As my girlfriend and I watched Kobe’s storybook finale and the Warriors’ Herculean triumph unfold at the same time (I couldn’t choose), I couldn’t help but think of Bill Walton. That’s right, Bill Walton, basketball’s hippie Hall of Famer who is just as well-known for his space-cadet moments on live TV as his legendary playing days in Portland.
Because watching Kobe Bean put up 60 and go 5-5 in the waning moments of his last 4th quarter in front of a star-studded LA audience AND seeing Stephen Curry and the Warriors laser-beam their way to the magical number of 73 (a blasphemy against Michael Jordan of heretical proportions) on the same night was like hurtling through star-systems on psychedelic hyperdrive. To riff on the poet William Blake, the doors of perception were cleansed and we witnessed newly-formed legacies for what they were: infinite.
“Only in California,” I could hear Luke Walton’s perpetually amazed father saying, “only in California!”
You didn’t need to be an unshaven psychonaut to marvel at the wonders being conjured in Los Angeles and Oakland last night. There are special moments in sports that happen of their own accord sometimes, moments that spawn legends whose glittering threads are woven and re-woven into the tribal imagination for generations after by the stalwart interlocutors of culture and history. The individual threads will become frayed and unruly as fact becomes mixed with myth, as the event is multipled into differing versions and distorted by exaggeration.
Still, the basic pattern will live on, its story always reborn on another storytellers’ lips.
There was something fitting about Kobe Bryant’s career ending on the same night that the Bulls’ 72-10 record, one of his idol’s most hallowed accomplishments, was resoundingly toppled. Kobe’s odyssey was always defined by his single-minded, obsessive and uncompromising quest for Jordanesque greatness, a desperate pursuit of the phantoms haunting basketball lore. Go back and look at his high school tapes at Lower Merion. Teenage Kobe showed no signs of being a teenager. He enters the theater of NBA basketball in 1996 with the weight of its history balanced on his back, a 17-year old Atlas, and Kobe would labor under this self-imposed burden for the whole of his career.
By now, we all know the story: the afro, the first three championships, Phil Jackson’s adamant Zen, the glitzy bickering with Shaquille, the rape case in Colorado, 81, the redemptive back-to-back titles with Pau Gasol, the protean transition from precocious phenom to Dark Side villain to gracious elder statesman and global ambassador. The different faces, moods and hairstyles of Kobe automatically flash before our eyes in a rapid succession of slides that span the last two decades. Some can measure their whole lives in Mamba moments. I was 9 when Kobe came in the league, and 13 when he crossed over Scottie Pippen and lobbed to Shaq in a purple & gold spasm of delirium.
Other players came and went through the L’s revolving doors, or changed teams to don the opposition’s uniform. But Kobe, as though cast forever in the amber of his own unwavering self-image, remained a Laker, only changing from #8 to #24 when he developed the conviction that Annakin had become Darth Vader. His exploits–nine straight 40-point games, four straight 50-pointers–mesmerized us, took us away from the travesty of the Bush presidency and the suspicious wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kobe was the game-winner, the impossible shotmaker, the slam-dunk menace who put the game’s biggest giants on posters, the lightning rod of genius and hubris, the heir of Michael’s moves and charisma, the frighteningly indifferent trendsetter, the guy who could press a button to make your team explode into bits.
Kobe was a living heat-check from the day of dial-up modems to that of omnipresent Wi-Fi.
Last night, he almost brought about the internet’s extinction–the Lakers’ Twitter account officially went on the fritz after he dropped 60 and lifted his rag-tag team to a final victory over the Jazz in what will go down as one of the sublime farewells in our hoops pantheon. Leading up to this one last curtain call, which already promised to be an emotional one, we mechanically counted off all of Kobe Bryant’s accomplishments, not expecting that the 37-year old would have anything left to add to his series of pictograms etched on the cave walls of our collective memory…at least not basketball-wise.
5 championship rings, 2 Finals MVPs, 4 All-Star MVPs, 1 regular season MVP, 15-time All NBA, 3rd all-time leader in scoring (ahead of MJ), the only player to have 13 consecutive seasons of averaging 24+ points per game ever…and on and on. There was nothing left to add but the concluding snapshot, and then we’d finally be able to close the Kobe picture-book and move on with our lives.
