Archives For Kobe

I don’t know about you, but it just got a little dusty in here. Hold on, I have something in my eye. Okay, I’m better now.

A few days after Kobe was injured, Nike put out an ad listing many of the things he “showed us” throughout his career. At the end, Nike implores Kobe to show us again. Through the glory of youtube, the video above puts clips of Kobe’s career to Nike’s words and the result is fantastic.

No one knows when Kobe will return or what type of player he will be when he does. But, based off what we know of Kobe, he’ll want to prove to everyone he can be the player he was before and “show us again”.

In any field of endeavor, prodigious talent is idolized, achievement rewarded, lasting greatness immortalized. What then, of transcendent talent that achieves not only greatness, but actually furthers the evolution of the endeavor in which it is deployed?

Whatever his place in the Pantheon of basketball greats, that Earl Monroe is one of NBA history’s most important players is beyond question.

And when I had the opportunity to sit with Monroe at the SNY studio in midtown, where was promoting his fascinating, newly released  autobiography, “Earl the Pearl,” that is what most engrossed me. I didn’t care about 17,454 points, or four All-Star selections, or that he was a Hall of Famer. This guy truly matters in the history of the NBA. This man Changed. The. Game.

The modernization of the NBA game is, by its very definition, a collaborative effort. Bob Cousy married style and substance like no superstar before him. Monroe not only carried on the work of pro basketball’s original maestro, he infused it with a level of flair and artistry only just being refined in the game’s blacktop laboratories. The clinical trial for every Pete Maravich, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Stephon Marbury, Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd and White Chocolate that’s arrived since. Monroe delivered to the NBA the style and spirit of the playground like no one before. His signature back-and-forth, “windshield wiper” dribble – really an ancestor of the modern day crossover – that [insert legendary Olympic ice skater name here]-tight spin move, the change of pace dribble as a weapon, the double-pump, the pump fake… Earl Monroe redefined the way the backcourt game was played in the NBA.

I grew up on the playmaking stylings of Magic Johnson. It was difficult to avoid the sense that the game he was playing differed from that of his opponents. I’d venture that anyone who witnessed the early days of Earl Monroe’s NBA career had a similar experience.

By the time he was dubbed him “the Pearl” early in his senior season in college, Monroe had already picked up “Jesus” (how’s that for a nickname), “Black Magic” and “Thomas Edison,” for his on-court inventiveness. Not bad for a dude that didn’t take up basketball until his early teens.

In 1963, after starring at John Bartram High, he headed down the East coast, to Division II Winston-Salem State University. In four years under the tutelage of Hall of Fame coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines, Monroe grew into superstar befitting his playground monikers. After averaging 7.1 points per game as a freshman, he more than tripled his output, scoring 23.2 and grabbing seven rebounds per game as a sophomore, and continued ascent, dropping 29.8 points (on 56.3% from the floor and 86.6% from the line) and grabbing 6.7 boards per game as a junior. Already a star, Monroe’s senior season and cemented his place among the singular greats of the college game, as he averaged an awesome 41.5 points (on 60% shooting) and 6.8 rebounds per game, earned the 1967 Division II Player of the Year award (in addition to a second All America selection) and led Winston-Salem State to the NCAA’s Division II Championship.

In the summer of ‘67, the Baltimore Bullets used the second pick (behind Jalen Rose’s dad) in the NBA draft to acquire Monroe’s services. He proved an immediate revelation, averaging 24.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game en route to the 1967-68 Rookie of the Year award. One night during his rookie campaign – on February 13, 1968 to be precise – Monroe hung 56 on the Lakers. Sadly, a combined 79 from Jerry West and Elgin Baylor kept the Bullets from victory, but the explosion set a franchise record that stood for nearly four decades (it was broken by Gilbert Arenas in 2006), and remains the fourth highest single game total by a rookie in NBA history. Four times in the 48 years since has a rookie gone off for 50+ – not one has managed to wrest from Monroe his place on the all-time list, behind a pair of 58’s by Wilt in 1960 and 57 by Rick Barry in December 1965. Beyond permanently etching Monroe’s name in the annals of franchise and league history, on a personal level the outburst provided Monroe with indelible proof of his place in the game:

Coming into the league, I remember having seen all these guys play. And you have a certain amount of respect for these guys, and it’s especially exciting to actually play against them. And Jerry was one of those guys. When we used to talk about him we’d say that Jerry could stop on a dime and give you nine cents change (laughs), so it was exciting.”

