The longest season in National Basketball Association history ended with the Los Angeles Lakers hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy by virtue of a 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat in game six on Sunday.
According to longtime Lakers employee and Santa Barbara resident Bill Bertka, who is a special assistant to the general manager and basketball consultant at 93 years old, winning game six was crucial. “Heaven forbid we’d have given them a seventh game,” he said. “I remember 1985 when we won the championship in game six at Boston Garden, after losing to the Celtics eight or nine times in the finals. We did not want to play a seven there.”
It has been almost a full calendar year since the Lakers dropped their regular season opener to the Clippers on October 22, 2019, and no one could have predicted this path to ultimate glory. 2020 has been a year of unprecedented challenges, and the Lakers were not exempt from the twists and turns that have turned our country and world upside down. Fans and analysts are left to wonder what to make of the organization’s 17th championship season. Should it have an asterisk next to it in the proverbial history books, or a gold star?
“I’m so happy to be part of 11 world championship teams in 21 finals appearances,” Bertka said of the Lakers’ accomplishments during his 39-year tenure. “It was [late owner] Dr. Jerry Buss’s dream of winning as many championships as the Boston Celtics.” Both franchises now have 17 titles.
A strong start to the season by the Lakers took a back seat as the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and several others in a helicopter crash left Southern California in mourning. That event alone was enough to cast a dark cloud over anything the Lakers were able to accomplish on the basketball court, yet they persisted and became more determined to win in Bryant’s honor.
Victories over two title contenders, the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers, in the first weekend of March solidified the Lakers as championship favorites. Less than a week later, the entire season was postponed indefinitely.
The COVID-19 pandemic left a Lakers team that was seemingly destined for a championship in limbo. No one knew if restarting the season was possible, and even if it could be done, would the Lakers ― led by 35-year-old LeBron James ― be able to snap back to form inside a bubble?
NBA commissioner Adam Silver and his army of staffers did an unbelievable job of insulating the Walt Disney World campus where the NBA resumed. In the end, there were zero positive tests recorded, a triumph of science that cannot be overstated.
In addition, our country continued to grapple with issues of social justice in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Instead of shrinking, the NBA rose to the occasion, led in many ways by James. Black Lives Matter was a permanent fixture on the court, and players wore personal social justice messages on their jerseys. The pushback was strong, but their resolve was stronger.
During the playoff run, James and Anthony Davis established themselves as one of the best duos in NBA history. The comparisons to Shaq and Kobe are uncanny when it comes to sheer dominance on the court, but James and Davis possess a bond and willingness to coexist that set them apart.
There is no shortage of detractors who will try to diminish the Lakers’ accomplishments, and some may even argue that a bubble championship isn’t a championship at all. However, that belies the fact that the Lakers would have had home-court advantage as the top team in the western conference during a normal playoff run, which never came to fruition in the bubble.
In the midst of adversity ― a viral pandemic, the death of Kobe Bryant, and a social justice movement ― the Lakers have thrived. Instead of debating whether or not this season should have an asterisk, the true question is: Has this Lakers team earned the title of greatest champions?
After the confetti stopped and in the midst of celebration, LeBron James accepted his Finals MVP trophy and unleashed a searing proclamation: “We just want our respect. [General manager] Rob [Pelinka] wants his respect, Coach [Frank] Vogel wants his respect, our organization wants their respect, Lakers Nation wants their respect, and I want my damn respect, too.”
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