LOS ANGELES — When it became clear that the Los Angeles Lakers would clinch their 17th NBA Championship, Josemaria Esteban began to cry tears of joy.
The 38-year-old registered nurse in Northridge is a lifelong fan of the Lakers and, in particular, an admirer of the late great Kobe Bryant.
“I was beyond excited when it became clear that the Lakers would get their 17th Championship. It’s not an uncommon moment for Lakers fans since they’re one of the best teams in all of pro sports but to get it this year felt special,” Esteban told the Asian Journal in a recent phone interview.
Filipinos Americans across the Southland erupted in cheers during Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday, October 11 when the Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 106-93 to emerge the victors of quite possibly the most unusual NBA season in history.
It was easily one of the least contentious games of the series with the Lakers leading by double digits throughout most of the game, but the gravity of what an NBA Championship feels like for the population of Lakers fans across the world was like a Richter-breaking earthquake.
Throughout the longest season of NBA history — which was extended due to the cancellation of the season after the COVID-19 pandemic and its return to the infamous COVID-19-free “bubble” in Orlando, Florida — the Lakers played with a chip on their shoulder.
Following the death of Bryant, the organization and fans alike felt a collective pulsating sorrow. As previously covered in the Asian Journal, Bryant was a legend, his jersey numbers 8 and 24 becoming emblems of hard work, tenacity and unrequited love for the game across the globe.
Bryant resembled hope and strength of will, and in the immediate aftermath of his passing, fans across the world saw it as a cruel and confusing resolution to one of the most revered legacies in all of sports.
But as teammate Anthony Davis said in a post-game interview, the spirit of Bryant continued to inspire the team even when hope felt far away.
“Kobe and Gianna’s legacy will last forever,” Davis said after Game 6. “It will impact lives around the world in positive ways, and this Lakers championship in 2020 is partly to build on that legacy and honor them. The moment couldn’t be any more special to do that for them.”
“He would come to the game and just tell us, ‘This is y’all year. This is y’all year. Go out and take it,’” Davis added. “He had a lot of confidence in our team. He had a lot of confidence in our organisation to go out there and win it this year.”
On Sunday, the Lakers not only tied their rivals, the Boston Celtics, in NBA Championships with 17 titles apiece, but since the beginning of the new millennium, the Lakers have one the NBA Championship: 2000, 2010 and now 2020.
For a whole coterie of younger Lakers fans, this championship-winning roster could signal a new stage for the Lakers, a team that is marked by dynasties the Showtime! era in the 1980s to the colossus of the early aughts 3-peat era with Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to the back-to-back title wins in 2009 and 2010 during Bryant’s Mamba Mentality period.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get used to a new roster of your favorite team since you feel so personally tethered to certain players, but this current roster with Anthony Davis and [team captain] Lebron James feels like the start of a new era,” said Hilario Gomez, an Orange County-based physical therapist who has been a Lakers fan since the 1990s.
“I think this is a new team that will bring new excitement and new things to celebrate for younger generations of Filipino fans, and I think that the impact that players like Davis have could be similar to the impact that Kobe had globally,” Gomez said.
Gomez also talked about the Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, who is half-Filipino and, for the last decade, has been making a name for himself as one of the best coaches of all time.
“Obviously I wanted the Lakers to win. But if Miami had won, I wouldn’t have been totally bummed because of [Spoelstra]. I feel very proud that he’s a Pinoy and he’s actually done a lot for Filipinos in basketball, and it would be amazing to see him win another title. Just not against the Lakers,” Gomez added with a laugh.
“We always talk about Lakers-Celtics and their rivalry, but there’s also now a Lakers-Heat rivalry so going into this series was exciting,” said Gomez, who nearly joined the post-game rally at Staples Center.
“I live alone so I’ve been watching all these post-season games alone so after Game 6 I just felt this adrenaline and this need to be with people who were also hyped up after the game,” Gomez said.
Angelenos are famous for partaking in raucous celebrations following the victory of all teams in LA, especially the Lakers. Historically, fans would take to Downtown LA to cause traffic, flip cars, vandalize property — all in the name of LA sports pride.
But not all fans celebrated the Lakers 17th championship title with theatrics.
The rally on Sunday night — which began with chants of “Kobe! Kobe!” to the arrest of 76 rowdy fans — was too out of the bounds of social distancing for Gomez.
“I like to think that Kobe and even the rest of the Lakers team wouldn’t want us breaking social distancing,” he said. “The bubble in Orlando operated for all these months with thousands of people and came out with not one COVID-19 case. I think that’s the standard we should follow.”
For one Filipino American, in particular, the NBA Finals provided a return to comfort and relief.
“This is what we needed this year, after losing Kobe and then being thrown into the pandemic and the cancellation of sports,” said Annalynn Rosario, a graphic designer from Lakewood.
In June, Rosario lost her father to COVID-19, a moment that punctuated the continuing dread in the age of the coronavirus. After Game 6, she teared up watching the players’ interviews and watched quietly, thinking about her father the whole time.
“He was a real inspiration in my life, and he was really the one who influenced me in terms of being a Laker fan because he was obsessed with them growing up,” Rosario, 35, shared, adding that her father “would’ve been overjoyed [at the Lakers’ win on Sunday] if he were here.”
“He’s been a fan since he came to the U.S. in the early 1980s so he witnessed Magic Johnson and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and got to see Kobe’s career from beginning to end. But what was awesome was that he was a fan through and through and supported the team even when they weren’t doing so well,” Rosario said.
Speaking about her father’s affinity for the Lakers brought emotions back for Rosario, who admitted to still having a difficult time coping with the death of her father. But Sunday’s game felt like a moment of closure for her, that the Lakers winning felt like a soft, welcoming cushion of solace after months of uncertain freefall.
“I like to think my dad is in Heaven. Maybe he watched the game from above with Kobe and [his daughter] Gigi and they celebrated,” she added. “I wish my dad was here to watch the game with me and to experience all this with me, but as we kind of all felt when Kobe died, people who physically pass away don’t really leave us.”