It's official. The Lakers have gone through the looking glass. Good is bad, bad is good, up is down, and down is where folks are finally pulling their gold Lakers car flags, replacing them with something white.
This realization arrived Sunday while I was sitting in a press seat watching the Lakers valiantly battle Oklahoma City. After one particularly inspired exchange, I received a text message from Neighbor Sam, this column's resident Lakers die-hard.
"Need to break that streak today!!!" he wrote.
One problem. That "streak" was actually a winning streak. The Lakers had won three games in a row. It was their best stretch of the season. It was their finest basketball of the year. And Neighbor Sam wanted it to end?
I asked for clarification, illumination, or simply explanation from a guy who unapologetically sees the world through purple-and-gold colored glasses.
"I'm not saying tank!" he wrote. "I'm just hoping for them to finish with a fabulous flourish of failures."
He's saying what some other Lakers fans are saying. He is hoping what many Laker fans are quietly hoping. He is part of a group that has made this late season so bizarre, even Lakers Coach Byron Scott recently addressed them directly.
"Half of our fans want us to win, half of them want us to lose," Scott said. "The half that wants us to lose, that bothers me a lot."
When asked to explain his annoyance, he shook his head.
"You don't want to hear my argument," he said. "We'll just leave it at that."
The other side's argument has been clearly stated for months now. With no chance at making the playoffs, the Lakers would be better served to lose enough games to have a good chance at being awarded a top-five pick in the May 19 draft lottery. If they don't get that top-five pick, then they are required to give the selection to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Truly, the beginning of the next Lakers era will be written on the plastic covers on those ping-pong balls.
If they get the top-five pick, they can start climbing back to the top immediately. The upper part of the draft is strong, and if the Lakers get one of the big men who reside there, they could turn what is probably Kobe Bryant's final year into a playoff sunset.
If they lose the pick, however, they could be faced with at least one more long year spent hoping for one more low lottery finish. It would be a devastating blow that could have ramifications long after Bryant has left the building.
The lower the Lakers finish in the standings, the better their odds of gaining a top-five selection, but here's the rub: Their final finish is not necessarily where they will draft.
Everyone has to play table tennis. If the Lakers drop to the second-worst record in the league, they are guaranteed that top-five pick. But even if they finish as the fourth-worst team in the league — their current position — their future is still dependent the selection of those balls.
While the rules state that no more than three teams can pass them, even if two teams pass them, they would draft sixth, meaning their pick would instantly be lost on national television. That's right, one of the most unsettling parts of this adventure is that the world will be watching the NBA draft lottery telecast when the Lakers future is decided, and can you imagine the scene?
A Lakers representative sits nervously at that little Lakers desk … an NBA official opens an envelope announcing the sixth pick … the giant card reads "The Philadelphia 76ers" … the announcer explains that the Lakers traded that pick for Steve Nash, and that the Suns then traded it to Philadelphia, and by then you can't hear anything because everyone in your house is slamming doors and screaming. The cameras catch every wrinkle of pain on the face of the Lakers rep, who then buries head into hands. On the most important night of their year, the Lakers suffer their biggest embarrassment of the year and walk out with nothing.
If Scott's hard-playing team doesn't keep losing, this could happen. Every win increases their chances of catching the likes of flailing Orlando and Denver, which would reduce their chances of a top-five pick.
Early in the year it was easy to cheer for them because so much was still unknown. But during these final weeks, reality has bitten, transforming Lakers fans into these strange, cold beings, and if you were watching the Lakers battle in Charlotte to the final buzzer Tuesday night, you know.
In the final minutes of a 104-103 loss, you held your breath on Jordan Clarkson's rimmed-out three-point attempt, and not because you wanted it to sink. You gasped at Jeremy Lin's bad pass and Jordan Hill's brick, and not because you were entirely displeased. And when you saw Carlos Boozer sitting on the bench during the fourth quarter even though he had a double-double, you didn't rip Scott, you just shrugged.
Lakers fans still cheer for victories at Staples Center, but amid the quiet of their living rooms, the solitude of their smartphones and the anonymity of their Twitter accounts, they are locked into an ugly grip with reality. You know it, and, in interviews earlier this week, the Lakers said they also know it.
Said Wayne Ellington: "It's mind-boggling. I've never been in a situation where your fans tell you to lose."
Added Robert Sacre: "It's a different atmosphere around here, it's something you're not used to, ever. You go on a three-game win streak and fans don't like it. It's just unbelievable."
It's not that the players don't understand. They're all sports fans. They get it.
"I'm a Minnesota Vikings fan, and when I know we can't make the playoffs, I'm like, why are we still winning?" Ed Davis said.
And they appreciate that they don't feel the resistance on the court — "I was just talking with my fiancee about how our support at Staples Center is just amazing," Ellington said.
But they are surrounded by the odd cheering on social media, and the buzz around town is clear, and they have been overcome by the strangeness of it all.
"We understand what fans are saying, we know exactly what they want," Ellington said. "But we're men. We're competitors. We're all fighting for jobs here. We don't cross those lines ever. We're not giving up."
Strong words. Inspirational words. Lakers fans would cheer, but their hands are presently occupied by covering their ears.