SLAM Radio’s finest has relocated to New Orleans. He was in the building for Kobe Bryant’s fourth straight 50+ scoring night on Friday.
As I leave my office and walk the 5 blocks to the New Orleans Arena, I’m getting more and more amped. Not only am I on my way to pick up my first SLAM press credential, aka backstage pass for the Hornets game (big up Lang & Susan), but Kobe Bryant, aka Black Mamba, aka Crazy 8, is in town on his way into the history books. Many questions run through my head: Can he hang another 50 on us tonight? Can the Hornets withstand his momentum? And can I sit wherever I want?
You have to go through essentially the back door if you’re media, and I walk all the way around the arena until I reach the loading dock. As I head in, I think of that old MJ commercial where he’s making his steely approach. Wow, here we go.
Inside, I pick up the pass and hit the media dining room. There’s an assortment of media-types in there, eating from a pretty average buffet. I’m not sure what Russ’s normal scale is, but in this capital of rich cuisine, I give it a C. I get some chicken and potatoes and take a root beer from the cooler.
Security guards don’t give me a second look and I start wandering around. It’s a little like backstage at a circus, with the color guard kids and dance teams milling around, assorted people in Hornets gear looking official, I guess. I stroll into the N.O. locker room.
Man, is it ever cramped. I always figured these places were huge, but I don’t know how you’d fit 12 large dudes in here. For now, it’s Devin Brown and David West, chatting with some reporters. I stand there a minute, don’t really know what else to do, then exit and head to the Lakers’ locker. Inside, I see Kobe getting taped in the trainer’s room, and Lamar Odom talking to some people. Aaron “Blue” McKie is chilling, which he does a lot these days, and Luke Walton does Luke Walton things. Again, I glance at the TV, then make my way out.
During shootaround, I sit down next to a standing Willis Reed, who’s with the Hornets front office now. It’s crazy: here’s the guy whose name comes up in every discussion of clutch in sports, and he’s hanging with an usher, talking basketball. Pretty cool.
Lang sends me a text telling me to send his regards to CP3. I go back to the Hornets locker room, dudes are starting to filter in. I ask Louisiana native Brandon Bass how he’s doing. He says his family is chilling in Baton Rouge, everyone made it through the storm fine. I ask what he thinks about former LSU teammate Big Baby going pro.
“I don’t know. You from SLAM, what do you think?” I tell him he might as well, then ask if they kick media out of here at some point. He says they’re about to watch film.
CP3 enters and we talk for a minute. Sounds like he’s been pretty busy in the one day back in New Orleans for this, the final game in the city for the year. We recall SLAM radio and his man Lang’s gambling problem, then I’m out. Really cool dude.
I get lost exiting though, and end up in some hallway. An assistant coach asks where I’m going, and I say, “I’m just trying to get outta here.” I hear Byron Scott laugh and give him a “Y’heardme?” Yes, he did.
Courtside, I text Lang back: “This is nuts.”
As I can’t find an assigned seat in the press rows, I head back to the media room, steeled for battle. Inside, Hornets owner George Shinn stands tall amidst 15 or so reporters. One female is on her knees in front of him with her mike pointing up, kinda weird.
Shinn tries to run his whole, “we-held-up-our-end, you-hold-up-yours,” routine. Hey, get in line, pal. There are a few hundred thousand people in it, and none of them are getting what was promised from the state and local bums, either. He says he’s frustrated but hopeful, though he does say New Orleans is “technically our home.” Sort of an odd way to put it, right?
I ask some young ladies from the Hornets where I’m supposed to sit, and am told to take a spot at the table in section 120. I walk back out and sit in the row immediately behind the press tables along the baseline. This ain’t quite right, I think.
The introductions start, KB24 is getting mad love, there are a ton of Lakers jerseys in the crowd. When the lights go down and the Hornets are introduced, the place is insanely loud and I realize how much focus a player must have to compete at the bottom of a bowl like this, with the noise and glare. Mascot Hugo the Hornet is all over the place. Today I noticed an ad on the Hornets website for a mascot position. Wonder what that’s all about.
