There's never been a better time to hate the Lakers. There's never been a better time to love them, for that matter, what with the back-to-back championships and a strong shot at a third, but for now let's focus on the hate. The championships are a proximate cause, of course: sustained dominance in sports breeds enemies. That the team is led by Phil Jackson (who many find intolerably smug), Kobe Bryant (not the cuddliest guy ever, and one who many will always believe committed rape seven years ago in Eagle, Colorado) and Pau Gasol (perfectly nice, but someone the Lakers lifted from the Memphis Grizzlies in a trade that infuriated a good portion of the league) makes it worse. That the franchise routinely outspends the rest of the NBA on player salaries kicks the indignation up further.
And then there are the celebrity fans. Not so much Jack Nicholson, who attends nearly every game and is clearly a true believer, but the random movie star who shows up in the third row for Game One of the Finals, doesn't bother to clap, spends an hour texting and then leaves in the third quarter. Or Denzel Washington, who somehow rationalizes rooting for both the Lakers and the Yankees, as evidenced by his ever-present "NY" cap. These people contribute to the stereotype of Laker fans as privileged, preening twits, unserious about the game of basketball and undeserving of the team's success.
On Tuesday night at Staples Center, the intersection of Laker fandom with pop-culture celebrity took on a bizarre new dimension. During the second quarter of the Lakers' season opener, following an earlier pregame ceremony in which David Stern presented the team with their new championship rings, TNT reporter Cheryl Miller conducted a sideline interview of Jeanie Buss, who's the daughter of owner Jerry Buss, an executive vice-president with the team and the longtime girlfriend of Phil. In the course of the interview, Miller asked Jeanie about the rings themselves, at which point Jeanie dropped the two most loaded words in the English language: Justin Bieber.
You heard that right: Jeanie loaned Phil's championship ring to Justin Bieber.
This bombshell disclosure prompted an immediate and entirely negative reaction from hoops observers. On Silver Screen and Roll, commenter opinion has ranged from "This is appalling" to "Jeanie should be hauled off to The Hague to be put on trial for crimes against nature." Yesterday, my colleague C.A. Clark wrote, in summing up the Lakers' generally excellent opening night, "It would have been cool if a restraining order was taken out on Justin Bieber, so that he couldn't come within 300 feet of a Lakers championship ring, but even the best diamond will have a few minor flaws." Over at The Dream Shake, the SBN site dedicated to the Houston Rockets (whom the Lakers defeated on Tuesday), one of the authors warned TNT's camera crew that "if I have to see Justin Bieber . . . one more time at Staples, I will find Ted Turner and we're going to have a long talk in a dark room." Matt Moore of CBS Sports and Hardwood Paroxysm today ironically changed his Twitter avatar to a photo of Bieber wearing Phil's ring, to the amused outrage of his followers.
Why the universal condemnation? In part, I suspect, it has to do with the physical object itself. Basketball fans regard championship rings with special reverence. They symbolize greatness attained, and for certain players -- you know who they are -- the failure to win one is cited as a career dereliction. An NBA championship ring is totemic. The honor of touching, let alone wearing, one should be the sole prerogative of players and coaches who've conquered the game. Jeanie Buss committed the sin of demystification: she transubstantiated a sacred relic into a toy used to distract grabby children.
And that the borrower was a child, and a child celebrity, is what makes the offense so epically irritating. It's not like she loaned the ring out to Thom Yorke or Meryl Streep. If she had, this wouldn't be a story. (Granted, it's barely one now.) It's that it was Justin freaking Bieber, tow-headed purveyor of overproduced teen pop. I don't know, maybe Bieber's a perfectly nice kid. Or maybe in his free time he likes to set hobos on fire. Either way, he's a 16-year-old who, one suspects, couldn't have named a non-Kobe Laker three years ago and whose name is shorthand for an especially noxious strain of cultural triviality. Selling a bazillion iTunes downloads to musically ignorant tweens doesn't entitle you to share in Lakerdom's greatness. Or at least it wouldn't in a just world.
The privilege extended to Bieber by Jeanie Buss feels so unearned. Which is how many NBA fans, such as those embittered over the Gasol trade and those who believe the Lakers are systemically favored by league refs, feel about the team's success generally. That's why this particular feat of celebrity pandering has activated an unusual amount of ill will.
Ultimately, though, none of this changes how anyone feels about the Lakers. No one woke up yesterday morning and thought, "Wow, I had no idea famous people received special favors at Laker games. I must revise my opinion of the team in light of this new and shocking information." The organization's symbiosis with the show-biz elite has been an established fact for decades, and you can't be a fan of the team without eventually making peace with it.
But in the future, Ms. Buss, please don't encourage The Bieb. Today it's wearing Phil's ring, tomorrow he'll be begging to play a few minutes at point. Derek Fisher's bad, but there comes a time when you gotta learn to say no.
Follow Dex on Twitter, baby baby baby, @dexterfishmore.