But count on Kobe Bean Bryant to always make things complicated. You see, he should have just retired after the symbolic achilles tear in 2013 (ironically against Steph, Klay & the Warriors) because he’s never been the same since. He made a valiant comeback only to fall again the next year…and the one after that. As has often been said by the best of our sports eulogists, we shy away from the spectacle of seeing our once-sensational athletes become old and withered, sad objects of nostalgia, because it brings us too close to a confrontation with our own mortality, with those nagging words of the Buddha that tell us everything is fragile impermanence, a dandelion waiting to be crushed by the march of time.
Indeed, for these last three years it hasn’t been history that eluded and taunted Kobe so much as the physical fact of his own aging body. His decline mirrored that of a Laker organization suddenly deprived of leadership after the passing of long-time owner Jerry Buss, the man who brought ‘Showtime’ to Los Angeles in the 80s and was the mastermind behind the signing of Shaq and the trade for a young phenom everyone called ‘Showboat’. With nearly 50,000 career minutes on his legs and his beloved Lakers in shambles, there was no reason for Kobe to press onward. But he did. We grimaced and winced through his bricks this season, celebrating his flashes of brilliance with veiled pity.
The highlight-reel wunderkind was suddenly a beggar at the feet of Father Time, the mortal Tithonius petitioning Zeus for perpetual youth but merely granted a constantly aging immortality. We hid our faces out of respect for our more exuberant memories of the man, not wanting to remember him like this.
Fortunately for hoop fans everywhere, there was a certain ‘Babyfaced Assassin’ by the name of Stephen Curry to relieve us of the spectacle and renew our sense of amazement. His evasive, behind-the-back maneuvers and looping three-pointers from well beyond the arc with guys twice his size draped all over him became the new standard for internet virality. Slight of frame with a mouth-guard casually dangling from his mouth, there’s something impish, elfin and playful about Steph that belies his killer instinct and dead-on accuracy. He comes across as a sly trickster in the vein of Shakespeare’s Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream or Kokopelli, the bedeviling flute player of Hopi lore.
Seriously, Curry’s success against every team in the league has come to bear the inevitability of the Road Runner’s triumphs over Wile E. Coyote, who even formidable players like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook come to resemble when sharing the court with the soon-to-be back-to-back MVP. It’s ridiculous. It’s inexplicable. This is the guy who has taken over the league from guys like Kobe and LeBron? This is the dude overtaking MJ’s mantlepiece statistics and records? Uh, yeah.
If there was any lingering doubts after last year’s Warrior championship run, The Shot Heard Round The Internet dispelled any trace of them. This is one of those shots that needs no introduction or explanation. Like Kobe’s 81-point game, this is one of those shots where you remember exactly where you were and who you were with. It has already taken its place in the annals of iconic NBA moments. With seconds dwindling on the clock, Steph Curry advanced the ball over halfcourt and began to slow his pace. With faceless defenders rapidly backpedaling, the man went into his shooting motion…
…37 feet away from the basket! We didn’t even need to watch to know the rest. With the game tied at the end of overtime, the ball’s union with nylon was already a foregone conclusion. It described a parabolic arc through the air whose precision befuddled physicists and geometrists alike. The Pythagoreans must have flown into ecstasy (whoever they are). Just like that, a new era of basketball had officially begun. There was no doubt about it. In this case, the revolution had been televised, and Stephen Curry was Che Guevara.
Of course, the Warriors are a lot more than Curry, too. Klay Thompson might go down as a top-ten all-time marksman himself, and the relentless Draymond Green broke Tom Gola’s franchise record for triple-doubles this season with 13 of his own. Versatile veterans like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston man the helm when the star trio needs a breather, and guys like Harrison Barnes, Brandon Rush and Andrew Bogut act as valuable chesspieces in Coach Steve Kerr’s varying schemes. Coach Kerr has become something of a cult figure himself–who else can say they won 72 with Michael & Scottie as a player and then broke the record as a head coach?
Even Red Auerbach is jealous!
The 2015-16 Warriors became the hardwood version of Ken Kesey’s Acid Kool-Aide Bus, hurtling through common basketball territories with no regard for tradition while simultaneously setting topsy-turvy people’s ideas for what works in Doctor Naismith’s time-honored game. In fact, the Warriors have created much division in the land of hoops. Some, like Charles Barkley, can’t allow themselves to accept the Warriors’ success because it contradicts the mandated formulas. An offense can’t possibly rely so heavily on three-point shooting…your rotation lineups should always have clearly-defined positions…your superstar shouldn’t draw comparisons to Kokopelli and the Road Runner. (Beep Beep!)
