LOS ANGELES — Despite 3,000 miles between us and seemingly 3 million people swarming this city, there were signs of home everywhere.
Mitch Kupchak, the former UNC star (1976 ACC Player of the Year) and current general manager of the LA Lakers, is under fire for doing nothing about a franchise in turmoil and is rumored to be quitting or retiring after this season.
But what can he do?
The team that won back-to-back NBA championships in 2009 and 2010 under Phil Jackson has a new coach (LeBron’s old coach in Cleveland, Mike Brown) and is being run by owner Jerry Buss’ two sons and one daughter, and all together, they have attained the dreadful dysfunctional label.
Kobe is unhappy, and it goes far beyond his impending mega multi-million dollar divorce. Before the strike-shortened season began, he thought he had a new point guard, ex-Wake Forest star Chris Paul, who played his first four seasons in New Orleans. But NBA Commissioner David Stern nixed the trade for reasons still not fully explained. Apparently, the Lakers would have been too good with perennial NBA All-Star Paul at the point.
So what happened? Paul winds up being traded to LA’s stepchild franchise, the Clippers, who play in the same Staples Center before a common-man crowd, compared to the show-time stars and starlets who arrive late and leave early to be seen at Laker games.
I watched the Clippers beat the Denver Nuggets Wednesday night behind 36 points from Paul and 27 from high-flying center Blake Griffin.
(If you want to play the Kevin Bacon game, Griffin was the Oklahoma All-American who lost his last college game in the 2009 Elite Eight to the Tar Heels, who went on to win the NCAA Championship. That Oklahoma team was coached by Jeff Capel, the former Dukie, whose brother Jason played for UNC and now coaches Appalachian State. Jeff has since been fired at Oklahoma and is now back on the Duke Bench as one of the 7 or so suits who flank Mike Krzyzewski.)
The Nuggets are coached by Carolina favorite George Karl, who, at 60, has just finished his second gruesome battle with neck and throat cancer. He is looking comparatively svelte, coaching a no-name but talented team that runs, runs and runs (and lately loses) most of its games. UNC’s Ty Lawson, Karl’s bullet point guard, missed the Clippers loss with a sprained ankle.
“We’re playing well, but the losing is killing me,” Karl said before the Clippers game. Relatively speaking; when you’ve beaten the Big C twice, the W’s aren’t quite as important in the grand scheme.
Karl will be remembered by old-time Tar Heels as the pepperpot point guard who led Dean Smith’s star-studded 1972 team to the Final Four right here before losing to Florida State, which had yet to join the ACC.
The Clippers and Lakers are separated by one game in their NBA division and waging a “city series” not unlike close-proximity college or high-school rivals. They have become the biggest games in town, both teams selling out the Staples Center nearly every time they play.
Meanwhile, college basketball here has been moved to the back page or below the fold.
UCLA, which once dominated the collegiate game and Southern California sports, has struggled with a lineup that has Tar Heel defectors David and Travis Wear and Larry Drew II. The Bruins, who had a great run of Final Four appearances a few years ago, are in jeopardy of not making the NCAA tournament this season.
Ironically, their best chance is to win the Pac-12 tournament in early March that will be played in the Staples Center on one of the rare weekends when Kupchak, Kobe, the Lakers; Paul, Griffin, and the Clippers, will all be out of town.
(Editor’s Note: This column was dictated to Hollywood stuntman Alex Chansky, the author’s nephew, because the author broke his computer and does not know how to use one of these high-falutin’ Macs!)