During the national anthem, a rough looking couple in Lakers gear makes some noise from about 15 rows back. Dad looks like K-Fed, Mom appears straight up crunk, and they’ve died the kid’s hair purple. With all of us standing for the anthem, Mom yells, I think, “We love you L.O.!” Kind of remind me of Mets fans, actually, and Lamar is from Queens. Who knows? Man do I have a dope seat, though.
-L.O. hits first two of the game.
-Tyson Chandler tip-in, as usual.
-Smush hits a 2, Hornets miss, and Kobe wets a pretty jumper. I’m at the Laker end, by the way. On their next fast break, KB8 nearly ends up in my lap.
-Kwame and Tyson are battling. I guess at this point we can say Tyson ended up the better high school-to-pros big man. I mean, unless some of you still thinking Kwame will figure it out. Not I.
-DWest misses. I wonder if he’s really gonna be CP3’s guy or what.
-Kobe has the turnaround working so cleanly now. 13-11, Lakers. Byron has Devin the Dude on him. I like Devin, but if a guy who couldn’t find any time off the Spurs bench is in charge of halting history, I’m a little worried. Of course, it’s also a compliment to S.A.
-KB8 hits another turnaround with ease. Not good. Or, rather, very good? Chris pushes the ball up, though, and hits for 17-15.
-Kwame drops two, Tyson goes right back at him, misses, KB8 misses. Wow, the guy down the row from me sure likes him, though. “Go KOBE!” on every possession. Relax, bra.
-Again, Kobe hits and Chris pushes it to the other end, 21-19.
-I’m asked to move because actual ticket-holders have my seat. I take a seat at the other end of the row, and have to fend off an elderly usher lady, who’s getting suspicious. I keep pointing to my credential. Like a vet!
-With 2 minutes to go, L.O. hits a nice floater, 27-23.
-CP3 hits from the top of the key, KB8 is fouled on a 3 attempt. Hits them while being seriously booed. I mean, how long will that last? There’s a different feeling tonight, a tightness in the crowd every time he gets the ball. What will he do next? Kobe of course, looks anything but tight, calmly moving the ball to teammates and taking picture perfect shots. He can do anything he wants next.
-1st Q ends, 31-29. Hugo does some trampoline dunks.
-I get kicked out of my seat again during the break, and now there’s nowhere for me. Man. I hustle back to the media room and a guy shows me where to go, the tables at the top of the first section. When I get up there, there’s a couple of dudes without notepads and on the table are stickers from illustrious publications in front of empty chairs: Pontchatoula Times, WDAM-TV. Damnnnn! I sit down in the slot for the B. Scott Show, the reporter’s name, ironically: Ryan Doyle (my given is Brian Boyles). Oh well, at least now I can set up my laptop.
-It’s now 41-36 Lakers. On the floor I had received a print out with 1st Q stats. Kobe had 13, and he misses now to stay at 19. That’s about the pace we’re looking for.
-Tyson is fouled but his put back doesn’t count. Sasha Vujacic does the Deke finger wag. A lot is lost in translation, I guess, but someone ought straighten him out. On the other end, Sasha does hit a three.
-Kobe’s cooled down this quarter, I think…and then, WHAM he breaks loose for a fierce dunk. 48-43 Lakers.
-Rasual Butler hits a three, KB8 draws a foul on a jumper at the other end, does not throw out his leg or elbow. I guess if Peja were healthy…
-Huh, Kareem’s not on the Laker bench. He’s always only sort of a coach, right?
-With 2 minutes left, Kobe has 25. He’s hit some smooth shots, but nothing forced. The other guys have gotten their shots, with Walton looking healthy. That’s a big part of the streak so far: Odom and Walton are just getting back in, the Lakers had a bad losing streak, and whenever it’s necessary, the Lakers can simply switch on this scoring machine. Kobe’s ease at getting the 25 reminds you that he can do this whenever he wants, but if the other guys still get theirs, LA wins and viva la triangle.
-Devin Brown hits a 3, CP3 steals and makes a free throw, KB8 wet from the elbow. 56-53 Lakers.
-Sasha Mutumbo misses two 3’s in a row.
