven games final, the Lakers creamed the 76ers 4-1, leaving them with a record-breaking balance sheet in the play-offs of 15 victories and just one defeat. (The score in the concluding game was a convincing 108-96.) After years of floundering, Los Angeles suddenly finds itself with the two greatest players in the National Basketball Association league, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, as well as the near-legendary coach, Phil Jackson, who masterminded the invincible exploits of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls during the 1990s.

There is talk of a new dynasty reigning for years to come, particularly since Bryant is just 22 and O'Neal a still youthful 29. Thanks to their achievements ­ and their often bitter rivalry ­ national interest in basketball is greater now than at any time since Jordan's heyday. Jordan himself, who retired two years ago, is seriously considering a comeback, a dream scenario temporarily on hold since he cracked two ribs in training last week.

Los Angeles cannot believe its good fortune, or the opportunity to get genuinely excited about itself for the first time since both the Lakers and the Dodgers baseball team hit the top of their respective leagues back in 1988. In the run-up to Friday's concluding game, Lakers banners popped up on cars and buses all over the city. Fast-food restaurants pulled their usual burger special offer adverts from billboards and replaced them with the words "Go Lakers!".

Even Hollywood was caught up in the frenzy. In Friday's newspaper advertisements for the current box-office smash, the DreamWorks computer-generated comedy Shrek, the film's four protagonists were portrayed sporting Lakers shirts, offering sentiments of good luck "from one winning team to another".

The Lakers' first championship win last year did not have anything like this feel-good factor, not least because the taste of victory was soured by a mini-riot outside the Staples Center arena downtown afterwards, resulting in a pitched battle with police, extensive vandalism and 11 arrests.

This time around, the winning game took place away from home, and the few disturbances outside Staples after the game ­ a handful of fans lighting fires and chucking rocks ­ were quickly crushed by no-nonsense mounted officers firing rubber bullets (positively kid-glove treatment from the notoriously pro-active LA Police Department).

Perhaps more importantly, this year's repeat championship was proof that the Lakers' previous success was no fluke. "The first championship was to get the monkey off my back," O'Neal remarked in a post-game news conference as he accepted his second Most Valuable Player accolade in a row. "The ones from now on are to stamp my name in history." Curiously, as recently as three months ago, nobody would have held out much hope of the Lakers romping home. The talents of O'Neal and Bryant were undeniable, but the two men ­ standing 7ft 1in and 6ft 7in respectively ­ were embroiled in a seemingly intractable feud over everything from commercial endorsements to the time each of them enjoyed in possession of the ball.

Both spoke darkly of quitting the team. O'Neal was so enraged he could not get himself properly into shape for months. Bryant went to see the Lakers' former president Jerry West to talk about throwing in the towel.

But then the turnaround began. West told the young star to think about winning instead of fighting. Derek Fisher, the Lakers point guard, returned from a long absence caused by injury and, with Phil Jackson, figured out how to separate the two front men's clashing egos and make them work as a team.

What followed did not resemble basketball so much as a whirlwind, with the Lakers flattening everything in their path. "Dancing after months of dissension," the LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke called it. "Egos disappearing into bear hugs and whispers." The consensus now is that only one thing can undo the Lakers, and that is themselves. They are "a team more about scars than sunsets", in Plaschke's words, but they also clearly relish their place on the top of the world.

Can it last? We'll have to wait until next season to find out.