Kobe’s Biggest Game…
Will be this Sunday. Seriously.
On Saturday, ESPN will air, commercial-free, a highly positive documentary about the man who, despite what people will tell you about some kid from Akron who people are starting to notice, is still the NBA’s marquee name, and maybe the biggest name in team sports. (If you didn’t know this, then I have some things to tell you about the price of footlong sandwiches and Who Knows Drama.) The next day, Kobe Bryant will suit up for the game with the highest stakes in any game of what is already a sure-fire Hall Of Fame Career.
Now, I realize this sounds crazy. Kobe’s got three rings and two more conference championships to his name already. How could a second-round game possibly be the most important one of his career? Because for all the championships, all the big shots, all the 40-point explosions against teams that thought they could get past him, Kobe has never been pushed to the precipice of true disappointment. Has Kobe’s legacy really ever been put in a “do or die” game before?
The three championships were his greatest triumph, and his stellar play en route to getting those rings is something that will always be a huge point in his favor. But was the pressure ever really on his shoulders like it is now? He got his first ring, the monkey that took so many great players so many years to get off their back, if they ever did, at 22 years old, the clear beta dog on a team carried to the championship by Shaq averaging 30/15/3 throughout the entire playoffs while Kobe averaged a clean, complimentary 22.
If he’d slipped up, the onus would have been on Shaq to cover for him, and even an epic screwup would have been filed, like his airballs against the Jazz, as the growing pains of a great player trying to find himself. ‘01-02? The Lakers lost one game throughout the Playoffs. It’s safe to say Kobe never really felt anything remotely resembling fear. ‘02-03, when the Lakers finally got pushed to seven games? Not only does winning two championships in a row take a lot of pressure to prove yourself off your shoulders, but they were up against an amazing Kings team that many (still) believe was the best team in the NBA that year. It’s safe to say Kobe would’ve escaped any real scrutiny even if Horry misses that shot and the Kings don’t melt down in Game 6. Oh, and he was still only 24 years old.
Then the ‘03-04 run, where the Lakers came up short despite starting four Hall of Famers? They never got pushed to seven games in their run to the Finals and were ambushed so effectively and quickly that there was never even a series-defining game that everybody knew coming in was going to end up defining the series or a career. Game 7 against Phoenix in the first round of the 35 ppg year? They were a No. 7 seed going up against a No. 2 seed and starting Kwame Brown and Smush Parker. Kobe was playing with house money in those playoffs.
And last year, the Lakers were just good enough against the Spurs (nobody realizes just how evenly matched they were, and how important a massive series from Kobe was to the Lakers winning, even in five games), and just bad enough against the Celtics (the series-defining collapse by the Lakers came out of the blue and was on the whole team, and what was Kobe supposed to do in the elimination game? Score 90?) so that there was never a “this is the game for all the marbles” feel to either series. And besides, the Celtics were a veteran team with 66 wins and lightning in a bottle, and it looked like the Lakers, with the MVP, the best offensive big man in basketball and a perfect fit for the triangle, a Lamar Odom, and a young top-5 center coming back the following season, were all set to make a dominant championship run next year.
Next year is now. And all has not gone as planned. Bynum is hurt. Again. Pau can’t find his way, and Odom seems to veer in and out. And the Lakers are facing an elimination game against a team they have no business losing to, a fifth-seeded team with its two best-known players out and its de facto leader running around in circles and tossing up jumpers like he’s on fire. A Game 7 loss would be nothing short of an unmitigated and complete failure on the part of the Lakers, and by proxy, Kobe Bryant.
My dad has an old maxim that proves itself true over and over again and is especially true in the world of sports; history is the propaganda of the victors. And whoever wins on Sunday is going to shape a lot of history. The Celtics found their resolve by allowing the Hawks and Cavaliers to take them to seven games—the post-championship Pistons allowing teams to push them was due to a lack of killer instinct. Bill Russell was the ultimate winner and Wilt Chamberlain was the ultimate choker, in part because Frank Selvy missed a wide-open 15-footer that would have won the Lakers a Game 7 against Russell.
And this maxim proves doubly true when a player is so great that it becomes impossible to extricate him from his team, as is the case with Kobe Bryant. No matter if Lamar and Pau go off for 50 or go 0-21 from the field, the Lakers’ successes and failures will always end up pinned, to an unfair degree in both cases, on Kobe. We like to pretend that games like the one Sunday “reveal the true nature” of great players, which is just untrue-win or lose, 50-point game or 3-25 game; Kobe Bryant is what he is; the most gifted perimeter scorer since (and in terms of being able to explode for a stupid number of points in a given game, maybe even better than) Jordan, a stunning competitor, a guy who has distilled scoring to a science with a plethora of impossible moves and combined it with balance, athleticism, and grace to make the prettiest inside/out game in the history of the game, a man who has delivered on the biggest possible stage and also had his share of failures, a man so determined to find his own purpose on a basketball court he can lose touch with his team, but who inspires killer instinct by osmosis like few others when he finds that purpose.
