The Best Memories From 20 Years of Lakers Coverage
The way I phrased it to people back then—including to my future wife—was that I had come to cover the Lakers and would exploit the world’s fascination with the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal relationship to offer insights into the human condition.
No matter whether the readers even realized they wanted the depth. It would be slipped in behind the gossip. Tap into the Lakers’ mass following and natural interest in the big personalities to teach lessons about how and why people can or can’t get along and can or can’t work together.
That was 1999, before Kobe and Shaq won their three titles together. And it’s funny that even now in 2019 we’re still dealing with public commotion over whether they get along despite Bryant’s latest tweet that there’s “nothin but love” now.
2019 marks 20 full years for me covering the Lakers—the Orange County Register (1999-2013) and Bleacher Report (2013-17) before joining the Lakers as senior writer—and that makes for a good time to commemorate the journey.
How about some first-person reflection from every year along the way? Let’s go deep behind the scenes for a look at my fondest and funniest memories from 20 seasons tracking the Lakers.
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal
1999-2000: What a start! So much happened, from The Forum to Staples Center, from Phil Jackson’s arrival to an immediate NBA title.
My lasting memory from the beginning was a summer interview I had with Dennis Rodman: He is trying to get one more chance with the Lakers. He is fully himself, propping his bare feet on the table during lunch and being both brash and chill, but after the article runs, he faxes a letter to me (yes, fax; this truly was 20 years ago) and expresses regret over some of the sensational stuff he said.
My lasting memory from the end of the season: Kobe, amid the champagne celebration that spills over from the locker room to the training room, is in there with Travis Knight. Kobe is yelling over and over: “White Knight! White Knight!” Then Kobe begins counting up how many NBA titles he might win. The number he settles on: 10.
2000-01: One day in front of his locker at Staples, Shaq is in his underwear … and proceeds to grab me and bear-hug me before I can pull away … holding me almost as tight as that underwear … and then he hops us up and down and all around the locker room like we are riding some tandem pogo stick.
He kept the workplace interesting, huh? Loud, proud and usually in a crowd—that was Shaq for you.
Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Rick Fox
2001-02: People forget there were stretches when Kobe and Shaq really got along in the opposites-attract way where you respect the other person’s character offers value different than your own. A big reason the Lakers survived the Sacramento Kings in the 2002 Western Conference Finals—the best playoff series I ever saw—was Kobe and Shaq actually appreciating what the other brought to the table.
A basic but beautiful glimpse: After some game on some night in Phoenix during the season, Shaq is sitting in front of his locker. Kobe starts toward the exit door. Shaq calls out for Kobe to wait up. He does. And they walk to the bus together.
2002-03: Northridge Hospital Medical Center. It feels really weird to be there. Just wrong. It’s August, and another season is nearing, but Chick Hearn is not doing well. It turns into a sad stretch for a tired Lakers team (70 playoff games in a four-year span!), starting with Chick’s death and ending with Phil Jackson needing a procedure during the playoffs for 90 percent blockage of an artery in his heart.
The final snapshot of the season is Derek Fisher and Kobe crying on the bench during the final seconds of Game 6 of the second round against the Spurs, not even close to a fourth consecutive championship.
2003-04: Gary Payton can be crazy funny when everyone is in the right mood. This is not, however, a series of weeks and months when everyone is in the right mood.
At one practice I recall on the road during this most tumultuous season that ends with an NBA Finals loss, everyone is in the right mood. G.P. seizes the moment to imitate the way Kobe blew a defensive assignment and left Payton to get scored on. (Insert Payton’s actual colorful language here.)
So, Payton stands on the perimeter and pretends to be Bryant, watching the imaginary guy he is supposed to defend go in on a helpless Payton. In Payton’s imitation, Bryant just stands there, pauses a second to digest the damage he has done, shrugs and heads back to play offense. It’s a spot-on act. Bryant knows it—and owns it. He howls in laughter just like everyone else.
2004-05: Caron Butler, age 24 in his only Lakers season, is one of those guys with whom it is truly a pleasure to talk. He sincerely wants to make the most of his opportunity and talent. He really wants to learn and wants to learn fast. (Side note: Kyle Kuzma’s approach now in his early NBA years is reminiscent of all this.)
Butler, who overcame an adolescence of dealing drugs and repeated arrests, turns out to be an important piece in Lakers history because he is traded for Kwame Brown, who gets flipped in the deal that brings Pau Gasol to town. But make no mistake: Butler shows it’s possible to make a real impression in limited time. It’s no surprise he goes on to become an All-Star and 14-year NBA veteran.