An interesting thing about how our relationship began: we played Jerry at home, and during the game Jerry kept calling me ‘Ben,’ and I just said ‘ok,’ because I had no idea what he meant by that. But then I asked someone on the team and they said there’s a guy named Ben Monroe that played for New Mexico, and maybe he’s thinking you’re Ben Monroe. And he kept saying ‘good play, Ben’, ‘nice shot, Ben.’ And we lost the game to the Lakers, but I had 56 points, and he had 47. After the game, he came and he shook my hand and said ‘good game, Earl.’ So, that kind of let me know that I had made it into the NBA, that I had been welcomed into the NBA.”

The following season was individually Monroe’s best as a pro, as he averaged 25.8 points and 4.9 assists, while leading the Bullets (along with a rookie named Wes Unseld) to 57 wins – up 21 from his rookie year – and their first playoff berth in three seasons. Monroe continued to put up numbers, averaging 28.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4 assists in the playoffs, but shot just 38.6% as the Bullets were swept by the Knicks. The 1969-70 season mirrored its immediate predecessor, as the Bullets – led by Monroe’s 23.4 points and 4.9 assists per game – notched 50 regular season wins and once again crossed paths with the Knicks in the opening round. As they had the previous season, the Knicks proved too much for the Bullets, though an excellent showing from Monroe – 28 points and 4 assists per game, 48.1% FG, and a playoff career high 39 in Game 1 – pushed the eventual champs to a decisive seventh game.

As a team, the Monroe-era Bullets “peaked” in 1970-71, his last full season in Baltimore. Monroe’s scoring average dipped, to 21.4 points per game, and the team won eight fewer regular season games – though their 42-40 record was good enough to win an awe-inspiringly bad Central Division by six games. Upon landing in the postseason, however, the Bullets’ worm turned, as they outlasted the Hal Greer/Billy Cunningham-led 76ers and the now-familiar Knicks in seven games apiece to reach the NBA Finals, where they were dispatched in four games by Lew Alcindor, Oscar Robertson and the Bucks.

After the 1970–1971 season, amid a salary dispute with owner Abe Polin, Monroe’s agent informed the Bullets that his client would no longer play for the team, and that he wished to be traded to either the Lakers, Bulls or 76ers. In the opening days of the 1971–1972 season, with a deal yet to be made, Monroe traveled to Indianapolis to discuss a transfer to the ABA’s Indiana Pacers. The trip wound up serving as something of a wakeup call:

I had given the Bullets three teams that I wanted to be traded to: Philadelphia – which is where I was from – Chicago and L.A. I went out to Indiana to just see about maybe playing for the Pacers. And it was all well and good, great team, good organization. But after the game, I went to the locker room and over the top of their regular lockers there was a smaller locker, and guys were taking guns out of there. (Note: Monroe did not get into this with me, but in the book he mentions that the Pacers players brought to his attention, a certain threat). And I got really apprehensive. Back in those days we didn’t have cell phones, so I had to walk around the building to get to a pay phone, where I called my agent, Larry Fleischer, and told him, ‘Larry, I don’t think this is where I want to play!’

That’s when he informed me that ‘well, I’ve got a deal in place for you with New York.’ I thought he was kidding, because we had played against New York [in the playoffs] for the last three years, you know, like tooth and nail, they were hated, and I said ‘I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it.’ I went home and thought about it, talked to some friends, my mom, my sister, and what I came away with is that, I was always a scorer, so I had to think about that, but I could play anywhere, you know? I was a basketball player. I always prided myself on being from Philadelphia and really knowing how to play basketball. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do all the stuff I wanted to do as an individual, but I thought this would be another challenge.

Despite his wish list, the immediacy of the deal, along with his rapidly waning desire to join the Pacers, Monroe accepted the proposed trade to the New York Knicks. Understandably, there was initially some trepidation about joining not only a bitter rival – Monroe had faced the Knicks 45 times in his first four NBA seasons, 18 of those meetings in the playoffs, including seven-game battles in each of the last two postseasons – but one that featured an established core of veteran stars, including a dominant lead guard. With Walt “Clyde” Frazier in the driver’s seat, Monroe handled the ball less than ever. During the 1971-72 season, Monroe was hobbled by knees and ankle problems, which cut both his playing time (21.2 minutes per game) and scoring (11.9 points per game) nearly in half. However, the injuries that initially limited him in New York proved perhaps blessings in disguise, as Monroe was able to observe the team, learn its rhythm and acclimate to his new role and new mates – Clyde Frazier in particular:

They came in on my first day and welcomed me into the core. I’m sure Clyde had some apprehension, because here’s this guy who’s coming in to play the same position that he’s playing. But I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t stepping on any toes, because I was coming to his team, he wasn’t coming to my team, so I had to make the adjustments to make sure that this worked.

