by Michael Tillery

Last night was a great game. The Wizards honored the 1962-63 Chicago Zephyrs, so the game had a nostalgic feel. Just so you know, Jack McMahon, Bob Leonard and Walt Bellamy (who put up almost 28 points per game) all coached the Zephyrs.
Chicago's team
Kobe signed a mob of autographs pre-game, which again is great to see outside of Philly. Gilbert worked out during warm-ups and looked good knocking down jumpers from everywhere but didn’t play. The Wizards are not going to take any chances on bringing him back until he’s 300 percent. The Lakers led by 20 and seemed to be headed to another Los Angeles blow-out until Caron Butler (26 and nine rips), Antawn Jamison (15 and 12) and Andray Blatche (18 and 12) showed up. Nick Young had 13, and Antonio Daniels had 10.

Kobe missed the second of two free throws giving Caron Butler one more shot. Butler missed a three at the buzzer that would have sent the game into overtime.

Before the free throw attempts, Kobe made this sick 17-footer off glass that turned out to be his signature moment of the game. He’s the only player in the League who I would trust with taking the last shot of the game because I know he gives you the best chance at making it. Andrew Bynum had 19 and 10. Pau Gasol had 17 and 10. Vladimir Radmonovic had 14—4-7 from behind the arc. Jordan Farmar had 11, including a nice two-handed dunk off the break. Fisher had 10. Most were clutch baskets. The Lakers shot exactly 50 percent inside and outside of the arc, while the Wizards were 40 percent beyond and 45 percent inside.

Two interviews. Kobe and Lamar Odom.

SLAM: Kobe, you ready for Philly, Part 2?
Kobe Bryant: Let’s get it.

SLAM: Was the team sluggish tonight?
KB: Nah, I just think we didn’t execute as well in the fourth quarter. We got a little complacent, and we were lax on the execution. It got them back in the ball game.

SLAM: Why weren’t you guarding Caron on the last play?
KB: Trevor knows how to play him as well. He uses his length extremely well and did a good job.

SLAM: As Phil Jackson walks by, was it more of the rotations in a blow out? You were up by so much and still had different players being rotated in and out.
KB: Nah, the rotations were pretty solid in terms of units. We have three units that play well all year. We had to take care of the ball, keep them off the free throw line and stop them from getting easy looks and we failed on all three of those.

SLAM: You hit a bank shot on that play. You didn’t go to UCLA. What went through your head?
KB: It’s just a better angle to shoot a bank shot actually. All of my shots were either going long or short. In that situation a bank shot is an easier shot. I go to that shot when my shot is struggling. Previous shots, I felt good but they were off-target. I tried to get to an angle where I could bank the ball off the glass. It was a higher percentage shot.

SLAM: Are they one of the more physical teams you’ve faced this season? When you drove to the basket, they made sure to get you a tap when you got into the lane to keep you from getting baskets plus the foul.
KB: (pauses) Yeah. (Media laughs) I like it. I like the contact. I spend a lot of time in the weight room.
I enjoy it. When you get the fouls, I like it more actually. You can knock down two, conserve energy and it puts them in the bonus.
Reverse. Reverse!
SLAM: You have these signature moments where you seem to interact with the crowd. The other night in Philly, it was the three in the corner and tonight it was the double pump reverse dunk off a sweet pass from Ariza. You gave the crowd that look again.
KB: The interaction is fun. It makes for a fun game.

SLAM: What would you tell a 15-year-old Kobe Bryant as he shot balls alone in a gym?
KB: (Smiles) Keep at it. Keep working.

SLAM: What’s missing in basketball? What would you like to implement into the NBA?
KB: I’d like to see the game being more physical. I think that’s one thing that’s missing. European basketball is actually a lot more physical than anything. I’d like to see them go back to the 80s rules and allow more contact. Players use more contact, are more physical with more defensive accountability on an individual basis.

*****

Traveling down to D.C. with fellow writers Anthony Gilbert and Jeff Young, there were many conversations. Most centered on music and two business stops we had to make at BET and Howard University, but there was one question in particular that struck me. Anthony Gilbert asked if I ever stop worrying about my three kids. “When does it stop?” He inquired.

I thought about it for a minute and simply said “Never.” It was something I’d never thought about. It’s like living. You never think—at least I don’t—of how many days I’ve lived so why would I say to myself “How many days have I worried about my kids?” That would be absurd. I told A.G. that from the minute you find out the mother of your kids is pregnant, your mind shifts into a protective gear. You are concerned with everything she does. When she gives birth, your attention shifts to the baby—while also obviously caring for the welfare of Mom. There’s a big difference in being overly concerned to the point of ridiculousness, but there’s not a thought in your mind that doesn’t include your children as they sleep.

Crazy, but when the Lakers were in Philly, Lamar Odom and I had eye contact a few times. Being in this business, you have conversations with players all the time about this or that, but you remember the real rap. Last year, I told Lamar how proud I was of him for just being a father. I offered my condolences on the passing of his son Jayden and mentioned I wanted to get with him at a later date and discuss this more deeply.

