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Fans Endure a Bad Ending

With hopes of a Laker miracle smashed, most of them pledge loyalty no matter what

June 16, 2004|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

Laker fans had seen their team turn around a series in 0.4 seconds, so to them, three games were an eternity.

Those same fans witnessed the Lakers reel off four consecutive victories against the supposedly superior San Antonio Spurs, so, in their minds, three in a row against the Detroit Pistons shouldn't have been a problem.

About 5,400 fans showed up at Staples Center on Tuesday night to watch Game 5 of the NBA Finals on big screens, fully aware that 2,500 miles away, their team trailed, 3-1, in the best-of-seven series.

No team had overcome such a deficit in the NBA Finals, yet Laker fans arrived filled with optimism and confident another miracle turnaround would take place. After a 100-87 series-ending loss, however, many left disappointed and confused, wondering why the miracle never happened.

"Believe it or not, I felt like they were going to pull off a miracle, I really did," said Nicholas Nicassio, 30, of Highland Park. "This team has manufactured miracles so many times, it didn't seem unlikely they couldn't manufacture one more. We've been so blessed with Hollywood endings that we've come to expect it."

Laker fans have earned a reputation as soft, bandwagon jumpers. When the team is good, the fans come out of the woodwork. When the team is down, they are difficult to find.

But the fans at Staples Center for the last three games are the blue-collar Laker fans and they showed the mettle of fans found in any other NBA city.

There were no well-dressed celebrities hoping to get some television time. There were no glitzy suits or glamorous dresses, only a sea of purple and gold. All seats for these games cost $15.

The crowd entered Staples Center on Tuesday with a resolve to will a victory and a comeback despite the historically inescapable odds.

Fans cheered each player during videotaped pre-game introductions, they bellowed the usual "Luuuuuuke" when Luke Walton entered the game and gave Jack Nicholson a rousing ovation when ABC showed him, as if they were witnessing it in person.

Chants of "De-fense, De-fense" echoed during defensive stands. Wild cheers erupted after each positive Laker play and during timeouts, the Laker girls kept the crowd going with routines.

But a 10-point halftime deficit changed the mood, with nervous energy replacing optimism. In the second half, loud cheers turned to vocal complaints about officiating and moaning sighs of disappointment. By the middle of the fourth quarter, stunned silence prevailed.

"It was devastating," Nicassio said. "Despite all the realities we were facing, I thought we could pull it off. But I guess that's just seeing the light through purple and gold lenses."

Like many Laker fans, Frank Gonzalez of Garden Grove grew more and more frustrated with this Laker team as the season went on. He got used to a team he said played at its peak one day and then looked like a minor league squad the next.

He just didn't expect the minor league team would show up in the Finals and left disappointed that this team didn't become the dynasty he'd hoped it would.

"These Lakers are not the 1980s Lakers," Gonzalez said. "These Lakers gave us a lot of headaches. In the '80s, those Lakers came out and played hard every day. These guys, you never know who is going to show up."

Nearly 22,000 attended Staples Center to watch the three games in Auburn Hills, Mich., but others couldn't bear to watch Tuesday's elimination game. Mike Badt of Santa Monica was one of them.

A week ago, Badt stood huddled around a parked car with his recreational league softball team and listened as Kobe Bryant sent Game 2 to overtime with his buzzer-beating three-point basket.

Tuesday, he correctly predicted the rout that occurred and was relieved that his softball game prevented him from watching.

"Not watching the Lakers is purely out of self-preservation," he said. "Watching them lose like this will ruin the first half of summer, and I just can't let that happen."

Darin DeRenzis, 31, of Redondo Beach, said he has supported the Lakers through the good and bad years and even though he expected more this year, he will continue to wear his Lakers' hat with pride.

"There is, however, an incredible amount of frustration because they should be better," he said. "If they had remembered the sense of urgency they found in San Antonio, they would have rolled over this team."

Still, fans who went to Staples Center even though the game was in Michigan said that no matter how frustrating it was to root for this team, they would remain fans.

"Real fans are here for the good and the bad," said Jose Flores, 30, of Compton. "If you're a true fan, you have to support them, especially now."

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