Of all the unique aspects of the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant jersey(s) retirement party on Monday night at Staples Center — from Shaquille O’Neal serving as his D.J. at a pregame party to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell sitting side-by-side in their floor seats to the unexpected Allen Iverson appearance — there was nothing so bizarre as the giant ferris wheel that was built in his honor on Chick Hearn Court.
The monstrosity towered over the thousands of Lakers fans who came to take part in the festivities, all of it part of this place that was — quite accurately — deemed “Kobe Land.”
Yet the problem for these present-day Lakers, the thing that didn’t change in their116-114 overtime loss to the Golden State Warriors that dropped them to 10-18 for the season and was their eighth loss in the last 10 games, is that you could sit on top of that wheel all night long and still not see what’s coming next.
As Lakers coach Luke Walton said so perfectly before the game, “The next chapter is coming out of the darkness of the Kobe era. It’s not easy. There’s very few (organizations) who lost a player like Kobe and stayed on top … It’s about learning how to win again.”
No matter who may — or may not — be coming this summer in free agency.
They got so close in this one, with the Warriors’ David West pinning a Lonzo Ball layup against the glass as the overtime buzzer sounded and the sellout crowd moaning as their perfect ending to the evening was ruined. There was greatness everywhere for this spectacle, more than a dozen Hall of Famers and Lakers greats alike who took the time to give Bryant his due. But none of it — thus far, anyways — is showing up in the players who wear the purple and gold.
There are reasons for hope, to be sure. Small forward Brandon Ingram (19 points, six rebounds, five assists, two blocks) had Bryant’s ‘Mamba mentality’ when he drove past the Warriors’ Kevon Looney in those final seconds of regulation to bury the right-handed layup and tie the game. Ball, whose inability to score has been such a significant story in his rookie season, had seven of his 16 points in the final period. Late first-round sensation Kyle Kuzma, who sought Bryant’s wisdom earlier this season when the two had dinner together, had 25 points, six rebounds and three assists. Forward Julius Randle added a stout 15 points and 11 rebounds.
But in the weirdest of ways, it was perfect that Bryant had arrived for his jersey(s) party pushing a stroller. These Lakers — the ones who will count on Bryant’s biggest backer, owner Jeanie Buss, to lead the way and one of his favorite idols, Magic Johnson, and his former agent and current general manager, Rob Pelinka, to improve the roster while his former teammate (Walton) coaches them up — need to grow up if they’re ever going to get past all this nostalgia.
“Players know if you come here — like happened for Magic, like happened for Kobe — and you succeed as a Laker, the doors that being a star in this city opens around the globe just can’t be matched,” Pelinka told USA TODAY Sports recently.
Considering the context, the harsh reality that the Lakers haven’t made the playoffs since 2013 and haven’t sniffed a .500 regular-season record in that time, it’s as big an “if” as you’ll find in professional sports.
“Take away that final outcome, (and) it was a really good game,” Walton said afterward.
If these Lakers keep having to say that, though, they’ll be stuck on this ferris wheel for years to come.