2005-06: The team is in New Orleans, where my refusal to heed a mugger’s order to “empty your pockets” after my successful night at the casino becomes a strange part of Lakers lore. (I can still picture the dude in his hoodie on the dark street blocks from my hotel, but I decide in that moment that I don’t trust he will do anything about it and don’t even break stride.) Fortunately, it turned out fine. Phil jokes the next day in San Antonio that I should’ve fought for my freedom.
Kobe is still milking it a few days later back home, coming up in deadpan fashion, gentle hand on my arm. He offers his security detail to me. He asks in an overly sweet tone: “Are you OK? Are you sure? Can I do anything for you?”
2006-07: I witness and research a series of Kobe’s Make-A-Wish meetings with critically ill children and write one of my personal favorite stories. At the time Kobe is nearing 100 meetings with “Wish kids,” having never declined one but also having never allowed media coverage of any.
“They’re all fighters,” he says to me about the kids. He even flies to Las Vegas when he hears one child couldn’t make the flight to Los Angeles. He plays video games with the boy in the hospital room and immediately gifts his sunglasses to him upon receiving a compliment on the style.
Kobe says he always keeps it upbeat and stays true to his optimistic nature because that’s what these kids and their families want. But Kobe also knows many of them don’t survive long, and I write another article a year later about that. Two of the boys we profile in 2007 indeed have died by ‘08, though there is no doubt about the value of their meetings with Kobe.
Cody’s father tells me about placing that Kobe-autographed photo in the casket. Chris’ mother tells me how she buried her boy with his Kobe sneakers.
It’s absolutely heartbreaking, yet it affirms the good people can do, too.
2007-08: Covering Kobe rarely fails to be interesting. Late in what turns out to be his MVP season, Kobe drops this factoid on me: His maternal grandmother, Mildred, went to West Philadelphia's Overbrook High School with Wilt Chamberlain. And …
“He asked her to the prom," Kobe says, grinning. “But she shot him down. She was dating my grandpa.”
2008-09: I go to the Lakers’ Christmas party for local kids to play games with the players. I’m invited to bring my family, and it’s the one time I do so. I’m standing there with my wife, 2-year-old daughter and 8-month-old daughter when Kobe suddenly appears next to me, all smiles.
The guy known as the Black Mamba takes the baby right out of my arms, cuddles her and makes the kind of mushy sounds and faces that are very difficult to reconcile with his on-court brand.
2009-10: What you learn in this business is that there are always various facets to these people we cover.
In December, it’s Ron Artest’s first time this season back to Chicago, where he played his first 2 1/2 years in the NBA. Reporters are peppering him with probing questions about what he used to do, and he’s getting frustrated. The point for Artest—one he would become much better at conveying as soon as next season, when he lets out the sweet side of his personality more and wins the NBA’s prestigious J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award—is that he wants any missteps from his past to be lessons for the youth. When I interject that day in Chicago and say I believe teaching lessons is his goal here, Ron brightens and says: “Kevin Ding! You win the prize!”
In March, Lamar Odom sits after a Lakers loss and answers reporters’ questions in his chair—facing into his Staples locker. He is symbolically turning his back on the teammates he is citing as becoming “soft” after winning the NBA title. It’s an amazing display meant to initiate change in that locker room. For as gentle and agreeable as he seems, Lamar possesses a pride in proper teamwork that is downright fierce. (And the Lakers do win another championship a few months later.)
Kevin Ding and Phil Jackson embrace after final press conference
2010-11: In his final season of coaching, I send Phil our family Christmas card. I write on it: “Phil: If this is it, I've learned a lot.”
It’s the truth. Dealing with personalities and adversity and drama requires patience and understanding. I have no doubt that my capacity to let life play out more organically, without such heavy hands, is a byproduct of all my years being indirectly coached by one of the greatest ever.
2011-12: It’s the night before the March trade deadline, and I compare Andrew Bynum’s All-Star-level emergence to that old one-two punch of Kobe and Shaq. Kobe digresses to note: “We still have Pau.”
For all the fireworks that Kobe and Shaq provided, there’s a ton to glean from the winning relationship that Kobe and Pau built, too. Obviously it peaked with the 2009 and ’10 championships, but Pau was the consummate example of how an intelligent person can get a message no matter how it is delivered. Pau’s premise to trust Kobe’s information and accept Kobe’s criticism as constructive showed Pau’s maturity—and Pau was rewarded for it in how much Kobe truly cared for him, even after they stopped winning titles.