-D Mase scores on the break, Sasha misses another 3, and Marc Jackson is fouled, seems to have some words for everyone. He sure is loud for a horse whisperer, hits 1 of 2 and we go into halftime, 57-56 Hornets.
-I’m hungry, and when I don’t eat, I turn into Andy Reid’s sons. The halftime entertainment: Quick Change. Hey, that’s one of my favorite movies! But this isn’t Bill Murray and Randy Quaid, it’s a husband-wife team performing MAGICAL TRANSFORMATIONS, i.e. changing their clothes in the blink of an eye. Yeah, I need a hot dog.
-And I guess I will have an RC Cola, as that’s my only option. Wow, someone better warn T-Mac about New Orleans RC Cola problem.
-When I get back to my table, the woman magician has changed from blonde to brunette, and the man is in jeans. That is some magic, alright.
-D-Mase with an up and under.
-Kobe draws a foul. RC Cola fouls me.
-Dev the Dude still on KB8. I guess the 27 1st half points were OK with Lord Byron.
-David West misses, Kobe gets fouled on the break. Hits more FT’s.
-Kwame and Smush both score for LA, Hornets TO, 70-61 Lakers. Hugo the Hornet does a quick change. Sort of ill to mock them like that, Hugo.
-Walton scores on consecutive possessions, Bynum hits a nice put back, and Kobe hits a scoop for 39 points. At 78-65, we’re in danger of a blowout, which might put KB8 on the bench too early. The Hornets play tough every game, though, and I can’t see them letting this thing get outta hand. After the timeout, Kobe’s still in there.
-If the Hornets make the playoffs, they play their games in Oklahoma City. Huh.
-Bynum hits a jump hook. He’s a lot better than Kwame already.
-Kobe hits an easy 2 from the wing, 42 points, 87-69. On his next possession, he misses on a quick shot from the top of the key. I could call it a bad shot, but when you’re on a tear like this, can anyone blame you for overconfidence? He’s shooting over 50% in this stretch, and nothing really seems impossible. Might as well jack it up, right? Anyway, Kobe sits to a mix of boos and cheers. Lakers are up 87-71 and there’s a palpable letdown in the crowd. He’s gotta come back and make a run at it, right?
-CP3 makes a quick pass underneath to Mason, cuts the lead to 12. CP3 is even better than when I saw him pre-injury at the beginning of the season. He pushes the ball more consistently, and moves it even faster.
-Kobe’s back with 30 seconds left in the half, sort of a weird move, but at least we know he’s not done.
-End of the quarter, emcee Rob Nice promises us all free Sunkist at the exits after the game. Good lookin, Nice. This place is bad soda heaven.
-4th quarter starts off with traveling calls on both ends. CP3 hits a nice teardrop. It’s like we’re all rooting for the Hornets so we can root for Kobe. The closer they make it, the longer he stays in, the better shot we have at seeing history.
-During a timeout, they show a highlight film of Hugo the Hornet, to that song that goes, “It’s times like these you learn to love again.” Yeah, I guess we’ll heal up this region on the blue wings of a bee.
-Ohhhhh, my fault: Hugo’s retiring! Yep, Shinn and some officials show up at midcourt, and there’s Hugo out of costume with his wife and kids. Michael Zerrillo is his real name, and he’s been with the team since 1990, back when the Hornets were in Charlotte. According to the announcer, Zerrillo is a 3-time mascot dunk champ, an athlete and entertainer who “literally changed the role of mascots” with his dunks. Shinn gives some compliments and the crowd does a partial standing O, me included. Respek, Hugo, and good luck in the future.
-Back to the game. Vujacic finally hits a 3. David West banks on the other end, it’s 90-79 Lakers.
-Kobe misses a 3, CP3 pushes it again, hits a layup, cuts the lead to 9. As long as the lead stays under double digits, we’re gonna see 50.
-Someone comes by the table and hands out sheets of paper: Tonight’s paid attendance of 18,535 is an Arena record. The old record: 18,509, 1/15/03, vs. the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. Thanks, Kobe, we can sure use the biz.
-Vujacic misses another three. CP3 hits a long baseline jumper.