The outside-of-the-box methods of Golden State’s success even inspired, somewhat bizarrely, a chorus of old-timers who came out of the woodwork to make the same bitter claim: I wouldn’t have let Steph & Co. score on me like that! The old vanguard of hoop legends were clearly insulted by what they were seeing, as if the Warriors were somehow dishonoring the game of basketball and refusing the Eucharist just by winning in a way no one ever had! This is the extent to which the Warriors have revolutionized the game: you’re either in on the Gaian transformation, or you’re Richard Nixon shaking your fists at the pot-smoking college students.
Social implications aside, it was a crazy, crazy season in Oakland. And it all came down to a Wednesday night game against Memphis at home, the last one of the regular season. The Warriors had already clinched 72 in a 4th quarter drubbing of the Spurs in San Antonio, sending shockwaves around the league. Oh my God, are they actually getting 73 and breaking the Bulls’ record? And there was more to it than that. Steph Curry needed eight more 3s to reach 400 on the year; no one else had even sniffed 300 before. If he scored around 40, he’d secure the 30 ppg average (a career-high); and if Steph shot around his average, he was also set to achieve the rare 50/45/90 season, which only two guys named Steve (Kerr & Nash) had ever done.
Such drama could never take a backseat to anything, right?
…He had started out nervous at first, a bit overwhelmed, perhaps, by all the icons and former teammates in attendance, all the video tributes on the big screen from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jack Nicholson to the ball boys, by the palpable buzz in the air of a Staples Center audience more exclusive than Kanye’s album release party. 0-4 in the first minutes. Coach Byron Scott said that he’d play Kobe for the whole game if he wanted to, it didn’t matter now. What if he didn’t score at all, what if…
Suddenly he was blocking a Jazz player at the rim, recovering the ball and coming down the court in vintage Kobe fashion, crossing over in the lane, stopping and lofting a baseline floater that seemed to drop in the hoop from the rafters. The crowd roared the roar they’d been holding in for the first 5 minutes of the game. Now he was driving again for a pretty reverse layup, and the foul. Now he was catching a pass in rhythm and rising for a patented three from the right wing, uncorking Laker Nation’s jubilation as he ran back the other way. KOBE!
By the look on his face, I don’t think the man heard a thing.
At halftime, the scoring tally stood at 22. In the week leading up to this final adieu, columnists and commentators alike fantasized a scenario in which Kobe would have the ball with the game on the line. How cool would that be? Almost too cool. It wasn’t likely we’d see anything like that, and besides, the Warriors were going for 73. If anything, Kobe would get a respectable 30 and call it a career. The Lakers losing wouldn’t matter–it was the story of their mediocre season, after all. The man has done enough, why hold him to unrealistic expectations?
The Warriors game was happening and the Splash Brothers were raining threes from western Nevada. Curry almost got to 400 in the first half and the game at Oracle was never really in doubt–it was more coronation than competition. 73 was becoming a reality, but, as crazy and off-base as this sounds, there was something more arresting about Kobe’s game. It wasn’t just that it was his last game, but there was a certain energy to it which you couldn’t turn away from. He obviously had the green light to chuck and indulge in the sort of heat-check gluttony that made Nick Van Exel pout back in ’97, but something was happening. Kobe was actually making a good number of them.
What’s more, the Jazz couldn’t quite pull away, despite winning by nearly 50 in their last matchup in Salt Lake. By the end of the third quarter, I had practically stopped watching the Warriors game. Steph had his 46 in typically scintillating fashion, but in the moment it paled in comparison to what was happening in Los Angeles. Kobe was at 37, and I felt like I was 19 again. His season-high had been 38 in a game against the Timberwolves. I realized in a flash that Kobe was going all-out to put on a show, shoulders and knees be damned. Uh-oh…
When the 4th quarter started, the Black Mamba was definitely in the building. The benevolent and sentimental ambassador that we had come to recognize had been vanquished; in his place was a familiar maniac who would see anything less than a victory as failure. His movements, however, were becoming more labored, and his face contorted in a grimace each time the teams changed sides. Some of his previous shots had been terribly off line. Did Kobe have anything left in the tank? Was there one last picture-frame finish in this epic 20-year career?
