It is rare for a sports fan to get lucky enough to watch a transcendent sports star night in and night out in their home city. It’s truly one of those things that become a part of your life like family and friends. Those who were around in Chicago when Jordan was winning rings, in Boston with Larry Bird, or in Los Angeles with Magic all know what I mean. When a young stud walks into the franchise that you’ve loved since birth, he grows, matures and becomes a legend as things in your life dramatically change, you become defensive of that athlete because he is, essentially, a part of who you are. This is where most of us are with Kobe Bryant right now.
I remember when Kobe was airballing shots against Utah in the playoffs in his younger years. He had all of this raw athletic ability. His jump shot was ugly, he carried the ball just as bad as Allen Iverson and he had that nappy afro. He came in and forced the Lakers to move Eddie Jones to the Charlotte Hornets. I was devastated, but I understood. In 1999, I was in the sixth grade and I was watching this kid, right out of high school destroy some of the best players in the league when he got a chance.
My middle school years were the worst years of my life, but they were also some of the best years of my life. As a life long Lakers, Raiders and Giants (baseball) fan, I never got to see any of my favorite teams win championships until then, and the Lakers ended up reeling off three in a row, with Kobe grabbing most of my attention. I ended up loving him like the older brother I never had. I was too young and naïve to recognize how much Shaq meant to that team, and I was happy when Shaq left, thinking Kobe was finally going to have the opportunity to win some rings without Shaq’s lazy ass holding him back.
However, that’s not how things went. The Lakers completely fell off of the map that next season. Kobe was injured for a lot of that season and the Lakers missed the playoffs for only the second time in my lifetime. I was in high school then, and as things started to get better for me, I felt it was my obligation to support Kobe and the Lakers during their down time as they lifted my spirits with championships while I was down. Then that 2006 season happened. That was my freshman year in college. That was one of those years that will forever stick in the back of my mind. New setting, new people, new accomplishments for Kobe. Six games where he scored 50+ including 62 through three quarters against Dallas and 81 on Toronto. There was that stretch where he scored 40+ in four straight nights and he averaged 40 for two different months. It was a great ride, both for me on campus and for Kobe on the floor.
We’re in a new era now, the Lakers have been in consecutive Finals, they’re atop the West again this year and Kobe just signed an extension keeping him and his fan based for at least three more years. I see the obvious decline, and there is younger talent who are rapidly approaching the title as the best in the NBA, but I wouldn’t trade Kobe for anything. It’s rare that someone this good begins and ends his career with one team, and I’m glad, just as my father was able to watch the Magic era, that I was able to grow up during the Kobe era. His journey through the NBA will forever be tied to my life, and the life of millions of other Lakers fans across the world.
From Silver Screen and Roll: Last Friday afternoon, around 1 PM PST, roughly six hours before the Lakers were set to play the Utah Jazz at Staples Center, the news started hitting all the major wires: Kobe Bryant just signed a three year contract extension to stay a Los Angeles Laker through 2014 (and presumably as long as he wants to until he decides to call it a career). The news itself shouldn’t surprise you. Nobody, outside of a few journalists looking for headlines, or a few hopeful fans of despondent teams, believed Kobe wouldn’t be lacing up the sneakers in Hollywood next season and beyond. And yet, as soon as I saw the news, the first thought that popped into my head was this: Now THAT is leadership. The timing of the announcement, Kobe’s decision to sign the extension which, by all accounts, has been on his table for months, it all points to the same conclusion. With the Lakers reeling, with the possibility of genuine doubt and uncertainty in the locker room of the reigning champions, Kobe took the one opportunity he had to say with actions what no one would believe (right now) if he said it in words, “I believe in this team”. There can be no doubt now that Kobe remains confident this team can win a championship.
From Land O’ Lakers: Tuesday in El Segundo, we got a quick- and I do mean this literally- update from Andrew Bynum about his injured left Achilles tendon: He said he’s about the same. That means no meaningful running and jumping, which while not a huge part of my game tend to be more important at the NBA level. Asked if he thought Bynum would return in the regular season, Phil Jackson said they’re not going to worry about pinning a date on his return, like a tail on some sort of injury donkey. “I’m just not holding my breath on a timetable,” he said. “We just haven’t been able to put a timetable on it. It’s going to take some time, and we just don’t know when (he’ll be back). Obviously we’d like him to play a couple of games at the end of the regular season, but this morning I told him if that’s not possible we’ll take whatever we can get in the playoffs at that time.”
