I missed the Laker game last night.
I was checking the score updates on my phone, reacting with delight when the Lakers pulled out a 118-116 win over the Warriors. My mom attended the game, and when she texted me asking if I had heard about it, I responded emphatically—“Yes!!!” (three exclamation points—even more embarrassing in hindsight).
Only later did I discover the meaninglessness of this victory—the meaninglessness of our trudge toward the eighth seed and a probable first round exit when compared to what happened to our franchise player (sorry, Dwight) with three minutes left.
I’ve spent my life with Kobe Bean Bryant, although the closest I’ve actually come to him is a high-five by the Lakers’ tunnel that followed at least five rejections. (For the record, Lamar Odom was easily the friendliest—not surprising at all).
It’s been a mostly long-distance relationship, from the tiny Sony Trinitron at our old house to the televisions in my college dorm rooms, from streaming outlets like thefirstrow.eu, to the god almighty Slingbox, which my uncle set up on his TV so I could watch the 2010 Finals on my laptop in Europe (more on that later).
I am 19 years old, and Kobe is wearing the Purple & Gold for his 17th season. He played his first NBA game at age 18 and won three championships by age 23. With Kobe it was always about the future—how much he had already accomplished but how much time he still had left. The narrative had already shifted a few years ago, yet he kept performing at such an absurd level that I just blissfully ignored the idea of an ending. It took this injury to realize how close we really may be to closing the book on one of the greatest and most fascinating careers of any professional athlete.
I have adored Kobe, cursed Kobe, hated myself for loving him and watched his YouTube highlight reels with blissful nostalgia like Jewish mothers watch their kids’ bar and bat mitzvah montages.
He has the extraordinary ability to drive you crazy three times and make you promise to stop believing in him, only to do something so amazing the next possession that you renege on all the criticisms and promise eternal love.
A compelling book could be written on Kobe’s personality alone (actually it already has been written), but the on-court memories have stuck most.
At 21 years old, his alley-oop to Shaquille O’Neal in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals capped a 15-point fourth quarter comeback and kicked off a dynasty.
In Game 2 of that year’s Finals, he severely sprained his ankle, He returned in Game 4 and officially earned the superstar label, carrying the Lakers to an overtime victory after Shaq fouled out.
Of course, the Kobe experience hasn’t just been about the good times.
As vividly as I recall my five-year old self jumping up and down like a deranged monkey after the dynasty-starting alley-oop in 2000 (OK, moment of honesty—I still jump up and down like a deranged monkey. Just ask my suitemates how I reacted after that win over the Raptors last month), I remember sitting on the couch at my relatives’ house in Walnut Creek, Calif. and seeing the following (or something close to it) creep across the SportsCenter ticker: “Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant arrested on charges of sexual assault in Boulder, Colo.”
It was just days after my 10th birthday in 2003, and though I did not fully grasp the implications at that age, I knew it was bad. I knew he had cheated on his wife and possibly committed an act far more grim and despicable.
At that point, we thought Kobe as we knew him was over. Endorsement deals went out the window and so did Bryant’s reputation. He got let off the hook after charges were dropped, and in our justice system we presume innocence until proof of guilt. But we all know the system works a little differently for the rich and famous than it does for your neighbor. This wasn’t close to an O.J. Simpson ordeal, but questions and doubts have always lingered about the Bryant case.
Yet Kobe “redeemed” himself, which offers some insight of how strangely we evaluate redemption in our society. The idea that someone can atone for adultery or sexual assault (if sexual assault is what transpired) by marvelously dunking, dribbling and shooting a basketball is just a little bit screwed up. OK, massively screwed up.
Regardless, Kobe took his game to the next level, racking up 40 and 50-point games while Smush Parker and Kwame Brown did Smush Parker and Kwame Brown things and Luke Walton allegedly had a fling with post-shaved-head-breakdown Britney Spears.