-They’re doubling Kobe now. He picks up a looseball foul and my girl’s favorite, Jannero Pargo, hits a three. He fouls Kobe on the other end, KB8 drops 2, we’re looking at 46 points, 94-86.
-Pargo hits another 3. Kobe comes back down, gets fouled. He forced it that time, but it was necessary, and the two FT’s make it 48 points.
-Tyson gets yet another put back, cuts the lead to 6.
-Kobe hits a long jumper, and the crowd goes nuts. We’ve just seen night 4 of 50 points. It’s fitting that he hits such a pretty shot, cause that’s what did it tonight. He kept pouring it in from midrange, and got to the line when necessary. It’s a precise 50, totally cold-blooded.
-The Hornets hang tough another minute, but with 3 minutes left, people begin to depart, the Lakers up by 10. After a Pargo garbage 3, the final score ends up 111-105.
It takes me a little while to get back beneath the stands, and when I get there, reporters stand around the door to the Lakers locker room, a lot of them national media who are only there to cover the Kobe show. Marc Spears from the Denver Post is a really big dude.
When Phil Jackson emerges, the whole crew moves as one and surrounds him. He has his back against the wall, but he’s tall enough that everyone can see him. Someone asks if there was any kind of let down when KB8 was out. He says, well, he was only out a minute. There’s some comparison to MJ, then Phil’s done. Last question: had he ever seen a mascot retired? Phil laughs, says he’s never seen anything like that.
Then everyone floods the locker room, but only Lamar Odom, Smush, Walton, and Jordan Farmer are in there, and the reporters either talk to Lamar or stand around like me. I ask Walton how he’s feeling (“Good, having fun”) and if they’re staying in New Orleans tonight (“No, back to LA). He kinda reminds me of someone I’d barely know in college. When he sits down, a few reporters come to him and he asks, “OK, who wants to talk about Kobe?”
Lamar just whispers and looks a little trapped. I want to ask him if he was rooting for UNLV, then I remember he never went there, just had that “incident” when visiting. Smush looks like he’s 19, and the jeans with the beach scene embroidery don’t help. Finally, those guys split and we wait for Kobe. I don’t know, something about this kind of anticipation reminds me of waiting for a girl to flash on Bourbon Street. Like, we know what we’re about to get and it borders on awkward the way we’re getting it. Make sense?
When Kobe comes out, already in a suit (don’t know where he changed), the gang nearly jumps him to get good position. He speaks barely above a whisper, says he feels great, and no, he’s not aware how many points he has while he’s scoring them. One good question: did you ever meet Wilt? Kobe thinks it over, says he did a couple times, I’m guessing in Philly, when he was 7 or 8 years old. At that point, he admits, he only knew Wilt from the Conan the Destroyer movie. I thought that was pretty honest of him. He seems very relaxed, like he’s proving everyone wrong and doesn’t have to act cocky about it. In a way, it’s like we’re getting the real Kobe by getting him as a 50 point scorer—he doesn’t have to defend himself or pretend that it doesn’t matter, that he’s normal. Obviously he’s on an insane run, and the craziest thing is how easy he’s making it look. Like the 81 points, this is Kobe making history, and that seems to be what he’s always wanted to do.
I guess that’s what the MVP debate comes down to for me. I love Dirk and Nash, and they may be just as valuable to their teams. But tell me this: do you ever think, wow, I’m so lucky to see Nash distribute or Dirk revise the big man’s possibilities? On the other hand, I’ll always be able to say that I saw Kobe during this streak. What he’s doing is without parallel, and he’s doing it after his team nearly slid out of the playoff picture. I don’t see how he can play at this level, at this point in the season, and NOT be called the MVP. Otherwise, that title seems a little hollow to me.
Anyway, I split before he’s done, and make my way down the hall. I see CP3 and Byron talking to some people, so I figure the Hornets locker room has emptied out. Out on the loading dock, a crowd waits behind the barrier, hollers when Phil walks past. That’s about it for the circus, I figure, though I’m reluctant to give my access. I mill around a little, then walk outside and past all the TV trucks, technicians swarming around, wrapping up cords. It’s warm, probably 70 degrees.
Man, I think, that was some night.