There’s a picture on the wall by my room. It’s from the day my little sister was born. I’m sitting on the hospital bed, looking at her, holding up a finger, trying to see if she’ll follow it. I’m wearing a gold Shaq Lakers jersey, because that’s what I always used to wear when I was three and four.
Before the Cubs and before the Longhorns, my first sports love was the Lakers. I had a DVD on the team’s history and could recite the entire 1987 roster before my fifth birthday. I was at a friend’s when D-Fish beat the Spurs with .4 seconds left, and her mom chased us around the house begging us to calm down. The summer of 2004 was spent in my backyard, trying to perfect my free throws so that I could say I was better than Shaq at something.
And then just like that, I gave them up. When Shaq got traded, I took his side in the divorce, unable to root for a team where Kobe was the one and only star. Even at six-years-old, I couldn’t get behind what Kobe stood for—not even because of the most objectionable parts (I didn’t understand that back then). All I knew he was that he was an immature ball hog.
So after much thought and consideration, I came to a conclusion: “I won’t root for the Lakers again until the day Kobe is traded, released, or retires.” What I didn’t realize then is that it wasn’t Kobe I was protesting: it was the decision makers who chose the wrong guy.
For a few years, I wandered without a team until the Sonics drafted a lanky scorer out of Texas. When Kevin Durant and the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City, my allegiance followed. I bought the shirts, shorts, and shoes. I was all-in. Something changed with the Harden trade, though. If that trade showed anything, it was that Thunder ownership was cheap. They didn’t broke up to keep the NBA’s best young core in decades to avoid paying the luxury tax for one year. I started to cool on Oklahoma City a bit, so when Durant proved himself a coward last summer and joined the Warriors, he left me an NBA wanderer again. It was just when Kobe decided to hang it up.
Perfect timing for a Lakers reunion? Not so much.
I wanted to root for the Lakers. I really did. I kept trying to talk myself into D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. “Luke’s back!” I thought, remembering all the time spent screaming “Luuuuuuuuuke” at Staples Center while he was still playing. The team itself was young, still two years away from being competitive. I could get in on the ground floor of a new era.
But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get past Jim “Tommy Boy” Buss, the Lakers’ pathetic excuse for an owner.
He championed the hire of Mike D’Antoni over Phil Jackson, brought in Dwight Howard, then let Dwight walk a year later and forced D’Antoni out a year after that. Jimmy Buss decided to enlist Byron Scott, a proven loser, as the head coach who would clean the mess. On game days, it seemed like Barnum and Bailey’s had taken over the Staples Center.
So I made a new pact with myself. “I won’t root for the Lakers again until the day Jimmy Bus is relieved of his duties.”
Last week, he finally was. In a coup, Jeanie Buss booted Jimmy Buss and Mitch Kupchak from the Lakers front office and named Magic Johnson President of Basketball Operations. It was the day I’d been waiting for years, but I wasn’t exactly running back. Magic Johnson has no business running all aspects of a franchise. The move was clearly ceremonious, made just as much for the Buss sibling rivalry as it was to improve the team.
There are few fates worse in sports than pulling for a team rife with dysfunction. As a fan, it’s eternally frustrating and to some degree, embarrassing. When there’s a bad coach, you can call for them to be fired. When there’s a bad player, you can call for them to be traded. But when ownership is the problem, when a team becomes a stalwart of instability, there’s only one thing you can do: bury that jersey and leave. Tell them you’ll be back when something changes.
I’m typically against allegiance switching, but sometimes, as they say, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Why wait around and be tortured by indefensible moves and petty antics? A bad owner ruins every part a team, making everything less enjoyable. They poison the well.
Explain this to me: how can someone root for the Knicks with James Dolan owning them? What happened with Charles Oakley is shocking and horrifying, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Dolan’s transgressions.
Or: how can someone root for the Dodgers when the Guggenheim group won’t broadcast games on anything but Time Warner Cable? There’s no excuse for that kind of greed.
Or: how can someone root for the Washington Redskins? How can you own a shirt with that name on it?
You don’t, or at least, you shouldn’t. Waiting for an owner to clean up is a waste of your time; old, rich white guys aren’t exactly big fans of change, as I’m sure you know if you’ve been watching the news lately. There’s nothing wrong with a losing team or even one that loses perennially. But there are problems when you lose like the Sacramento Kings, who sign overpriced free agents and fire coaches at shockingly high clips. That’s a leadership problem, and it’s one that’s best to steer clear of.
Why cut ties? Well, it’s a long, long fix. The Chicago Blackhawks were my dad’s favorite hockey team growing up until owner Bill Wirtz (who was so stingy that people called him “Dollar Bill”) stopped broadcasting home games due to fears broadcasts would hurt attendance. When Wirtz died in 2007 and was honored before a game, he was booed loudly. The Blackhawks made two Stanley Cups during the 41 years he controlled the team. They won it just two years after he passed and twice more in the decade since.
I, for one, would rather not wait 41 years for basic aptitude, but I’ll happily wait 108 to be competitive. There’s a difference. Bad luck, miscalculations, and some missteps are excusable. Penny pinching, impatience, and a lack of commitment are not.
The Lakers likely won’t be mired in mediocrity for another 40 years, but I won’t be the one waiting around for them to figure it out. I’ll keep wandering, hoping to find a franchise built on a sturdier foundation.
So, hopefully for the last time, I’d like to make an announcement.
I won’t root for the Lakers again until the day they are sold, or the Busses learn to be a little bit more like their dad. All I ask for is some stability.