Disparate realities on MLK Day in LA

Disparate realities on MLK Day in LA

Published Jan. 17, 2012 9:38 a.m. ET

LOS ANGELES — It is not often that Avery Johnson, coach of the woebegone New Jersey Nets, can manage a smile these days. But as he spoke proudly of the examples set by Martin Luther King Jr. that still resonate — about the power of sacrifice, commitment, treating others with respect and handling adversity — Johnson could not help but grin.

Later in the day, Lakers forward Matt Barnes eloquently addressed the assembly at Staples Center, reminding everyone that there is still progress to be made toward realizing King's dream and urging the crowd to take his teachings to heart.

These were but two poignant snapshots on a day that has become an NBA holiday, a day-long, nationally televised celebration of two cornerstones of African-American culture: pro basketball and King's legacy.

And, yet, in this corner of the basketball universe, thanks to a quirk in scheduling — or was it another bit of programming? — there was another underlying storyline.

Call it MLKardashian Day.

The Clippers' uninspiring 101-91 matinee victory over the Nets was noteworthy for two reasons: how ordinary the home team looked without point guard Chris Paul, who was resting a strained hamstring, and the venom directed at the former Mr. Kim Kardashian, New Jersey forward Kris Humphries, who drew boos at every mention of his name.

The Lakers' dramatic, if ghastly, 73-70 victory over the Dallas Mavericks — won by Derek Fisher's 3-pointer on a night the teams combined to shoot 5-of-36 from behind the arc — also marked the return to Los Angeles of Mr. Khloe Kardashian. Lamar Odom not only remains in good standing with his former Lakers teammates (who greeted him with hugs and game-long banter) and the home crowd (who welcomed him with a standing ovation), but unlike Mr. Humphries, he has not been excommunicated from America's First Family of Vacuity.

That meant only during the nightcap did a Mrs. Kardashian parade along the courtside aisle, sometimes being escorted by her stepfather, Bruce Jenner, as she made her way in high-heeled boots to a seat alongside Jeanie Buss, the daughter of the Lakers owner and girlfriend of former coach Phil Jackson. Tracking every step was an E! cameraman.

That entrance was demure compared to the one by the family's mother hen, with Kris Jenner hauling a Lakers purple handbag (oh, the attention to detail) and a pair of cameramen, another attendant maneuvering a boom mike and another checking the sound as she made her entrée onto the court during warm-ups to give Dallas owner Mark Cuban a hug.

Witnessing this, it is easy to imagine the soundtrack to their reality shows being the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" — We're so pretty, oh so pretty, vacant . . . And we don't care.

Of course, to know this would require watching and, well, life is too short.

If there is an owner in sports who understands this allure, it is surely Cuban, something of a cartoon character himself, fist-bumping his players and singing along with pop songs from a seat behind the bench.

During the NBA Finals, fans in Miami drew a laugh from Cuban by holding up a huge cutout of his face. Humphries was taunted by fans in Toronto recently with cardboard cutouts of Kim Kardashian, who married and divorced Humphries in a 72-day span during the lockout, a reception similar to what he gets in every visiting arena.

"Utah was nice," Humphries said with a smirk.

"That's just part of the fun," said Cuban, who traded Humphries to New Jersey two years ago. "I go lots of places where I get booed. I walk into arenas and the whole place is going, ‘Cuban sucks, Cuban sucks,' and that's part of the fun. If it was some other people I might feel bad for him. But I'm sure Kris uses it as motivation."

Cuban then had some advice.

"I would have said, ‘You want to make a lot more money?' " the owner said with smile. "Change your number to 72."

A recent Nielsen and E-Poll Market Research survey determined that Humphries has replaced LeBron James as the most disliked player in the NBA, a remarkable achievement considering not just the level of enmity James has constructed but that he had actually, you know, done something. Humphries is a 26-year-old journeyman power forward who last season established career highs of 8.1 points and 6.4 rebounds.

The Pavlovian booing of Humphries seemed like bullying at times Monday, such as when he shot an airball (well, that drew cheers) and when he was posterized by Blake Griffin — not for one of Griffin's dunks but for one of his own, a powerful two-handed effort that Griffin swooped in to take away from him. (The referees spoiled the fun by whistling Griffin for a foul, though there appeared to be none.)

"Down the road, I'd like somebody to explain to me why he gets booed," said Johnson, the Nets coach.

Among those booing vigorously was Scott Brahe, a robust middle-aged man seated about 20 rows behind the Nets bench with his friend, Bill Herd.

"We like to cheer achievement," Brahe said. "He didn't marry an infamous person. He married a famous person. It's goal-oriented behavior."

Herd noted the booing was a classic example of group behavior, where there was security in socially acceptable behavior. But he was not quite apologetic. "He's a mediocre athlete and he's famous — for what?" Herd said.

Interestingly, though, Humphries persevered, like the Nets themselves, who rallied from an 18-point deficit to tie the score midway through the fourth quarter. He scored 12 of his 14 points in the final quarter and finished with seven rebounds before fouling out when Griffin delivered a final ignominy. Griffin locked arms with Humphries when they were battling for position for a rebound and then dragged him to the floor, hoodwinking the referees into whistling Humphries for his sixth foul.

The boos that serenaded him to the bench were raucous, but Humphries insisted it did not bother him.

"Naw, I love it," He said. "I don't want people to cheer for me when I go on the road. We have our fans in Jersey. If they want to boo and yell, that's just more motivation for us on the road."

There was no such treatment for Odom a few hours later. Instead, he was greeted with what seemed to be a several-hour-long group hug. He embraced childhood friend Ron Artest — and who wouldn't wrap their arms around World Peace? Odom joked with Kobe Bryant, drew a laugh from Matt Barnes and even smiled when there was a video tribute to him during a timeout.

"Surreal" is how Odom described his return to Los Angeles after having asked Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak to trade him when a deal in which he was sent to New Orleans was nixed by the NBA.

Afterward, he was happy it was out of the way.

"Now it won't feel weird coming back here," Odom said.

No, not here, not on this long day of basketball, where the weird was just reality.