- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- When Kobe Bryant’s last-second, game-winning jumper in the paint was blocked by Luol Deng, there was no flailing, no complaining and no blank stares at his bare hands.
As soon as the buzzer sounded, Bryant looked at Derek Fisher then quietly walked off the court.
This will be a different season that will require different responses to heartbreaking losses, and no one knows that better than Bryant and Fisher.
The only players on the Los Angeles Lakers who have played in a lockout-shortened season are Bryant and Fisher, and they are the only ones who know what the team’s dreaded back-to-back-to-back games to start the season will feel like.
Four hours after Bryant’s missed shot gave the Chicago Bulls an 88-87 win to start the season on Christmas Day, the Lakers were scheduled to board a chartered flight to Sacramento to play the Kings on Monday night. Immediately after that game, they will board a chartered flight back to Los Angeles to play the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night.
If the Lakers' players missed basketball during the lockout, they will certainly get their fill over the first 72 hours of the season.
When the Lakers left the locker room after the loss, there were no messages about the game or words of advice for tomorrow, just a travel reminder.
Bryant had to pause when he was asked to recall the last time he played a back-to-back-to-back series.
“I really don’t remember much,” he said. “I was like 19 so I don’t even know if I was tired or not. We had one in Vancouver and the next day Kurt [Rambis] lost his job. It was a mess. It was a mess. That’s all I remember.”
Actually, Bryant was 20, and it was Del Harris who lost his job. It was Rambis who replaced Harris after the Lakers started the season 6-6.
“Whoever,” Bryant said. “One of them.”
It was Feb. 23, 1999, and Bryant was in his third season in the league and his first year as a full-time starter when the Lakers’ strange, shortened season began to derail following a 93-83 loss to the Vancouver Grizzlies.
The Lakers lost all three games of a brutal road back-to-back-to-back series that took the Lakers from Seattle to Denver to Vancouver in a span of 72 hours. When the Lakers returned home, Harris was fired and replaced by Rambis, who was an assistant coach at the time.
Perhaps Bryant forgot the news because that day the Lakers also signed Dennis Rodman, who would only last 23 games with the team before being cut. Less than three weeks after Rambis replaced Harris and Rodman was signed, the Lakers traded Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell for Glen Rice and J.R. Reid.
“It was a crazy season,” Bryant said. “It was just a mess.”
Fisher, who was 24 at the time, was also in his third season with the Lakers and his first as a regular starter after the team traded Nick Van Exel in the offseason.
“There was a lot of similar questions and uncertainty surrounding our team then,” Fisher said. “We had a coaching change that year going from Del Harris to Kurt Rambis and Dennis Rodman was in and then out. It was a different year obviously only playing 50 games and starting in February. The biggest thing that jumps out to me that season is the way we finished with a 4-0 loss to the Spurs in the playoffs.”
Perhaps the Spurs’ success in the last lockout-shortened season will serve as a blueprint for the Lakers during this lockout-shortened season. That season the Spurs’ top six players were all in their 30s, except for a 22-year-old big man coming into his own by the name of Tim Duncan. They were coached by Gregg Popovich, who would become a mentor to Lakers coach Mike Brown the following season.
Brown has brought with him to the Lakers the same system he learned under Popovich as an assistant from 2000-2003.
He has even framed in the Lakers’ locker room one of Popovich’s favorite quotes that has been up in the Spurs’ locker room since 1999. It comes from social reformer Jacob Riis and embodies Popovich and Brown’s message of consistent hard work paying dividends in the future even if it might not appear so at the moment.
“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it,” it reads. “Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
The quote is framed and matted next to Bryant’s locker, and it didn’t take long for him to heed its message after the opening day loss.
“I’m upset we lost the game but I saw a lot of positive things so I’m pleased,” Bryant. “Defensively we played terrific and we’re only going to get better. We’re going to be very, very good defensively. … We’re very well coached and we work very hard in practice.”
The Lakers weren’t pretty against the Bulls, but Bryant knows this season won’t be pretty and he knows his team won’t blow many six-point leads in the final 45 seconds if the defense continues to improve.
“It’s going to be ugly,” Bryant said. “We’re going to grind it out. It might be ugly but who the hell cares?”
Style points are certainly appreciated in Hollywood, but during a lockout-shortened season beginning with a grueling back-to-back-to-back series for the Lakers, none of that really matters. As much as former Lakers coach Phil Jackson would like to put an asterisk on these shortened seasons, no one will be thinking about that come June.
“That 1999 season was a crazy year,” Fisher said. “Obviously the Spurs don’t have any complaints about that season and hopefully it’s us hoisting the trophy at the end of this season.”
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.