From Land O’ Lakers: After returning from their 2-3 road trip last week, the Lakers spoke honestly about their level of concern at how they were performing on the court, understanding things had to get better, and admitting an “on/off switch” doesn’t exist. The process of getting better would be just that- a process. As if to drive home the point, the Lakers followed a dominant performance Friday night against a Utah squad playing extremely well by falling back on old habits in a 19-point loss to the Spurs Sunday afternoon. The laundry list of things hurting the Lakers Sunday – offensive execution, poor outside shooting, a completely non-existent bench just to name a few- has been consistent all year. The good news is nothing they’ve done (or haven’t done, if you prefer) automatically precludes them from winning another title. The bad news is even the most Pollyannish of Lakers supporters must admit the current level of play won’t get it done.
From The Los Angeles Times Lakers Blog: With scattered reporters trailing behind, Lakers center Andrew Bynum made his way toward the exit of the Lakers’ training facility as quickly as possible. The media had tried catching up, hoping they’d learn any morsel of news regarding Bynum’s strained left Achilles tendon, which has sidelined him for the last eight games. Bynum had tried speeding away, hoping he wouldn’t have to answer such questions. In all fairness, he also was on his way to a charity event with the YMCA. When asked how he feels, Bynum said “about the same,” before exiting the facility.
From the OC Register: The Lakers have lost four of their past six games. Their starting center isn’t close to returning from a strained Achilles’ tendon. The reserves are outscored on a nightly basis. Four of the starters are nursing hand injuries, their star has gone 13-for-47 in the past two games and the Lakers still have not wrapped up the Western Conference title with a week to go. Worried? Not these Lakers. Lamar Odom shook off any notion that the Lakers are struggling as they head into the final five games of the regular season. “Struggling to you might be different than struggling to us, you know what I’m saying?” Odom said Tuesday. “Our heads are held high. We playing for a championship … we’re looking forward to winning the West.” At least Phil Jackson’s definition of the word “struggling” matches more closely to Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word.
From ESPN.com: If they can enshrine teams in the basketball Hall of Fame, why not entire cities? And if that were the case, Los Angeles would have to be the first city honored. Monday was another shining day for L.A. hoops — as if the 11 NCAA banners hanging in UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion and the 10 NBA championships the Lakers won here weren’t enough. Did you notice the prominent L.A. thread running throughout this year’s Hall of Fame honorees? It began with the most obvious, Jerry Buss. The most successful owner in American sports for the past three decades turned the Lakers into a consistent winner and financial boon and cultural trendsetter (Laker Girrrrls), all in the city of Los Angeles. (Fellow L.A. hoops hero Magic Johnson lobbied hard among the Hall voters to get Buss in. Another assist for Magic.)
From NBA.com: It’s not an insult or a slight to raise the issue of his impeccable timing when assessing Phil Jackson’s impeccable coaching credentials. It’s just being real. Yes, he has 10 rings, more than anyone who’s ever coached. But he’s also had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, all injury-free and in their primes. That helped a bit. And once again, timing is on Jackson’s side as he ponders his future with the Lakers, one of the few franchises that sneeze at the luxury tax in this economy. Just look at the mammoth financial commitments the Lakers shelled out in the last few months alone: roughly $150 million worth. They extended Pau Gasol’s contract before they were forced to act upon it. They just handed the checkbook to Kobe, essentially making him Laker for Life. And in the previous two summers, they extended Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum to rich deals.
From Hoopsvibe: Gregg Popovich, the brutally honest and sometimes abrasive coach of the San Antonio Spurs, summed up what every team in the Western Conference was thinking when he told us all that no one wanted to play the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. In doing so, he broke one of the unwritten rules of sports: Never let your opponent know you’re afraid of them. You can be afraid and they can know you’re afraid, but you can’t actually say it. Once you do, they have an advantage over you. They don’t only know that they’re better than you, they know that you know they’re better than you. And at that point, they’re free to impose their will upon you and send you home in four or five games. Despite Popovich’s disobedience of this tenet, he didn’t say anything that everyone else didn’t already know. Since the season began, everyone has known that the West was the Lakers’ to lose. Kobe Bryant is one of the best players on the planet. Pau Gasol is the most skilled big man in the game right now. Andrew Bynum is a capable post scorer and rebounder. Ron Artest’s defense and tenacity are unmatched. Lamar Odom is perhaps the most talented sixth man in the league. And overseeing this huge amount of talent is Phil Jackson, arguably the NBA’s best coach ever and inarguably its most successful. The 82-game schedule was just a formality. The Lakers would make it look easy in the regular season, run roughshod through the Playoffs and wait to see which of the East’s premier teams it would face in the Finals.