Seeing a man who’s given his life to basketball like Kobe has go down on a move he’s made hundreds of times in his career is brutal and unfair. Yet it reminded me of just how lucky Kobe and all Laker fans have been. Specifically, it reminded me of the 2010 NBA Finals against the Celtics, a.k.a. the series I watched from my laptop in Scandinavia.
I drove my parents nuts the whole trip by waking up at 2 a.m. to rejoice and seethe at my screen, then dozing or daydreaming during our vacation days together.
The 2010 Finals were the most important of any to Kobe’s legacy. No one doubted his status among the all-time greats, but he had lost two championship series prior to the 2009 win over Orlando. A loss to Boston would not make three of four.
Game 7 of the Finals happened to coincide with an overnight train ride my family was making from Tromso, Norway to Stockholm, Sweden. The train had no WiFi, so I would have to watch the most important Laker game in a decade on delay. My poor parents and brother had to deal with me for about 10 hours in a sleeping car through northern Scandinavia. Thankfully they and I could actually sleep through some of it.
When we arrived at the Stockholm train station, I shielded my eyes and ears like a four-year-old at a horror movie. I thought I would be safe from overhearing anything about NBA basketball in Scandinavia, only to see a “Boston Sports Bar” nestled in the corner of the train station. Ah, the wonders of globalization.
Alas, we made it to our hotel room without hearing the score (a fact that shocks me to this day—for those out there who’ve tried recording a game and watching it without first hearing or seeing the outcome, you know it’s impossible. I don’t care if you’re in Los Angeles, Stockholm, or the place in Antarctica where they did Kate Upton’s swimsuit shoot, you’re going to absent-mindedly check Facebook, your texts or one of a gajillion other technological distractions).
In Game 7, Kobe shot 6 for 24. He was absolutely, positively dreadful.
In fact, I don’t remember a worse playoff performance from the Mamba beside the 1997 conference semifinals, when he hoisted three airballs in overtime at Utah. And my “memory” of that Jazz game is really quite inauthentic, since I probably couldn’t even spell Kobe’s name at three years old.
But Kobe was saved from self-destructing a legacy he had built, tarnished and rebuilt all over again by Ron Artest. For how he’s turned his life around and become an activist for mental health causes, I’m a huge Artest/World Peace supporter. In a Laker uniform, however, Ron/Metta has underachieved in almost every outing beside that Game 7, when he scored 20 points and drained his trademark hesitation three that usually makes us Laker fans skip a heartbeat.
The Lakers also appeared to care on defense for the first time all season in Game 7, winning in the type of low-scoring, slug-it-out style that is sportswriter nirvana and incredible boredom for normal human beings. Finally, they had Gasol, Odom and a healthy Bynum, a big man core that didn’t provide the power or personality of Shaq but got the job done.
The 2012-13 Lakers were supposed to have a supporting cast on par with the units from 2000-02 and 2008-10. Instead, it became the Kobe show like we’ve never seen it before. At 34 years old, with over 53,000 minutes played and averaging over 38 per night this season, he was scoring (and passing!) with more efficiency than ever.
In a sad twist of fate, this all-time legend might have been having his most impressive season in the midst of a moderately pathetic hunt for the West’s final playoff spot.
One-of-a-kind is a horribly overused and nonsensical term because all humans are inherently one-of-a-kind. But when it comes to Kobe Bean Bryant, who has been both Satan and God to Laker fans in the past 17 years, I can’t come up with a better description. He’s had so many adjectives and so many identities, from Kobe the next Jordan to Kobe the young and arrogant champion to Kobe the older and even more arrogant gunner to Kobe the champion-again to this season—and how does one even describe Kobe this season?
Hopefully all of what I’ve written here will become irrelevant. Hopefully this is all preemptive and stupid and over-reactionary. Hopefully Kobe returns in time for 2013-14 training camp in full Black Mamba form.
We already saw the end of one Laker era when Jerry Buss passed away earlier this year. I’m not nearly ready to see the end of the Kobe era.