2012-13: A crazy amount of stuff happened this season, including the death of Lakers owner Jerry Buss.
In a preseason interview with Jim Buss, I chuckle when Jim notes that sometimes Jerry is presented with a decision to make on a player to sign or trade for—and before the research on the player can even be discussed, Jerry just says: “Can’t stand the guy.” And the case is closed.
Kevin Ding sigining autographs
2013-14: I had been told by Asian journalists dropping in on the Lakers that the team’s popularity in China and my Asian descent made me big over there, too. My mom had even showed me my own articles translated—without permission!—in the Chinese newspapers she read in America. Social media was beginning to make the world flatter at this time, too.
Nevertheless, when the Lakers go to China for training camp, I am still wholly unprepared: The fans there want pictures with and autographs from me?!
But before I get too big a head, I get humbled at the Lakers-Warriors exhibition game when my courtside seat is in the second row … right behind Yao Ming.
2014-15: In late October, I break the news of Steve Nash being ruled out for the season—a season he had already said would be his final one—because of recurring nerve damage. Many Lakers fans understandably feel bitter about how much was given up and how little they got from Nash.
Yet you learn even more about people during their dark days, and the way Nash handled himself through his struggles is a testament to how he made himself into such a success. His work ethic, his standards and his honesty were all awesome, even though his performance was not. Total respect.
Julius Randle and Kevin Ding
2015-16: Kobe’s farewell season. He describes himself as “carefree.” Part of it is having fun with such young teammates. I describe him as “blissful” when he hits a clinching shot against the Pelicans in February, and part of that is the untold fun story before it.
Kobe had recently boasted to his young teammates that he only got dunked on once in his career (by defensive specialist Adonal Foyle). Kobe winds up getting dunked on (by three-point shooter Ryan Anderson, no less) late in this game—and needs to make a clutch shot to save face.
Julius Randle still tells Kobe that maybe he needs to color his hair the way Randle did after Randle got dunked on the previous week. Kobe scoffs, setting Ju up to deliver the perfect punch to the old man’s ribs.
“Oh, that’s right,” Randle says. “You can’t grow hair anymore.”
Brandon Ingram and Kevin Ding
2016-17: Full youth mode. Spindly Brandon Ingram’s rookie year. The youngest coach in the league in Luke Walton. There’s a comfort level in the novelty of it all. It’s not even training camp yet, and when I talk to D’Angelo Russell, he pokes fun at his new head coach for his “overly strong Old Spice deodorant.”
Rob Pelinka and Kevin Ding
2017-18: Summer league in Vegas. I don’t remember exactly what he says—maybe because I don’t know Alex Caruso at the time—but the sincerity in Joey Buss’ tone is clear. Joey, president of the South Bay Lakers, is passionately fired up about landing this guy Caruso with the NBA’s new two-way contract concept allowing guys to split time between the parent team and G-League team. Joey is a major believer.
After so many of the gems plucked by Joey’s brother, Lakers scouting director Jesse Buss, and the team’s front office in the NBA Draft were used to position the Lakers to be where they are today, it’s interesting Caruso is one of the guys still around to help the Lakers contend this season. Kudos to Caruso for improving his shooting and controlling his turnovers since 2017, but I’ve seen it so many times with the Lakers: It’s amazing how many times winning teams need that under-the-radar roster move to pan out into a difference-maker.
2018-19: Lakers media relations director Alison Bogli suggests I interview Andy Bernstein in advance of Bernstein being honored by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with the Curt Gowdy Media Award for his contributions to the sport. It’s a great idea, and it’s a lot of fun to hear Bernstein’s stories about his days as the man behind the man—not unlike my own role as a reporter.
Andy recounts how Kobe told him, “Oh, I know who you are,” when they were introduced before Kobe’s rookie season in 1996. That’s because Kobe noticed and remembered Andy’s name from the fine-print photo credits of the posters on his wall as a kid.
When I first met Kobe in the locker room at The Forum in 1999, he gave me a sideways smirk and said: “I look forward to reading your criticisms.” That’s Kobe for you.
There have been plenty of criticisms over the years, but writing about people’s accomplishments and inspirations has been more satisfying. From that beginning 20 years ago, the Lakers have kept it enormously interesting for this sportswriter searching for meaning beyond the games. And with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in place to lead this latest group, we have yet another captivating stage to chronicle now.
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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