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Opinion First Kareem, then Kobe: Why Muslim fans loved the Lakers

A Kobe Bryant fan holds a sign thanking him for his 20 years during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City on Monday. (AP/Alonzo Adams)
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I inherited the Lakers like I inherited Islam.

My dad, like many Muslims of his generation, attached himself to the Los Angeles team. It was a striking decision, because we were in Massachusetts. But reasonable. They had Muslim players, a roster with which we could feign some kind of connection. Jamaal Wilkes. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

I have dim memories of 1987. Magic somehow getting the ball to Worthy before careening out of bounds; the Forum going totally bonkers. I kind of remember 1988. I have vague recollections of 1989 and 1991. That was my father’s Lakers.

Kobe Bryant was my Lakers. And now he’s gone.

Kobe Bryant drops 60 points on the Jazz in incredible farewell performance

I didn’t think, watching his final game, that it would hurt so bad. That I would be actually, palpably, awfully sad. Not a dull background ache, but a piercing wound, a grave sense of loss, the ominous emptiness that comes when someone you know and cared for is leaving, a sensation you can only understand if someone you know and cared for has left you.

If lots of people have left you.

When I saw Kobe on my screen this one last time, in that DayGlo yellow and ridiculous purple, a color combination that only looks good on multimillionaire athletes of superhuman ability, I felt wistful and vulnerable. As we get older, we find fewer threads that can still stitch us together. Wednesday night, I lost one of the last ones I still had.

That court, those banners, that logo —they’ve been with me for all of my life. He kind of has too. Which is funny. I don’t even know Kobe, and unlike those players my father watched, he is not Muslim. If I met him, what the hell would we talk about?

I only ever watched him live in the second game of the 2004 finals, when his last-second heroics carried the Lakers to overtime and a win, tying the series. Then they went to Detroit and lost the next three games. And that wasn’t the worst part — in the aftermath, the entire Lakers team fell apart in mutual recrimination. Kobe stuck around.

A text from my brother told me I could watch Kobe’s last game on ESPN.com. Though I got the message at nearly midnight, I was compelled by the weight of memory to leave my warm bed and sit down in the dark, to watch him one more time.

Twenty-three points in the fourth quarter. The last 17 Lakers points, and an assist for the final Lakers basket. His last points were free throws, like his first point ever.

But I knew that would be the end. He was exhausted on the bench. Panting. That’s what hurts so bad. We have just so much time to make something out of ourselves. To hold onto what we should. To let go of what we should.

To hope to God we know the difference.

When Kobe Bryant started out, I was 16. Never been on a date, kissed a girl, gotten a speeding ticket. The Lakers in previous years had been earnest but feckless. Kobe’s arrival promised that we might go back to the showtime my father and brother spoke so fervently of. Only two years older than me, he was the Mahdi to Shaquille O’Neal’s Messiah. We believed. We held on. How someone is religious tells you how they’ll be a fan.

I graduated high school, then college. I went to and dropped out of law school. I started and finished graduate school. I moved all around Manhattan, then to Philadelphia, Islamabad, Arlington, Dubai and back to Brooklyn. I wrote a book about an Arab Spring, and there was another Arab Spring. Nobody bought the book, and the dictators and the terrorists won. For now.

I have two nephews and a niece. I got married. I got divorced. I got remarried. I’ve got a mother-in-law who just started a WhatsApp group asking me when she’s going to be a grandmother.

In 2004, when Derek Fisher hit that absurd, impossible shot with tenths of a second left, my brother, father and I screamed so loud we woke up my mother, who rushed out of her bedroom to make sure nobody had gravely injured themselves. She joined us to watch replays. She had cancer. She was already unconscious when I got to the hospital, two years later. She died on Valentine’s Day. She didn’t see Kobe beat the Celtics in a wrenching game 7 at Staples Center, what is the single greatest achievement a Laker can dream of. Defeating Sauron on your own territory.

I thought when I entered college that I might become a physicist, but I also loved philosophy and had a thing for Czech culture. But the extremists attacked and it’s been September 12 for the rest of my life. My entire life is a search for an answer, and anger at the question.

Only now, after a horrible breakdown, a marriage that cratered, a life that ground to a halt, I know what I want to be when I grow up. A storyteller. Except I did it backwards, because I grew up first.

For all those years, I changed and despaired and changed. But Kobe, he played in the same uniform. For the same team. My team. Whenever I could, living mostly on the East Coast, I stayed up to watch the Lakers.

Yes, it was often easy to be a fan. Seven finals, five titles. The statistics alone are mind-boggling. But what do I envy Kobe most?

That he knew what he wanted. That he had the chance to do it. That he was so good at it. I have never bought this ridiculous nonsense that if you just work hard enough, you achieve. Very few people are Kobe Bryant, after all. Most of us are the tens of thousands of people gathered to watch, standing in seats or huddled over screens.

A friend once asked me if I could have dinner with anyone at all, who would it be? And I wondered if I should meet my high school self. Warn him. Advise him. But I don’t think I’d recognize him, or he me.

But some things don’t change. There was Kobe on Wednesday night, draining baskets like he did when I was still in high school. The fans on their feet. That brilliant, gorgeous, stunning arena, so bright and so storied, once again the center of the basketball universe.

Pure magic. The future open. The possibilities endless. Like life is before you start to live it. We believed, for that moment, that this was not really the end, that it’d be like it used to be, him hitting shots that should be geometrically impossible. If he could pull off 60 now, then he should stick around — if not for him then for us, dammit.

Then I could believe that life doesn’t just go by, that I’m not nearly his age and still wondering if I’ll ever get to do the things I want to do. If he can still do it, maybe one day I will. As a great green teacher once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” There never was for Kobe.

Thank you for 20 unbelievable years, Kobe Bryant.

If you’re ever in Brooklyn, let me know. There’s a great burger spot. I tell good stories.

Bring Kareem too. It’s halal.

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