After the conversation en route to Chocolate City, the first person I thought of was Odom. I walked over to him as Jeff and A.G. were finishing up their time with him and without any intended questions, I asked Lamar what I’d meant to ask him last season. I could feel myself getting emotional before I spoke a word. That’s no punk. That’s consciousness.

SLAM: Lamar how did the death of your son Jayden affect you as a player but more specifically, as a man?
Lamar Odom: For a minute, on the basketball tip, it kind of took a lot of wind out of me to get over something like that. There’s days—to this day—where I wake up and think there’s nothing more important than being with my kids. You don’t think about the money that we make right now. At the same time, basketball saved me. It’s like a sanctuary for me. It’s something that I needed. Off the court was really difficult—so was on the court. I remember playing Phoenix on the first day of the year. I hadn’t worked out in a month and just threw myself in there—my man Kobe was hurt—and had one of the best scoring days I’ve ever had in the NBA. I put my faith in God. I’m a spiritual young man.

As a man and as a basketball player, it broke me down. I’ve never been so humbled. There was nothing I could do. I had no energy. I had no wind. I just tried to keep my mind. It could have been really easy to say I just don’t give an expletive. I could say I didn’t care or act up. People probably expected me to. It gave me the green light to do that. I just had to keep my mind from not losing it. Once I got through that part, I knew God was going to give me the strength to be a man and be there for my family and my children.

SLAM: I lost my Mom 20 years ago and you never get used to it. I can’t imagine losing my kids. I loved my Mother dearly, but honestly it pales in comparison to losing a child. When did you turn the corner and be able to focus on your career?

Lamar is helping me along here. He’s telling me to ask any questions I want. Of course, I’m apprehensive, but he makes me feel a little more comfortable to get through this.

LO: My daughter (Destiny) is 10 now and my son (Lamar Jr.) is 7. My son was 4 and my daughter was 7. My daughter was in 5th grade but read on a high school reading level, so she kind of understood what was going on when my little man passed away in the house. Grown manThe strength I had to have for my children and my family is a story. My Moms passed away when I was 12. My Mother was the youngest of five children so I was the baby’s baby. So when my baby passed away, it affected a lot of people. I had time to grieve, but I had to be strong. I had to get up.

If everybody would have saw me down and out, then that ripple effect could have wrecked my family.

SLAM: You had to make the decision to get up.
LO: Everybody was kind of living distraught when my son died. I just had to make a decision to not put it behind me, but there were too many people around me at that time—which also was my weakest time.

SLAM: You hear all the time that whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. I know something was instilled in you, that you never visualized. What was instilled?
LO: Unexplainable patience. There’s nothing I feel I can’t get through now—not starting, or bad game. That stuff is easy for me to get by. Humility in general has always been steered in my direction. I can’t even help it.

SLAM: How did your teammates respond and help you get through this? Is it true that when tragedy happens in sports, it brings the team together? I just saw it in your face the look you had when you went off against Phoenix. Man, as I watched that game and I’m getting emotional just thinking about it, my respect for you changed from NBA cat to real rap man. Was that game therapeutic?
LO: Yeah, like I told you before, I was chillin’ at that point. Having teammates, you’d be surprised. I believe in energy. Everybody has needed some positive energy and that is exactly what I needed.

I was thinking about quitting.

The synergy that basketball and each teammate gave me because of what you have in common at that point was a necessity, and it’s the reason why I was able to overcome it. If I was home sulking, then alcohol and everything else…

SLAM: Lamar, I have to say that I’m not trying to bring you down, something like this is going to help people.
LO: Nah…nah…It’s really easy for me to talk about mainly because of how many people this happens to. I forget the numbers, but right when he passed, I began to read up on it and it happened to 10, 25 or 100 people today. It’s hard to get over but we all know how precious and special babies are. You got to have faith.

SLAM: So you never stop worrying. We both have daughters, so I know you are very protective of her. Did you begin to look a basketball as just a game?
LO: I’ve always tried to look at it as just a game. I try to keep it there because today it can be taken away from you. I’ve never been just a basketball player. When that day comes, I won’t miss it. It kind of helped like I’d say, I don’t bring this home.

SLAM: Do you find yourself spending a lot of time with your family because of this?
LO: I try to instill values in my kids to be grateful. I’m a strong man. That was a woman that happened to. Now I’m not saying women can’t be strong as a man, but I’ve experienced death before. My grandmother and my son passed a on the same day: June 29, 2006.

That was one of the things that helped me get over it. I just say, “Mom got him.”

SLAM: What would you want to kids disrespecting their Moms and whomever else they choose?
LO: Slow down. Be grateful. That loved one could be taken from you and don’t you want to be revered as a legend at whatever you do? I hope no one goes through that.