If the Lakers win, there’s a lot still to be written, but there’s a lot that changes. The Nuggets have played great basketball, but the Playoffs are about matchups, and Denver’s primarily an offensive squad; they don’t make it a priority to shut down a team’s offensive flow like the Rockets do, and when these Lakers are able to get into an offensive flow, they’re all but unbeatable. And they have no answer for Kobe—in a track-meet game with Dahntay Jones (an anti-Battier defensively—the type of young, athletic, inexperienced defender Kobe calmly destroys with intelligence, savvy, and patience), Carmelo Anthony (a still-average defender who’s a big enough name so that Kobe might make it his personal mission to destroy him), and J.R. Smith (please) attempting to guard him, there’s an excellent chance that the Lakers will reach the finals behind a slew of 40-point barrages from Kobe. And in the finals, there’s no shame in losing to whichever one of the three best defensive teams in the League that comes out of the East, and the matchups are pretty favorable in those scenarios as well. Make no mistake—the Kobe Bryant that’s struggling to beat this depleted Rockets team is the same man who could easily be hoisting the Bill Russell trophy in a few weeks’ time.
But if these Lakers somehow lose, history changes. Lamar Odom becomes a free-agent, and the Laker brass might be dumb enough to let him walk after a weak series. Pau’s a very good player who played like an absolute force all year. Will he replicate that? Will this team still have championship fire after being upset, or will they go into a Mavericks-like slide after losing to the Warriors? Will Bynum ever play to his potential? Does Kobe have enough left in his knees for another 82 games of MVP-level ball? Windows in the NBA are small. And if they lose, history will go to work on Kobe’s resume. The slow path Kobe’s taken to escape from Shaq’s shadow and lead a team to the promised land by himself turns into a cautionary tale, a journey began by ego and ending in misery. Near-misses against the Pistons and Celtics turn into just plain misses. Shane Battier goes from Kobe’s greatest challenge into the Man Who Stopped the Mamba. If he goes off and captures the final game, he was saving his best for when it mattered most-if he’s stopped, then we’re forced to look at the fact he’s shot 32-75 in the Lakers’ three losses and conclude that Kobe might just not have “it” anymore.
Chances are that the Lakers are going to come out with that home crowd behind them and their backs against the wall and simply roll over the Rockets in Game 7, and the test the Rockets gave them will be forgotten as a footnote, a speed-bump toward whatever meaningful events Kobe will end up taking part in over the final two rounds of these playoffs. But that doesn’t mean these next 48 hours are any less important, or worthy of deep meditation. The NBA’s biggest name and the man who is, for better or worse, the defining player of this
generation has been forced to stare into the abyss and respond to what he sees. This is a surpassing player at what (appears to be, but this isn’t a guarantee) the sunset of his incandescent prime, forced to put his legacy and all of his accomplishments over the past seven years since Shaq left on the line and see them invalidated or made into a tale of triumph based on what happens over 48 minutes at the Staples Center. After the final buzzer sounds, the victors will write the history of what happened, manipulating all of what happened into a black-and-white narrative that will bend what really happened into a convenient story.
But all of this is why it’s so important to sit and truly appreciate these next 48 hours, to embrace Kobe Bryant in his most uncertain hours. In David Foster Wallace’s brilliant Kenyon commencement address, he opens with an old joke: a wise fish and a young fish are swimming along. The old fish says “Boy, the water sure is nice today.” The young one responds “What the heck is water?” The 81 points, the playoff defeats, the beautiful jumpers, the impossible passes, the taunts, the arrogance, the brilliance, the 4th quarter takeovers, the aloofness, the games where forced jumper after forced jumper falls short, the player who elevated scoring into art and turned the art of a 10-man game into nothing more than scoring. The single-minded and arrogant volume shooter who allowed the most talented team in the League to lose to the lowly Rockets is not Kobe. The hero who reached into his resolve and carried a worn team over the Rockets and towards a championship is not Kobe. The Kobe in Spike Lee’s movie is not Kobe. This is Kobe. This is water. Beneath all of what we need him to be, want him to be, say he is, this is a man. A man who has played some of the best basketball ever played, but a man, and for the next 48 hours he will be allowed to exist as one in all of our eyes. OK, I’ll be a little disappointed if Game 7 ends up being a blowout.