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An L.A. Tale:
Editor's note: This article appears in the January 16 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
In the same month the kid from A Bronx Tale, Lillo Brancato Jr., was arrested in real life for his involvement in a shooting, Kobe Bryant willingly passed up a chance at history. Trust me, the two events are related.
To understand Kobe's misguided choice, let's first retrace the disappointing arc of his career. Once projected as MJ's successor, the wheels came spinning off after Kobe's ego intervened. A power struggle with Shaq, legal troubles, some memorably selfish play ... Kobe's downward spiral was the basketball version of Tony Montana's in Scarface. And using his contract leverage to orchestrate Shaq's departure was his "Tony shot Manny!" moment. There was no going back.
Now he's stuck in his prime trying to carry a crummy team, which makes it easy to see he isn't the next Jordan, if only because he lacks the galvanizing effect on teammates that MJ had. Kobe doesn't seem any different than T-Mac, Allen Iverson or even Gilbert Arenas -- just another talented scorer who gives his franchise credibility but can't make his teammates better. That's what he is. Nothing more.
Which brings us to the 62-point game. Kobe had the optimum opponent (none of the Mavs could guard him), optimum referees (he was getting every call), optimum conditions (he was feeling it) and the optimum venue (the Staples Center). He could have scored 80, and no one besides Wilt has ever topped 73. But when Phil Jackson asked if Kobe wanted to keep on playing in the blowout, he shook his head no. He was done. Apparently, he thought that passing up a chance at immortality would prove he was a good guy.
Um ... isn't this the same league in which everyone pounds his chest after a three-pointer? Suddenly, he's worried about showing up his opponents? Forget the sportsmanship nonsense. If you don't grab the chance for a killer moment, you're a wimp. Do you really think the Mavs would have been offended? You'd hope that they'd have taken Kobe's quest as a collective challenge and killed themselves trying to stop him.
More important, there's a larger issue at stake here. Larry Bird was one of the most unselfish players ever, but during his 60-point game, not only did he keep gunning after the game was decided, his teammates fouled Atlanta players to get the ball back for him. And the Hawks understood. Heck, some of them celebrated on the bench after Bird swished a remarkable 35-footer as he was falling out of bounds. Larry wanted to break the Celtics' scoring record and it was a relatively meaningless game, so he went for it. And guess what? ESPN Classic shows the game all the time.
Another example: on the final day of the 1978 season, David Thompson dropped 73 in an attempt to win the scoring title. (He didn't, but that's not the point.) Although I've never seen a tape of the game, I'm guessing he hogged the ball; the guy scored 53 points in the first half alone. Surely the game was compromised to some degree. Who cares? The dude scored 53 in one half! You think his opponents were offended at halftime? It's more likely they were saying, "Holy crap, the guy just dropped 53 on us. If we have any semblance of pride, we have to start guarding him."
Now, Thompson's game will endure long after everyone forgets about Kobe's blown chance. Fifty years from now, nobody will care that Kobe refused to reenter a blowout or that he did the "right thing." They would have cared about 80.
See, sports isn't only about winning and losing. It's also about the little challenges along the way. Kobe's chance to break the non-Wilt record transcended victory or even a little character rehab. After three quarters, he'd outscored the Mavs by himself, something nobody ever remembers happening before. To throw your hands up, high-five your teammates and say, "That's it, that's enough" doesn't just cheat the fans who are at the game, it cheats everyone who loves basketball and spends their evenings flicking channels, waiting to stumble across a lightning-in-a-bottle moment. The outcome was decided, but the story line wasn't. Kobe took the easy way out. And in doing so, it was just one more manifestation of what has gone wrong with his career. He should have been the next MJ, should have broken the non-Wilt record, should have been the defining player of his generation. Instead, he's another couldashouldawoulda guy.
Maybe it all happened too soon for him. Maybe he wasn't emotionally equipped to deal with success beyond a certain degree. The 62-point game will forever suggest as much. And as the dad warned his kid in A Bronx Tale, "The saddest thing in life is wasted talent."
What happenes the very next week? LOL
Kobe, Meet Destiny
Just three weeks ago, I wrote that Kobe was a fool for passing up an 80-point game against Dallas. I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. That sports were about the little challenges along the way. That you can't pass up a chance to go down in history, not when the Non-Wilt Scoring Record was at stake. That the game symbolized his entire career -- memorable, incredible, ultimately a little disappointing -- and he would regret the decision some day.
Then he dropped 81 against Toronto on Sunday night.
And in the process, he indirectly proved my point. Everyone has been discussing Kobe for two straight days -- every Web site, every TV show, every radio show, everybody. Heck, he even knocked the NFL championship games off the front page of ESPN.com. Nobody cared that the last 12 points of the game came during garbage time, or that Kobe took a jaw-dropping 45 shots and 20 free throw attempts in 42 minutes. They only cared about the number: 81. On his 666th regular season game (seriously), Kobe scored 66 percent of his team's points. For the first time in the post-Shaq Era, Kobe has an identity beyond "Selfish gunner who destroyed a potential dynasty." He's the most exciting player in any professional sport.
