It was the half-joke that launched a thousand conspiracy theories, causing Laker haters and amateur NBAologists to scrutinize every syllable while trying to find an explanation as to why Derek Fisher was left with exactly four-tenths of a second in San Antonio -- just enough time to make a game-winning 18-footer physically possible -- and why referee Eddie F. Rush went to the scorer's table in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals to ask how many fouls Shaquille O'Neal had.
On the eve of the playoffs, NBA Commissioner David Stern was asked by ESPN's Dan Patrick to name the matchup fans most wanted to see in the Finals, and Stern's cheeky response was, "The Lakers versus the Lakers."
Ah-ha! cynics cried. True confession at last!
Or maybe not. Stern, and America, had seen what happens in a world without the Lakers in the NBA Finals, and for those who would prefer to forget, it was New Jersey versus San Antonio in 2003, resulting in the lowest average TV rating -- 6.5 -- since the Finals went prime time in 1982.
In 2002, when the Lakers won their third consecutive championship, the Finals drew an average rating of 10.2.
In 1980, when a Laker rookie named Magic Johnson won his first NBA title and CBS televised the games to most of the nation on tape delay at 11:30 p.m., the Finals drew an average rating of 8.0.
In other words: Canned footage of the Lakers in the Finals, tipping off against Johnny Carson near midnight, outdrew live New Jersey-San Antonio basketball, if you want to call it that, up against nothing but the league's old higher standards of personality, star power and backboards not bruised by open 15-foot jump shots.
The Lakers draw. That much has been an NBA given for more than 30 years, from Wilt to Kareem to Shaq, from Jerry to Magic to Kobe. The team's name is synonymous with glitz, glamour, Hollywood stars preening to be seen at courtside and classic bitter rivalries -- many of them within the Laker locker room -- and all the pathos and pettiness any network president and league commissioner could ever want from a marquee attraction.
If the Lakers didn't already exist, they'd be a reality series in preproduction at Fox.
Stern didn't mean to be taken literally, but "the Lakers versus the Lakers" has become high concept in the grandest sense this season, with the team's 24/7 angst and absolute inability to keep dirty laundry behind closed doors ratcheting up fan curiosity and media fascination to record levels.
The Lakers versus the Lakers has been the biggest, craziest story in sports since O'Neal and Bryant turned October's preseason drills into grade-school recess, with Shaq calling Kobe selfish and Kobe calling Shaq fat. From there, the infighting undercards featured Bryant versus Coach Phil Jackson, Gary Payton versus Jackson's triangle offense, O'Neal versus the physics of foul shooting and Kobe versus the city's desire to keep Bryant under contract until the franchise's 20th league championship, give or take.
And that's just the basketball stuff.
Trying to drag the Lakers to their fourth championship in five years is nothing compared with the season-long drama surrounding Bryant and his sexual-assault case.
"It's been crazier than any preceding season," said John Black, Laker director of public relations, who has worked for the club since 1989. "You add in whatever you had back to the Jerry West days, going through the '80s with Magic and Kareem and Showtime and all that, and you add the tremendously greater number of media people that cover us right now and the whole circus that we've become with Shaq and Kobe and Phil, and then you add into the mix the legal situation this year and Karl Malone and Gary Payton and you come up with where we are now.
Black paused, as if to catch his breath, then laughingly added:
"Which I'm drowning in!"
Tim Kawakami, a former Times Laker beat writer who covered the team from 1998 to 2000 and is now a sports columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, says the Lakers "are the biggest story in the NBA times five. Nobody is close."
"First of all, it's L.A. Then it's L.A. with tradition. Then it's L.A. with tradition with Shaq and Kobe. Then it's L.A. with tradition with Shaq and Kobe and the weirdest season ever."
In terms of media and fan interest, Kawakami says the Lakers now rival the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys as the biggest teams in American sports. But the Yankees and Cowboys never reached the World Series or Super Bowl during a season in which their most marketable superstar stood charged with sexual assault.
"Just think if O.J. had gone through that while he was playing," Kawakami said. "There's never been something like that before. [Mike] Tyson stopped fighting during his rape trial. Think if Tyson had kept fighting at that point. That's what the Lakers are now, and they were big by themselves....