I didn’t want to do this. I tried to ignore it, act like it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to become another person fawning over a fallen idol. But former Kaiminite (and the most devoted Leicester City fan I know, more on this in the future) Andrew Houghton texted me last night, and I had to do something about the final stop of the Kobe farewell tour.
When Jeter retired, I laughed and smiled. A washed up shortstop with limited range and a mediocre bat received ovations in every stadium across the league. The whole R2SPECT campaign was a joke.
On the topic of old athletes, I tend to take the side of US Soccer coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who left Landon Donovan off the World Cup roster. He questioned why Americans cater to the elder athletes, citing Kobe Bryant’s $50 million contract extension.
Did the Lakers give him all that money because of the talent he still had? Of course not, he received that money because of what he had done before. We have a strange, but understandable, obsession with idolizing our former heroes. As they move on from the game, we begin to realize our own mortality in a way.
But so anyway, the Kobe tour seemed outrageous to me this entire year. He asked that nobody get him gifts, but they gifted him anyway. The Lakers had the highest average road attendance this season, if you can even believe that. The Warriors are the best team ever with an alien who could throw a ball behind the back from 50 feet and it would still probably go in, but they came in second. Everyone wanted one last piece of Kobe to hold on to.
I continued to resist. Even when he visited Toronto, home to my favorite team and also a team he sauced for 81 back in 2006, I ignored it. Even as he played his last game in Boston, I ignored it. Even when he played in his final All-Star game ever, I ignored it (Although that sequence where he went at LeBron was great).
Last night, I couldn’t ignore him any longer. The NBA is the greatest sporting league in the world, and the Warriors secured the best record in league history one channel away. It didn’t matter. Last night was all about Kobe.
He has been horrible this year, and, to be honest, hasn’t been very good since his Achilles injury. That didn’t stop him from chucking 50 (!!!) shots and scoring 60 points. Hero ball is the best thing in the world, and Kobe played hero ball the entire time he was on the court last night.
The Lakers won just their 17th game, but the confetti and balloons were released like they just won a championship. Legends of Lakers lore were on the court (Adam Morrison was there, Adam Morrison!!). There was no way to watch what happened last night and not smile.
For more on the games themselves, here is former Kaiminite, current D.C. resident Andrew Houghton, who was up much past his bedtime watching the games.
I'll admit it, for most of the season I was in the same boat as Jackson on Kobe's retirement. He's a legend, sure, but for most of this season he's been a punchline, putting up seemingly never-ending lines of 6-25, 4-13, 1-11 while the Lakers collapsed into farce around him (ask D'Angelo Russell about that).
I mean, he shot under 36% from the field and under 29% from three this year. WHILE TAKING 17 SHOTS AND 7 THREES A GAME. That's the kind of misplaced confidence that the sports world hasn't seen since Matt Hasselbeck told the referee "We want the ball, and we're going to score," before overtime of that playoff game against the Packers in 2003. It's fine to say shooters gotta shoot, but at some point that thinking veers into degenerate gambler territory. It's safe to say Kobe hit that point this year.
Worst of all, this was all happening the same year the Warriors were showing the world how to play a new, super-fun to watch style of basketball. Next to Curry's otherworldly antics, Kobe's slow, grind it out, post-up and midrange game looked not only wildly ineffective, but also archaic. The guy who had been one of the best and brightest stars in the NBA's firmament for 15 years was not just fading out, but also witnessing the emergence of a new superstar who overwhelmed whatever light he had left.
That is, until last night. I was watching both games, but with 73 wins on the line, I thought I was going to be mostly glued to Golden State. And sure enough, for most of the first half, I was. Curry, going for both the wins record and an individual milestone (400 threes in a season) came out of the gates straight supernova (as he does), cashing six threes in the first quarter.
But as the games went on, and Curry's dominance took the suspense out of both the 73 wins chase and the 400 threes mark, the ridiculousness of what Kobe was doing started to shine through. 13 shots in the first quarter, seven more in the second. And then, as eyes started to switch over to the Laker game, he really got it going. 14 shots in the third quarter, 16 more in the fourth. That hanging pull-up jumper over a double team to finally give the Lakers a 96-95 lead with less than a minute left.
Every coach in the game would say that's an awful shot. Double-teamed, one step inside the three-point line. And yet, Kobe took it, and he hit it. That shot was pure Kobe. Sneering, defiant Kobe measuring himself against everyone else, measuring himself against the game, one last time. It was his confidence and his arrogance, the one that made him a legend and the one that made him a punchline, manifesting themselves at the same time. Only someone who's already taken 49 shots would shoot that one as his 50th.
And so, the game has passed him by, quickly and irretrievably. One shot doesn't erase the fact that that win was only the Lakers's 17th of the season, or that Steph Curry and the Warriors are the future and Kobe is, as he has been since his Achilles injury, the past (Steph finished with 46 points on 24 shots last night. At one point in the fourth quarter of his game, Kobe had 45 – on 40 shots). But it did let Kobe shoulder his way back into the spotlight one more time, to remind us all of what he once was. After everything that's been said and written about him this year, Kobe, as his legendary competitiveness demanded, had the last word. Mamba out.