LOS ANGELES, CA — When it was over -- when the Los Angeles Lakers had finally put away a daunting, dangerous and worthy Miami Heat team 106-93 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night -- LeBron James and his teammates were finally 2020 NBA champions.
They danced. They hugged. They cried. They drank. They drank some more. And perhaps, when the rush recedes and the joyous high of crowning themselves the champs gives way in the days ahead to a quieter thoughtfulness -- perhaps it will strike each of them, in their own way, why they may have just won the most impressive championship in Lakers history.
The Lakers now have 17 NBA titles, tying the Boston Celtics for the most in league history, and each of those had its own beauty, its own special meaning. But this one right here, in 2020 -- earned the year of Kobe Bryant's death, of COVID-19's hold on all of us, from a bubble in Orlando watched by many of us who feel trapped in our own upside-down lives -- has many ways in which it can lay claim to being the most special.
Let's start with LeBron James, whose greatness, yet again, was on vivid and magnificent display. He helped close out his former team with a 28-point, 14-rebound, 10-assist night that spoke to all the ways his presence alone is a receipt for greatness. And he rightly claimed another Finals MVP award, making him the only player in history with three Finals MVPs for three separate teams, and one of only two players with four or more.
The other guy on that list? Michael Jordan.
The talk about the NBA's greatest player of all time will go on, including with people breathlessly and unflinchingly declaring the battle is over -- and then arguing at crossways why LeBron can never pass Jordan, or why it's irrevocably already happened. The truth is that history rarely cements itself in certainty while it's going on. If LeBron is indeed the GOAT years from now, after his retirement, this win with the Lakers -- and all that could follow for this organization because of it -- will likely be the turning point in that direction.
That's because past all the personal stats and facts LeBron now boasts after winning this one -- four rings! Turning around Cleveland and L.A.! Look at his Finals numbers! -- waits another likely consequence: Lakers officials believe, with this win, whatever 1 to 5 percent chance there was that Anthony Davis would leave snaps to zero. He is likely here to stay, giving this ring a possibly self-creating power to bring about more, perhaps many more, for LeBron in the years ahead.
And speaking of Anthony Davis: LeBron said after the win, "I just want my damn respect!" Well, he's got it, but he could have been speaking for his superstar teammate. Because Davis' decision to force his way out of New Orleans, the talk of what he could or couldn't do in the playoffs, his own reputation and game being judged under the weight of what is expected as a Laker and as LeBron James' teammate -- it all turns to his own personal redemption story.
This championship is a career-changer for Anthony Davis, recalibrating his place in the game in ways that will impact his legacy, his place in the game, and perhaps his playoff performances in the years ahead.
This championship also validated the hiring of Frank Vogel, who was largely panned here in L.A. While fans here waited for him to be fired and replaced by his assistant, Jason Kidd, Vogel quietly went about winning over LeBron, implementing an approach to defense that defined this team right up to and through their defensive domination of Miami on Sunday night, all while pulling the right strings with players as different as Alex Caruso and Dwight Howard.
The Vogel hire turned out to be a stroke of genius, so let's give Lakers VP and general manager Rob Pelinka some love here, too. This championship proves Pelinka was indeed the man for the job after Magic Johnson decided to quit, with no notice, at a post-game media session last year -- without telling controlling owner Jeanie Buss.
There is a beautiful irony that Pelinka's team won an NBA championship the same week Lawrence Frank, his counterpart with the Clippers, won Executive of The Year. Nothing could better sum up how underappreciated Pelinka has been, nor how thoroughly one Lakers team did what it does, while the other operated only an illusion of excellence.
Even Dwight Howard -- Dwight Howard! -- is an NBA champion now, and a significant one, too. A player whose contributions were key. Pelinka, Vogel and LeBron each get some of the credit for seeing what Dwight could do, and helping to make sure he did so.
And how did we get to all of this? To a team LeBron would play for, with a front office that made the right moves and landed Anthony Davis, and that had the will and mental toughness to battle the NBA's best teams and a bubble in Orlando, with Frank Vogel as the coach and Rob Pelinka the GM after Magic Johnson saw the ship sinking and left them all behind?
It cannot be overstated how critical her role was in helping the Lakers turn themselves back into champions. Three years ago, she fired her own brother, Jim, as the head of basketball operations. She turned to Magic, who, no matter how you spin it, betrayed her and the Lakers with his disappearing act. Yet she stood firm, kept Pelinka in place, and led a Lakers organization under massive pressure to the place they now find themselves in.
Again, this shouldn't be missed, or underappreciated: The Lakers, before Jim Buss was sent packing and Jeanie Buss took over, were a hot damn mess, equal parts dysfunctional, embarrassing and backwards. Jeanie Buss changed that, and she did so at the cost of firing her sibling and personally taking on the brunt of any criticism and doubt -- and last year they arrived en masse -- when things looked bleak.
And she did this under the brutal, personal pressure of trying to live up to the memory of her father, the great, late Jerry Buss. His shadow -- and how much his daughter loved and looked up to him, how much she has wanted to be worthy of his name and legacy -- weighed heavily on her stewardship of the team he left her. That, too, was made right Sunday night: A daughter making good on the life's work of her father.
Ten years after the last Lakers championship -- and seven years after Jerry Buss' death -- the purple and gold reign again.
All of these significant touchstones to this championship -- LeBron's claim to GOAT status, the validation of A.D.'s decision making, how this sets the Lakers up going forward, Vogel and Pelinka triumph, Jeanie Buss' personal and professional victories -- are spokes on a wheel connected to the one thing that moves this Lakers win to another level, to something emotional, something beyond sports, something almost spiritual.
Kobe Bryant's death, and the death of his daughter, Gigi, last January remains raw here. In a year of horrors it was, and is, something that still brings tears to the eyes when discussed in Los Angeles, and probably beyond it.
Nothing can bring them back. But nothing could have honored them like this NBA championship. For the Lakers to win in 2020 -- while California burns, and COVID-19 reigns, and we are all so divided and angry, and Kobe and Gigi are gone -- was a bright streak of sports beauty and meaning here in Southern California in what has been a very, very dark year.
LeBron and the others told us months ago: This season is for Kobe Bryant.
And then they went out -- with all the other things on the line discussed here, with all the challenges inherent to any championship run -- and won it for the late, great, deeply missed Black Mamba.
Every championship matters.
But this one, here in Los Angeles, means so much more than most.