Tragedy and triumph: The dilemma of remembering the Lakers’ 2020 season

When the Lakers eventually hang the banner commemorating their 2020 NBA title, perhaps it should only be raised to half-mast.

This was, after all, a year of tragedy. Of unspeakable sadness. Never in the history of sports has a championship been so defined by the losses suffered along the way.

It was the year Staples Center hosted a funeral for its greatest icon and then went nine months without hosting anything at all. It was a year in which basketball had never mattered less. Until suddenly, amid a national reckoning over racial equality, it had never mattered more.

“One of the worst years ever,” coach Frank Vogel called it.

“A year,” Anthony Davis added, “that caused so much pain and heartache to the world.”

“I think it’s something that I will be able to sit down and talk to my grandkids about and say that the year 2020 was one hell of a year,” James said. “The good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between.”

James became the face of the year in sports — from his center-court speech honoring Kobe Bryant just days after the Lakers legend was one of nine people killed in a helicopter crash including his 13-year-old daughter, to his willingness to walk out on the NBA season following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., to his grassroots efforts to combat voter suppression. In end-of-year honors, James was named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year and was one of five activists named as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year.

Through the very narrow lens of Los Angeles Lakers basketball in the year of a pandemic, it would be a disservice to let the calendar turn to January, to a new year, without reflecting more deeply on 2020.

Since the morning of Jan. 26, when the 41-year-old Bryant, his daughter Gigi and seven others were killed, the Lakers have carried much more than their collective championship aspirations.

On that day, they became avatars for the grief of a global fan base.

While the emotional responsibility of honoring Bryant with a championship has eased, the pandemic certainly has not. As of Wednesday, more than 340,000 people had died from the virus.

All of that makes it a very weird time to be NBA champions, when 2020 will always mean something different to the Lakers players and staff and something better than it does to a majority of the population.

“From a professional standpoint, it’s probably been my best basketball year ever,” said Vogel, who won his first championship in his first season coaching the Lakers. “So, it’s a little bittersweet in that regard. So many people have lost loved ones. They’ve lost their way of life. It’s been very tragic from that standpoint. So it is a little bit bittersweet.”

Davis echoed a similar sentiment.

“It will be the year that I won my first championship,” Davis said, “a year that I reached a milestone in my career.”

But he also sees the bigger picture of “a year everyone is rushing to get over with.”

“We learned a lot from this year,” he said. “At least I did, from always checking in with your family, love your family, any bickering or beefs or whatever that you have, just squash it or you never know what can happen.

“I think a lot of people kind of live by that, just loving their family more and loving the people around them and anything that can be fixed try to fix it, because so many people lost their lives to this virus.”

The thing about championships is that they aren’t just for the people who get rings out of the deal. They belong to the fans, too. Maybe even more so. And from the nightmare that this year was, the Lakers carved out something permanent, something beautiful.

That’s why Jeanie Buss and the Lakers opted not to reveal a 2020 championship banner just yet. They left a placeholder that reads: “Stay tuned Lakers family.”

To the people who cheer for them, the Lakers were the light in a very dark year.

On Wednesday night, James was asked how he would remember 2020. He paused. Then sighed. Five seconds later, he said, “I don’t know.”

He then proceeded to answer in length, highlighting his More Than A Vote initiative and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“So many storylines that you can sit down by the fireplace and have your grandkids sit on your lap and whatever issue they want to talk about you can talk about for quite a while,” he said. “So, I’m looking forward to that moment.”

He said all that without mentioning the Lakers championship.

It really puts 2020 into perspective.

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