Je ne sais quoi.
Which is French for “I don’t know.”
Perhaps a light can be shed on “pour quoi?” on why…
October 15, 1988. Dodger Stadium. A hobbled Kirk Gibson strode to the plate to pinch hit for reliever Alejandro Peña in Game 1 of the World Series against the Oakland Athletics. And as Dennis Eckersley worked the count full to 3-2, Gibson made contact and sent the ball soaring into the Right Field Pavilion.
As Gibby limped around first base, pumping his fist in victory, longtime Dodgers Play-by-Play announcer Vin Scully made his legendary call:
“In a year that has been so improbable… the impossible has happened!”
Little did Vin know that those words would remain poignant and germane to the City’s basketball team two decades later.
The Los Angeles Lakers have posted a 57-25 record and have earned the Western Conference’s number one seed.
The very same Los Angeles Lakers that a mere seven months ago looked to be unraveling. Kobe Bryant was all but a Chicago Bull. Andrew Bynum was quickly becoming another High School bust (see Bender, Jonathan). Lamar Odom was dogged by injuries and inconsistency. To be honest, things in Lakerland looked awfully bleak.
Then the preseason happened.
Kobe appeared sullied and disinterested and Sasha like an 11 o’clock shooter.
Vlad still came off as a space cadet.
And Andrew looked like a frightened and timid 19 year-old.
Probably because Andrew was a scared and timid 19 year-old.
Young Bynum had no reason not to be defecating in his shorts. He had endured a summer in which his teammate told some dudes in a Newport Beach parking lot that the Front Office should have “shipped his ass out” long ago.
Things did not get any better on Opening Night. Kobe was openly jeered by the Staples Center faithful. Houston’s Shane Battier hit a game winning three.
The Lakers looked, and, in fact were, lamentable.
How long would this futility last? Was it to be another first round exit? Or even worse: the Lottery.
And then, suddenly, things began to change. The bench began to score in staggering numbers. Andrew Bynum began to blossom before our very eyes, posting double digits in points and rebounds, night in and night out.
Sasha learned to shoot at 7:30.
When Andrew’s knee fell victim to Lamar’s foot, Mitch Kupchak & Co. responded by sending the inefficacious Kwame Brown, the unproven Javaris Crittenton, and the retired Aaron McKie to purgatory, er, Memphis, in exchange for the All-Star Kobe had dreamed of in Pau Gasol.
With every ill wind blown their way, these Lakers found a way to respond.
A 9-game road trip? How about 7-2.
Pau sprains an ankle? How about improbable road victories in Dallas and Utah.
Kobe wants out of Los Angeles? How about an MVP season. The first season in his venerated career that he truly made all of his teammates better.
Phil Jackson called the 2003-04 incarnation of the Lakers “a team in search of its soul”; the 2007-08 Lakers are the team that found the strength and the passion within each other.
Each member of this roster, fifteen deep, has a remarkable story.
A 17-year old Didier Ilunga Mbenga was stopped on a Belgian street corner by basketball guru Willy Steveniers, who offered to teach him the game of basketball, the only roadblock being Didier had never touched a basketball in his life.
Ira Newble is a crusader in the NBA community for awareness of China’s growing involvement in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Vladimir Radmanovic was born into civil war in the former Yugoslavia. He never truly had a home as a child, constantly darting around the country in fear for his life.
Luke Walton, the son of Hall of Famer Bill, grew up a green and white bleeding Celtics fan whose keen passing abilities and unrivaled basketball IQ make him an invaluable contributer.
Sasha Vujacic transformed himself from an inconsistent baby-faced gelled-up Slovenian, into a Three-Point assassin and pesky defender (think Danny Ainge gone Hollywood) who looks more like a kid in line at the Troubadour for some Indie Rock show than one of the NBA’s most improved players.
Chris Mihm, who has been hampered by injuries, finally returned to action after a tedious recovery period in which he missed all of last season and most of this one.
The lionhearted Ronny Turiaf, an islander from Martinique, who three years ago was faced with open-heart surgery and a career in doubt. He rallied and has become one of the Lakers most beloved players and ferocious defenders.
The homegrown success of Jordan Farmar and Trevor Ariza, both products of the Los Angeles Unified School District and UCLA, has allowed these Angelenos to flourish in front of their friends and family, wearing the Purple and Gold they dreamt of as children.
Coby Karl, the son of Denver Nuggets coach George Karl overcame Thyroid cancer a mere year ago. The undrafted Karl is the Lakers’ only Rookie on the roster.
Lamar Odom, who lost his infant son almost two years ago, has finally overcome his ineptitude and found himself reborn on the court, while he proudly displays the name “Jayden” lovingly scripted across his chest as a constant reminder of his heartbreak.
Pau Gasol, the goat of the City of Memphis for the last three seasons, and the face of Spanish basketball, has come to Los Angeles, the city with the number one Latino population in the United States. Not only was he instantly accepted into the Laker family, but was heralded as a hero in the City of Angels.
Derek Fisher, who’s story is that of folk legend by now, leaving the Utah Jazz last summer to return the City that embraced him as a Rookie from Arkansas in order to find better care for his ailing (now recovering!) daughter Tatum.
The tale of Andrew Bynum, the 20-year-old wunderkind who blossomed far ahead of schedule, most likely due to the gauntlet Kobe Bryant threw at him last summer.
And, oh, yeah, having Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as his Coach did not hurt his development either.
And then there is Kobe. Kobe Bean Bryant vowed to never wear a Laker uniform again. Kobe Bean Bryant was BOOED on Opening Night. Kobe Bean Bryant all but extended a giant middle finger to the City and the fans that adore and deify him. Kobe Bean Bryant who finally learned how to make his teammates better. Kobe Bean Bryant who, at last, absorbed the concept of not just being the most talented player on the team, but leading them into battle, night in and night out. Kobe Bean Bryant who is on his way to his first career Most Valuable Player award in recognition not for his career résumé, as some critics postulate, but for commendation on becoming the player not even Kobe knew he could be.
If you do not sense something special happening here, than you may be blind, caught in the throes of Ducks Playoff fever, or a jaded Clippers fan.
This group of fifteen exemplifies what it means to be a team. They have come together from all ends of the Earth (Literally. The Lakers are like a Model U.N., with players from six different countries) for a common goal: the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Although it appears that this quest begins on Sunday against Denver, it actually commenced long ago in the beginning of October. This odyssey has survived kneecap subluxations. It has endured Kwame. It saw 73 bench points against Chicago. The crusade has witnessed Kobe to Pau, Derek’s comeback, Rambis’ mustache and Phil’s Christmas bowtie.
Sunday begins the next chapter. New memories to be made, new banners to dream about.
Who knows? Maybe Spero will be inspired by his Chavez Ravine counterpart and realize that in this year that has been improbable, the impossible can happen.