Friday, December 30, 2011
Year in, year out in L.A.
By Ramona Shelburne
The seeds were sewn a little under two years ago. Pete Carroll had just left USC for the NFL. NCAA sanctions loomed. Quarterback Matt Barkley was just a freshman and could have left before things got worse.
Instead, he had a vision. Of something better than what was in front of him. Of a reality he could still create for himself and his team, but would never be given easily.
"I came to this school because I wanted to be a Trojan," Barkley said then. "And nothing about coaches leaving would change that for me."
The NCAA sanctions that came next could've sent USC into a tailspin for over a decade. But Barkley wouldn't allow it. His vision of what could be at USC was too strong. His patience for what stood in the way was too thin.
Barkley and his teammates might have been collateral damage for the mistakes of others, but that didn't mean they couldn't fight on. Two years later, he made good on that promise again.
"Our USC football team has been through some tough times, and we have persevered," Barkley said before announcing he would not enter the NFL draft. "The 2012 team has some serious unfinished business to attend to, and I intend to play a part of it."
It was a remarkable statement by a man so young. The kind of lesson an athlete learns at the end of his career, after he has worshipped too many false idols and followed lesser stars, not the beginning.
But in a way it was fitting that one of the youngest stars in this town embodied the spirit that made 2011 such a remarkable year.
A year that could have been defined by divorce and dysfunction, by who retired (Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson) and who was fired (UCLA Bruins football coach Rick Neuheisel, Los Angeles Kings coach Terry Murray, Anaheim Ducks coach Randy Carlyle), by what came to an end and what was lost, instead became about what could be.
Young stars like Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Dee Gordon and Blake Griffin blossomed, even as the weeds around them grew tall and thick. Older men like Tim Leiweke and Casey Wasserman saw possibilities for bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles where others only saw problems.
New leaders like Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and USC Trojans coach Lane Kiffin stepped into the enormous shadows -- and messes -- left by their predecessors and made their way out by trusting in their instincts and their vision.
Old leaders like Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno found new swagger by putting his money where his heart has always been -- on winning -- with the monumental signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson.
David Beckham, who came here five years ago because he had a vision of what soccer could become in the United States, finally realized his dreams as the Galaxy won the MLS Cup.
Even old villains like Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling came around, empowering his bright young general manager Neil Olshey to pull the trigger on what could be franchise-altering trade for point guard Chris Paul.
A couple of days after Paul and Griffin practiced together for the first time, I had a moment to ask veteran point guard Chauncey Billups how it all might work out. Billups had not chosen to be a part of this, nor had he wanted to be.
When the Clippers claimed him off waivers from the New York Knicks, he was irate. When the Clippers traded for Paul two days later, Billups stormed out of their training facility. There were a few anxious moments that night where the Clippers thought they might have lost him.
Then he showed up to a practice the next day and gave it a chance. Soon, Billups saw what they saw: the future.
"You guys are in the position to be watching [Griffin] for the next however many years," Billups said. "Watching greatness as it evolves."
It takes a special sort of person to see potential where others see only doubts and dilemmas. It's even harder to follow those dreams. It takes courage and conviction. A set of blinders helps, too.
The Dodgers' season could have been defined solely by the selfishness of owner Frank McCourt and his ex-wife, Jamie McCourt. Worse, it could have ended before it began, on the night San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow was beaten to within an inch of his life in the Dodger Stadium parking lot on Opening Day.
Instead, the team played on and played hard, putting the game before all else. There was no room for self-pity and no time for regret. Mattingly always saw that as the way forward. After a few months, his team did, too.
There may not have been a lot of fans in the park to witness how the Dodgers resurrected their season, going from 14 games under .500 on July 6 to finish 82-79. But that doesn't mean no one noticed. If anything, the city came together this summer. Fans saw what McCourt had taken from them and spoke loudly with one voice, in the only way baseball and McCourt would listen.
By the end of the year, McCourt finally heard them. At long last, and at great cost, he agreed to sell the team.
The Dodgers do not have a new owner yet. But McCourt left them pointing in a good direction when he authorized an eight-year, $160 million contract extension for Kemp. It sounds like a huge financial commitment, but it was really the least McCourt could do for the franchise before leaving.
The Lakers, on the other hand, end the year still searching for what is next. A new direction? A new star? Even a new start on one of the most tumultuous offseasons in recent memory would be a good start.
As the season began on Christmas Day with Kobe Bryant playing through a painful wrist injury, Lamar Odom in Dallas, Andrew Bynum suspended for the first four games of the year and Pau Gasol looking under every pillow on the couch for his lost swagger, things felt dire and depressing.
The NBA had ruined all of the Lakers' plans by vetoing their proposed trade for Paul. The league complicated things further by approving the Clippers' package of assets. Having to play a back-to-back-to-back right out of the gate was just cruel.
But instead of excuses, a new voice had a message.
His voice was softer than the man who had his job before. His demeanor is nothing like Phil Jackson's. New Lakers coach Mike Brown is common and decent and uncomplicated. The next Zen philsophy book he reads will be his first.
But he sees something in this Lakers team that others do not. A vision, a reality that he can make with his own hands and heart.
"We all want to win for him because you see how hard he's working and how much effort he's putting into it," Bryant said of Brown. "He's very passionate and very enthusiastic."
That might not sound like it's a lot. But in Los Angeles, in this remarkable year, it was a great place to start.
What could be is always greater than what already is. You just have to make it that way.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.