Fast Breaks and Heartbreaks

Susan Straight is the author, most recently, of the novel "Highwire Moon."

On the morning after the Lakers’ playoff loss and the premature end to their season, my 13-year-old daughter, Gaila, wore all black basketball clothes to school as a form of mourning. I wore black as well.

But my 11-year-old daughter, Delphine, whose nickname is “Baby Kobe,” came out of her room defiant and splendiferously purple. Bryant jersey, gold shorts, purple Laker sweats, team headband and purple Converse sneakers with purple laces. She glared at us. “If anyone says the wrong thing,” she said, ominously.

My 7-year-old, Rosette, says she doesn’t like basketball, that she gets tired of hearing about nothing else for months. But even she cried a little when the Lakers lost to San Antonio. “I’m going to miss Pargo,” she whispered.

The Laker season is a peculiar, structured, passionate time in our all-female household. Now that it is over, my older girls, both basketball players and fans, are in denial, even actual depression.


They are not alone. Laker fans all over Southern California, from Pacoima to Pomona, from Montebello to Montecito, called their sports talk shows and agonized to their friends. And out here in Riverside, where Laker flags fly everywhere and men have the Laker logo tattooed on their shoulders, strategies and statistics are endlessly discussed in our parks and pizza parlors.

A year ago, during the Lakers’ successful season, Gaila needed to have an MRI. She asked the technician to inject her with purple dye, because the Lakers were in the playoffs.

The team went on to win its overtime thriller in Sacramento on her birthday, and our family went to the Laker victory parade in downtown Los Angeles along with hundreds of thousands of other jersey-wearing faithful.

But this spring, watching their team stagger and then strut, fight and then fail, my girls screamed and suffered alongside everyone else. I wasn’t happy about the outcome, but I was curiously gratified, as a lifelong Laker fan who loved Worthy and Magic and Kareem, an ex-wife of a college basketball player and mother of “baller girls.”


Mine are not girls who play basketball as a fun aside to life. They are not casual. They play in several leagues, play for their schools and still play every night in the driveway. If there’s no NBA or college game on television, they watch tapes of past NBA games. They know the stats on nearly every player in the league. All year, they wear “baller shorts,” which come to the knee, tank tops and Cons.

They play league games on weekends, and sometimes they lose. Last year, they were comforted by Laker wins. This year, there was no comfort. There was anger at the unfairness of injury, there were exhortations for players to play harder, there were shouts at refs who didn’t see fouls or who saw fouls, there was grudging respect for opponents’ well-executed plays.

As I watched them huddle on the couch after that last Laker loss, their eyes swimming suspiciously along with Derek Fisher’s and Kobe Bryant’s, I realized that the quote I’d read in The Times after Coach Phil Jackson’s angioplasty, which referred to a basketball season as a little lifetime, was right.

Losing and winning, passion and depression prepare my kids for the rest of life. The big lifetime. The time that you think you prepared well for a test and then don’t get an A. The week when you are disrespected by a group of friends for reasons you don’t understand. The time when another driver makes a bad decision and hits your car, through no fault of your own. The year when people have heart attacks, or surgery to prevent them.


A sports obsession prepares you for that lifetime when work feels like purgatory, and your kids, who have always adored you, won’t even look you in the eye. Not performing up to standards, those children? You can’t trade them. You still have to love them, and wait for them, and cheer for them again, when they do well.

Each sports season for our children, whether they’re on soccer or hockey or tennis or football or lacrosse teams, is a little lifetime of good losses and bad ones. Of manners and sportsmanship, or fouls and disrespect. Of talent and hard work and passion.

Some parents have told me they think it’s strange to see kids so worked up over sports. But I’d rather see my girls angry and dejected and radiant over real people, moving up and down a measured space with a purpose, than playing video games or becoming obsessed with clothing or cars.

Some cliches are true. Sports kept my ex-husband and me, when we were in high school and college, away from drugs and bad influences, because we had practices and games and people depending on us. Teammates, coaches, parents: They were watching us. They were obsessed with what we did.


I watched my girls play their season-ending games last Sunday, two days after the Lakers lost, after we realized there would be no parade, no more games, no more pictures of Shaq’s raised brows and curled tongue when he dunked, no more airborne Kobe with his knees higher than the shoulders of everyone else on the court, no more Fish lying on the floor after taking a charge from someone twice his size.

My daughters played hard in their final games despite sore ankles, scratched shoulders and jammed fingers. They took charges, they ran full-court presses. Gaila rebounded well, and Delphine led her team in scoring. Both teams went 2-1-1 for the day. The season was over.

The next day, I thought they would watch San Antonio play Dallas, that they might just enjoy the game for itself, but they weren’t ready. They were still hurting. Still mulling over shots and angles, like the people at work who never give up, like the best soldiers, the best actors, the best teachers, the best parents. True loyalists. Ready for the next little lifetime, and, I hope, preparing for the big one.