He hit the 40-point mark with about 9 or 10 minutes left in the 4th, I can’t even remember now. Forty! Now Kobe was coming down the court with the ball, just like the old days with Shaq and Rick Fox and Robert Horry when he had the 3-peat ‘fro, hitting a yo-yo dribble on a Jazz defender and splashing another three. OK, is this really happening? My heartbeat started to quicken. Next possession, a stutter step into a crossover and stopping on a dime to raise up at the free-throw line a la MJ…nylon! Are you kidding me? Forty-five.
Two more measured, old-man drives got Kobe over 50. It didn’t make sense. It defied all logic. Did someone hit a time-machine lever? How old am I? The Lakers were suddenly inching closer with under two minute left! Come on Kobe, just one more time! I was starting to feel hysterical; Jenifer sat next to me in shock. I probably hadn’t had a glass of water for the entire second half. Maybe my memory can’t be trusted, I’m not sure.
The last two shots left everyone yelling in ecstasy, myself included. I jumped around the living room like a little kid, not even knowing what to do with myself. We were all in the zone with Kobe, the zone where improbable things happen in electric sequence and the world opens up to a bonus dimension containing possibilities that aren’t actually supposed to happen, and which maybe never did. Splitting the double-team for a 14-footer…a classic left wing, contested three to pull within one… Staples was bedlam. My neural networks were bedlam. My thoughts could only express themselves in helpless expletives. Fifty-six.
Golden State who?
I didn’t get to see the 81 game. I was a freshman in college, and I woke up to a text one morning from a friend saying something like ‘Did you see what Kobe did?’ I couldn’t believe I had missed it. Damn! Eighty-one? Last night, I learned what 81 felt like, and it’s a feeling that you can never recover from the highlights. It’s unlike any feeling, really. I imagine it’s what seeing a sorceror in India pull a snake out of thin air feels like, but I’m only guessing. For lack of a better word, it’s magic.
By the time Kobe Bryant was crossing the halfcourt line with 30 or 40 seconds left, down one, with the ball, the crowd on their feet, the last half minute of a career that started around the time 2pac was shot and Clinton was still president, you already knew. You just knew. You could sense it. The go-ahead jump shot from the former prep-to-pro manchild who had aged before the world’s eyes was itself a formality. At this point, reality was matching our wildest dreams. The ball was high in the air, Kobe was holding his follow-through and I might as well have been a freshman in college all over again. Lakers lead! Lakers lead!
You guys know the rest. Two more free throws for 60 and a throw ahead to Jordan Clarkson for a cherry-on-top slam, and that was game…career…legacy. The fallen hero had briefly risen again. He hugged everyone in sight, suddenly looking exhausted and fulfilled all at once. Kobe Bryant had come full circle and we gaped in open disbelief. That 17-year old had gone out at 37 with guns blazing. The sixty-point farewell game immediately entered the annals of league history as one of the greatest old-man games ever, if not the greatest, and perhaps the most memorable send-off ever outside of Michael’s last shot in a Bulls uniform.
Ted Williams’ home run at Fenway in his last at-bat, anyone?
Stephen Curry received news of Kobe’s final performance at his locker after cementing his own place in history with #73. “Kobe got 60? Wow, wow, wow…” No worries Steph, I can relate! The two are entirely different players: Kobe was the Second Coming, the Michael Jordan redux, something so good that we had to see it again; Curry’s greatness, on the other hand, is in the fact that we’ve never seen anything like him. His very style is something new to the basketball imagination which, as Kobe’s career fades to black, has left the game in a promising state of chaos and upheaval. The league is Curry’s now, and the success of new players and teams just might be in their ability to mimick what the Warriors have done.
But for one night, the league was Kobe’s again. He rivaled 81, and he overshadowed 73. Who else but a top ten player could ever do something like that? With all due respect, I think this moment was a bit steep for Hubie Brown and Mike Tirico. Can someone get Bill Walton on the phone? We need a 7-foot cosmic oracle steeped in psychic divination to help us process these events of April 13th, 2016…the night two players in California combined to take the sports world on a uniform out-of-body experience with little to no prior warning.