(By the way, it's always fun to watch a basketball player score copious amounts of points, even when he's freezing out his teammates in the process. For instance, at halftime of a Celtics game in the late-'90s, they had a Special Olympics exhibition game and there was one kid involved who seemed a little too, um, competent to be playing in the game. Not only did he score like 20 points in four minutes, I'm convinced to this day that he was the impetus for the recent Johnny Knoxville movie. In fact, this kid was good enough that everyone in my section feared Rick Pitino would sign him to a $30 million contract after the game. But guess what? Even though it didn't seem quite fair that the kid was playing, it was still a moment. Everyone was riveted. Everyone was cheering. Of course, I was drunk at the time, so this might not have happened the way I remember it. The important thing is that I believe it happened. Back to the column.)
Of course, I dropped the ball on Sunday night. After watching the football games and having an early dinner with my father (visiting for the weekend), we decided to rent a movie because Dad couldn't stop whining about Jake Plummer's four turnovers against the Steelers. If Kevin Faulk hadn't fumbled and we had just gotten to halftime with a lead, Jake would have made those same four turnovers and we'd be in the Super Bowl right now! He's going to be complaining about this for the rest of 2006. Grace period schmace period.
We headed down to the video store to rent "Lord of War" with Nic Cage, which wasn't even officially available until today. (Reason No. 743 why it's fun to live in Los Angeles: Some video stores out here jump the gun with New Rentals. I have no idea how this is legal.) You know when you're in the video store and you have to talk yourself into a movie you never really wanted to see, like "Panic Room" or "Unleashed" or something? Both of us were fired up for "Lord of War." You can't put a price on the fun of Cage and Jared Leto playing Lithuanian arms dealers.
So we get home, we're ready to pop the movie in ... and my buddy Gus calls.
"Kobe's got 53 right now."
"How much time left?"
"53 through three quarters."
Here's what kills me: When I checked right before our video store trip, the Lakers were getting killed and Kobe only had about 14 points. So I crossed the game off for the night. Big mistake. Like many NBA junkies, I monitor Laker games since Kobe reached "you always need to make sure Kobe isn't feeling it" status about two months ago, when it became apparent that his team stunk and Phil Jackson was fine with Kobe gunning 35 to 40 times a game. I don't like the Lakers, and I definitely don't like Kobe that much (except for the "Black Mamba" gimmick, which delights me to no end). But I enjoy the nightly potential of an ESPN Classic-caliber scoring explosion. It's a form of basketball that's never been seen at this level -- as I wrote two weeks ago, it's like "Teen Wolf" sprung to life. Not only is Mamba hogging the ball to a historic degree, just about everyone else on the Lakers seems OK with it. It's their only chance to win.
(One player seems to be resisting: Poor Lamar Odom, who's going to bludgeon himself to death with Phil Jackson's blank clipboard soon. When they're running the offense in which Odom sets up Kobe from the top of the key and then stands in place like a third base coach, I keep waiting for Odom to rear back and fire line drive baseball passes at Kobe to try to knock him unconscious. Frankly, there's still time.)
So this has evolved into a unique situation: A Hall of Fame scorer in his absolute prime, stuck with teammates best described as deferential, playing with a chip on his shoulder after his last two seasons were marred by fallout from the Shaq trade and ongoing legal troubles, working with a permanently green light to hoist an ungodly amount of shots (nearly 28 a game). Again, everyone's OK with it. Which means it's impossible to determine a ceiling for Kobe Games right now. After the 62-point game against Dallas, when I bemoaned Kobe's lost chance to make history, hundreds of Lakers fans disagreed. The common theme of the e-mails: "Dude, are you crazy? He's shooting the ball 40 times a game! There will be plenty of chances for him to go for 80!"
You know what? Good point.
In retrospect, the Dallas game wasn't that much of an aberration given how Kobe's season has unfolded. In three quarters, Kobe made 18 of 31 shots, four 3s and 22 of 25 free throws. The readers were right. On the perfect night, against the right opponent in a relatively close game, Kobe could absolutely make 25 shots and another 20 free throws if he was feeling it. That would put him at 70. If four of those shots were 3s, then that would get him to 74 points, the Non-Wilt Record (although Pete Maravich would have broken 80 with a 3-point line).
More important, Kobe learned a valuable lesson from the Dallas game, mainly that his decision to stay out of the fourth never made anyone say, "Wow, maybe he's not selfish!" If anything, many basketball fans were disappointed. Including me. It was like watching a famous bank robber nail his 10th bank in two months, then leave an extra bag of cash behind in some misguided attempt to prove that he wasn't just about the money. Is there anyone left on this planet who still believes that he's a team player, that he's good at getting his teammates involved, that he doesn't want to dominate at all times? What would be shocking about an inherently selfish player accomplishing an inherently selfish act? In a weird way, wasn't this his destiny?
The message of my magazine column remained salient: Fifty years from now, nobody would care how Kobe scored 80 points in a game, just that it happened, that they watched, that he scored the most since Wilt, that they were there to see it. And that's why I keep monitoring these Lakers games. You never know.
