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Grit Outshines Glam

June 17, 2004

What we wanted was a Hollywood ending. What we got was reality TV. The Lakers' season-long transformation from juggernaut to simply naught captivated millions of viewers -- and disappointed millions of fans -- with dysfunctional drama that would have done the Osbourne clan proud. Ultimately, the Zen-master coach and his collection of feuding superstars, bench-warmers-turned-heroes and aging, achy legends made for great television but poor basketball.

In a playoff season sustained by miracle shots, the Lakers' addiction to drama sent the NBA's ratings soaring and stoked a national penchant for voyeurism. Hollywood is taking its camera crews inside funeral homes, operating rooms, beauty shops and the mansions of celebrities. But who needs Judge Judy when you've got Kobe Bryant jetting back and forth from a real courtroom, juggling the prospect of prison time with the intricacies of the triangle offense? Who needs "Survivor" or "You're fired!" when you've got Laker veterans cornering their coach in a restroom between playoff games to vote their teammates out of the starting five?

But the reality show dissolved Tuesday night into ... well, reality. The prickly superstar was undone by his own stubborn streak; the Big Everything seemed to disappear from the screen; the overmatched second string was smothered by Detroit's tenacity. And L.A.'s collection of ever-entitled celebrity players was dispatched by a gang of gritty castoffs so unglamorous that one guy never takes to the court without a plastic mask strapped over his face and another looks like he never combs his hair.

Though the Lakers' collapse may have dented our civic pride, it also ought to remind us that fame doesn't guarantee success. The Lakers might well have fielded the most talented and best-known collection of players ever assembled by a single NBA franchise. But the Pistons dominated them by playing unselfishly.

Heartbroken fans can cast about for reasons -- blame the referees or the coach or Karl Malone's injured knee or a pocketful of miracles that was finally picked clean -- but Laker Rick Fox said it best: "A team always beats a group of individuals. We picked a poor time to be a group of individuals."

Today, we ought to thank the Lakers for an exhilarating, enervating roller coaster ride, one that made this jaded, fractured city come alive. Then we ought to salute the Pistons. We got beat by a better team this time.

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