There wasn’t any real friction, it was just a matter of learning how to play with this new cadence. In Baltimore, I kinda judged everything through music, and I had my own cadence. When I came to New York, I had to adjust to Clyde’s cadence. And that was really the hard part, because when you have your own team, you know when to take over the game, you know when to give guys the ball, or different things that need to be done during the course of a game. Clyde had that here, and I needed to learn how to fit in with that.”

After playing a limited role in 1971-72’s near-title run, Monroe bounced back in 1972-73, playing nearly 32 minutes per game, regaining his efficiency (48.8% FG, v. 43.6% in 1971-72) and exhibiting his grasp of Clyde’s cadence en route to “Rolls Royce Backcourt” status and the 1973 NBA championship. By the end of the 1972-73 season Monroe had become a Madison Square Garden favorite. Although he averaged a relatively modest 15.5 points, his moves still dazzled, and he’d taken on added responsibilities as a perimeter defender. He routinely guarded the opponent’s best perimeter scorer, allowing Frazier more freedom to play the passing lanes.

The Knicks finished second in the Atlantic Division in ’72-‘73, setting the stage for another the Knicks-Bullets playoffs clash – only this time, Monroe was on an unfamiliar side. The Knicks made relatively short work of the Bullets, taking the series in five games, with Monroe averaging 21.8 per game, though it’s worth noting that he lit up his former mates to the tune of 27 per game in three victories at the Garden (including 32 – his career high as a Knick – in Game 2), while in Baltimore, he (not surprisingly) received a rather cool reception and (not coincidentally) managed just 27 points in two games. Monroe played a supporting role in the attack for the remainder of the postseason, as the Knicks topped the Boston Celtics, they of an NBA-best 68 game in the regular season, in six games, before toppling the defending champion Lakers in five to claimed the 1973 NBA title. Monroe eclipsed 20 points just three times in those final 11 games, but he played a vital role in helping the Knicks secure the crown, tallying 21 points in a Game 3 victory and a team-high 23 in the Game 5 clincher.

When they [the Lakers] won the championship in 1972, that was disheartening – that was very, very disheartening – but at the same time we felt as though we could come back and compete. We got the opportunity in ’73 to come back, and they had a great team, with Wilt and Gail Goodrich, Jim McMillan, actually I think Pat Riley was on that team, though he didn’t play much, Keith Erickson, Bill Bridges… they had a real formidable team and we knew that it would hard to beat them, but we felt confident after the first year because we really felt as though we should have played much better. And we won it in five games. It was a reversal of the way it had happened the year before. I think we won the first game and lost the next four, if I’m not mistaken (he’s not), and then in ’73 we lost the first game and won the next four.”

During the mid-1970s, Monroe continued to produce. He averaged 20.9 points per game in 1974-75, 20.7 in 1975-76, and 19.9 in 1976-77, and was twice named an All-Star. The Knicks, however, had seen their best days, and by 1979 were failing to qualify for the playoffs. Slowed by a series of serious knee injuries, which had plagued him throughout his career, Monroe retired in 1980, after 13 years in the NBA.

HOWEVAH…

The final chapter of Monroe’s career just happened to coincide with the arrival of another charismatic young playmaker, one who, like Monroe, was not blindingly fast or great leaper. As Magic Johnson prepared to take the NBA by storm, Monroe – now no longer commanding a star’s minutes – was seen as a potential mentor to the young superstar, and nearly a decade after first making eyes at the West coast, nearly wound up in forum blue and gold:

“It was my last year here in ’79-’80, and a guy from Philadelphia that played for the Lakers at one point and was working for them was a guy by the name of Walt Hazzard, and Hazz came into the locker room – we had played them here first – and he pulled me aside and told me ‘you know, we’re thinking about trying to trade for you, so that you can be like a caddy for Magic. Would you be amenable to that?’ At that point I wasn’t playing too much here in New York, and I thought about it and figured ‘Yeah!’, it would be a great way to leave the game, out there in Los Angeles. Later, when we played them in L.A. – I think it was January or February – he came back to me and asked me the same thing – ‘are you still ready to do that?’ – so I’m thinking it’s all ready to go down (laughs), and eventually, from what I understand, Jerry West put a word in and it wasn’t done. But that’s just speculation. I would have loved to go out there – Magic played pretty much the same type of game that I had, with the razzle-dazzle and no-look passes and what not…”

Asked if he ever asked Jerry West about that:

“No. Because I’m not sure that he did that, and even at that, for the most part Jerry’s a great guy, and we have a lot of respect for each other.”