Thanks to Gus' award-winning phone call, my father and I put Nic Cage on hold and flicked on the rest of the game. Dad hasn't watched too much of Kobe this season because he doesn't have the NBA season package -- probably a good move since he falls asleep at 8:30 in front of the TV every night -- so he wasn't even remotely prepared for Kobe's metamorphosis into an unstoppable scoring machine/historic ball hog (depending on your perspective). It's one thing to read about it, quite another thing to see it. When he's feeling it, Kobe approaches every possession like the 12th man on a high school team, the kid who enters a tournament game in the final minute and has precisely 53 seconds to score so his name gets in the paper. He takes 28-footers with a hand in his face. He drives into the paint and throws his body into four guys hoping to get fouled. He calls for the ball time and time again. There's a joylessness about it. Like watching someone crank 15 straight bombs in the Home Run Derby without breaking a smile.
For two guys watching history unfold, my father and I weren't exactly high-fiving in the living room or anything. The game made me feel the same way I felt while watching "March of the Penguins." I had always wondered what a penguin's life was like; once I knew how depressing it was, I wanted to sit in my garage with the car running. Sometimes it's almost better not to know these things. And Kobe's 81-point game was a little like that. For a perimeter player to score that many points, you have to hog the ball to a degree that's almost disarming to watch; it almost stops resembling a basketball game. More than Kobe's rising point total, Dad and I found ourselves fascinated by his icy demeanor, the lack of excitement by the guys on the Lakers bench, even the dysfunctional way that his teammates were killing themselves going for rebounds and steals to get him more shots.
This didn't feel like a team effort. Actually, I'm not sure what this felt like. With seven minutes remaining, Odom made an open 3 because Kobe was being ninetuple-teamed by all five Raptors, two ball boys, an assistant coach and a Staples Center usher from Section 104. Without a shred of irony, the announcer reported it was Odom's first field goal of the night. He ended up finishing 1-for-7. By the way, he's the second-best player on the Lakers.
"Can you imagine being on this team?" my father said, shrieking. "Can you imagine? Look at Odom! I think he's going to throw up!"
Meanwhile, Kobe's point total kept rising as the Lakers took control of the game. I watched Bird's 60-point game live. Same for Bernard King's 60 and MJ's 63. Even burned Maravich's 68 and MJ's 69 to DVD. None of those endings were nearly as dominant as this one. The Raptors guarded Kobe 30 feet from the basket; he made 3s from 30 feet. They sent two guys at him; he casually split them and created another scoring chance. They collapsed on him every time he drove into the paint; he scored or drew a foul every time. They used a soft triple-team on him in the final three minutes; he still got his points. It was like watching one of those "UFC Greatest Knockout" shows with a steady stream of guys getting pummelled into bloody pulps, and after about 20 minutes, you start to feel sick, but you can't stop watching. Nobody should be able to score 55 points in one half against an NBA defense. It shouldn't happen. But it happened.
When an exhausted Kobe reached 81 and appeared barely able to stay on his feet, the Lakers removed him to a standing ovation, as well as half-hearted hugs and high-fives from his teammates (all of whom will be disciplined this week from Mitch Kupchak for not celebrating joyously enough). The best reaction belonged to Jackson, who seemed amused, supportive and somewhat horrified, like how Halle Berry's husband probably looked after sitting through his first screening of "Monster's Ball." The second-best reaction belonged to my Dad, who listened to Kobe's postgame interview with Patrick O'Neal and excitedly said, "Wait, how can you score 81 points and not thank your teammates?" Not since Hilary Swank snubbed then-husband Chad Lowe at the 2000 Oscars have we seen something that blatantly egocentric. And look how they turned out.
So was it everything an 81-point game should have been? Yes and no. When Kobe catches fire and you're watching in real time, he makes everything look so easy that you take him for granted. He misses a 3, you're surprised. He botches a drive to the basket, you can't believe it. He misses a free throw, you feel cheated. The points keep adding up, but it almost feels like watching a video game or something. And because the Lakers' offense is so one-dimensional, it feels like Kobe should be scoring like that. There's no Plan B.
Only later can you appreciate it. For me, the moment happened long after my father went to bed -- and let the record show that we discussed the 81-point game for roughly two minutes before shrugging our shoulders and popping in "Lord of War," which was excellent -- when I was watching ESPNEWS, and the graphic from the Lakers game popped up on the bottom of the screen. They flashed the Lakers final score, followed by something like, "BRYANT: 81 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists."
And I remember thinking two things:
1. "Holy crap! 81 points! 81 freaking points! Wait, that's a lot of points!"
2. "Two assists ... now that's comedy."
Maybe this was Mamba's ultimate destiny: One-man scoring machine, gunner for the ages, the real-life "Teen Wolf." Future generations will remember him for the 81-point game and his awesome 2005-06 scoring binge, not for being the second-best player on three championship teams. Hey, that's what they should remember. After all, plenty of NBA players have three rings. Only two NBA players have ever scored 81 points in a game. One is dead. The other lives on.