Column: 2020 was a year of unbridled joy and incomprehensible sorrow for L.A. sports fans

Images of the Lakers and Dodgers winning titles and fans mourning the death of Kobe Bryant.
2020 was a year of happiness and incredible pain for sports fans in Los Angeles.
(Wally Sklaij; Mel Melcon; Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The last of six Times Sports stories looking at some of the biggest sports moments and storylines of 2020.

The parade filled up both sides of Figueroa, hundreds of thousands of blue caps and fresh tears, Clayton Kershaw and Mookie Betts waving from a fire truck, Dave Roberts screaming into a microphone, all of Los Angeles chanting, “Let’s Go Dodgers!”

In our dreams.

The celebration jammed every corner of LA Live, thousands pressed together in a mosh pit of purple and gold, LeBron James standing on a stage, hoisting a trophy, hugging Anthony Davis, everyone chanting “M-V-P, M-V-P!” while waiting for Alex Caruso to dance.

We wish.

The greatest year in Los Angeles sports was wonderfully hosted by Kobe Bryant, the city’s beloved ambassador showing up nightly with his wife and daughters for both professional championships, waving a T-shirt while sitting courtside at Staples Center, cheering from behind home plate at Dodger Stadium, embraced like royalty with every appearance.


Complete coverage from the Lakers’ championship season

If only.

Across a beaming and broken Los Angeles sports landscape, the year 2020 rained down unimaginable riches while wreaking incomprehensible pain.

The year was at once a philanthropist and a thief, giving so much yet stealing from so many, filled with life but marked by death. It brought the city two titles, but shuttered the town so few could share in them. It introduced new superstars, but darkened the brightest light in our galaxy. Nobody could hear us cheer, yet everyone heard us mourn.

The year was a parade of greatness, but there were no parades. The two home teams won, but did so while playing their most vital games thousands of miles from home. The athletes celebrated richly, but did so without us, and lord, how we missed them.

We realized our dreams and lived our nightmares sometimes at precisely the same time. Every glorious triumph carried an emotional price. Every great moment was burdened with a heavy footnote.


The Lakers won their first championship in a decade, yet afterward the cheers on the streets were tiny eulogies, everyone solemnly singing the name of the dear departed Kobe.

The Dodgers won their first championship in 32 years, yet the talk on the streets was about the audacity of coronavirus-stricken third baseman Justin Turner, who joined in the on-field trophy celebration while taking off his mask.

The only way many of us could embrace the moment was to run outside our homes and gather with the neighbors and scream to the heavens. Sometimes that made us cry. Other times that made us sick. Never did it make us whole.

The 2020 sports year in Los Angeles was really, really cool … and it really, really sucked.

It began with an ending, 26 days into the new year, Bryant and 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others perishing in a helicopter crash.

I was knocked flat on my back with the news. I dropped on my Miami hotel room bed and cried. I quickly filed a column between sobs. I haven’t read it since. I won’t. I can’t.


I flew home from the Super Bowl to discover a city in shock. Folks dropping to their knees on the LA Live pavement. Desolate street corners filled by Laker-clad prayer groups. I’ve never seen Los Angeles sadder. Then, in the blink of a pandemic, I’ve never seen Los Angeles emptier.

Fans gathered in front of the Staples Center to mourn the death of Kobe Bryant.

From the loss of Kobe to the loss of everything, in early March the vibrant Los Angeles sports landscape became scorched earth. Much of America shut down, but no sports culture was affected like ours, so many contending teams suddenly vanishing into the diseased air.

Stadiums empty. Arenas quiet. Fields vacant. Athletes silent. And deaths, so many coronavirus-caused deaths, often the elderly, many of whom were longtime sports fans. One was Paul Martinez, 70, of West Covina, a lifelong Rams fan who declared himself the “No. 1 Rams fan” on his final voicemail greeting. His passion so touched the Rams that they dispatched the mascot Rampage to Martinez’ drive-by memorial service.

That was the 2020 Los Angeles sports landscape in one surreal moment. Mascots didn’t attend games, they attended funerals.

In late May, the death of George Floyd temporarily filled the streets again and gave new resonance to the voice of Black sports figures who were finally viewed not as soulless entertainers but as real humans. From LeBron James to Doc Rivers, the locals spoke eloquently and led powerfully and made a lasting impact on an enduring movement.


But still, we couldn’t cheer for them. When sports finally returned at the end of July, the players were bubbled, the fans were cardboard, and nothing felt right.

Kobe Bryant was our childhood hero, our adult icon. It seems impossible to believe he has died at age 41.

Then, immediately upon filing a column on the Lakers-Clippers bubble opener, I didn’t feel right. Chills, sweats, fever, fear. A couple of days later I was diagnosed with COVID-19. On a night when I wrote that maybe the NBA could triumph amid the coronavirus, I was stricken by it. For a second time, 2020 knocked me flat on my back.

About three weeks later I was back to work, and so were the Lakers and Dodgers, winning playoff games, creating memorable moments, at least according to our televisions.

We were there, but we weren’t. It was ours, but it wasn’t. Then, for a wondrous stretch in October, none of it mattered but the winning, the Lakers and Dodgers blowing us away with James’ leadership and Betts’ acrobatics and the calendar’s incredible gymnastics.

Sixteen days. Los Angeles won two major professional sports championships in a span of 16 days. Think about that. Some of us spend that long standing in line at the DMV. The winning inspired the city to stage impromptu block parties that turned into potential virus super spreaders. Once again, even the sweetest could not alleviate the bitter.

The purple and gold confetti fell in a nearly empty gym in Orlando, not on us. Julio Urias threw that last strike past Willy Adames in a ballpark in Texas, not in front of 56,000 hugging fans at the end of Vin Scully Avenue. We loved L.A., but we couldn’t dance to Randy Newman.

Complete coverage of the Dodgers winning their first World Series championship since 1988 after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2020 World Series.


The Lakers returned home to silence. The Dodgers returned home in quarantine.

Hey, 2021? You owe us. You owe us big. The Los Angeles sports landscape is ready to erupt. You will stay out of the way and let it happen.

There is now a vaccine. And after that vaccine takes hold, we will fill Staples Center and Dodger Stadium and turn them into the loudest venues in sports. We will cheer with gratitude, cheer with relief, cheer a connection that we will no longer take for granted.

We will cheer for them. We will cheer for us. We will cheer as one. Then we will drape our arms around each other and sing a song that even the most turbulent, tortured year cannot silence.

Because, 2020 be damned, we are the champions.