In my final minutes with Mr. Monroe, having already spoken about the Lakers’ legends of the ’60, ‘70s and ‘80s, I had to get his thoughts on the latest Laker legend, and fellow Philly guy, Kobe Bryant:

“I’ve watched his career for a long, long time, since he got into the league, specifically because I played with his father, Jelly Bean, Joe Bryant. So, I’ve seen his game change and I’ve seen his attitude change, and the fact that he worked so hard to get to where he is, when you think about guys coming out of high school, some of those get the opportunity to play early on – he didn’t get that opportunity. He worked at it, and I was very impressed with that. And once he started playing, he set a new standard for how to play the game. I mean, when you think about Michael Jordan, you also have to think about Kobe Bryant.

And this year – I said it before the season (chuckles) ‘Kobe’s gonna have a bad back by the end of the season if he’s going to try and carry this team.’ But, to his credit, he willed them into the playoffs. There was so much controversy this season, with Howard coming in, he changed his game for a little bit of the season, he shot less, and then, later on, picked it back up when they needed it. So, you know, he’s one of my all-time guys, and I’m happy to know him, and to know that he’s from Philadelphia.”

Sincere thanks to Earl Monroe for his generosity, with both his time and his memories.

After The Gold Rush

Dave Murphy —  April 18, 2013

There’s an oft-used saying, ‘it’s a tough act to follow.’ You don’t want to be the band that takes the stage after the last band just totally shredded. Or the comedian that follows the guy who had them rolling in the aisles. Phil Jackson was a tough act to follow. Just ask Rudy T, ask Tim Floyd, ask Mike Brown.

Mike D’Antoni could have been the guy that simply followed Brown, they might have given him the keys to the city. But Jackson was back in the picture and for the most obvious of reasons – he was probably the best man for the job, having delivered great riches in the past. D’Antoni’s preferred system of basketball wasn’t suited for for the All-Star roster he inherited and it certainly wasn’t suited for a revolving door of injuries. A pretty rough season followed.

The Lakers lost another giant recently, someone whose greatness defined the team’s identity and direction. Kobe Bryant rounded the corner on Harrison Barnes and headed for Achilles surgery and a new found hobby of tweeting. Who knew?

Things can turn on a trifle as someone used to say. The loss of Bryant was both stunning and surreal and a couple hundred epic articles dropped over the next 24 hours and observers burped and patted each others backs and headed to the sink with the dishes, ready to rinse and wash and move on to the playoffs. In this particular narrative, non-Laker fans could afford to be magnanimous with their sympathy – you guys always have next year. Or not.

A funny thing happened at the tail end of the regular season. In the absence of certain giants and expectations, a team began to form their own ad hoc destiny. You can’t really label them bad news bears, not when fronted by Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. You also can’t pin the month of April on the loss of Kobe and some new found freedom. The Lakers went seven and one and five of those games saw Kobe playing insane minutes and carrying much of the load.

Sometimes, you just have to watch. One of Mike D’Antoni’s pet phrases is ‘letting the ball find the open man’. He has no ownership of the concept, it’s as old as the game itself, a guiding principal in the sport, sometimes honored and often ignored. Over the last two games, the ball has found new movement out of necessity. Guys are getting touches they didn’t get before. And who would have guessed that Andrew Goudelock would get a call-up and join Darius Morris on the floor during pivotal minutes in a seed-defining win?

It’s not simply the loss of Kobe that has caused a change in the team’s philosophy. Steve Nash has been out of action and may suit up on Sunday against the Spurs, depending on the results from two recent epidurals. Will his return put a damper on Steve Blake’s resurgent play? There are no simple answers.

To say it has been a season of adjustment is saying just a little. There have been recent moments that show an interesting unity however. A time out and coaches interact with their players. Dwight’s chatting with Bernie Bickerstaff, Chuck Person makes a point with Metta World Peace. D’Antoni calls the guys to gather and they’re paying attention. A group that has seen little time together on the floor goes back out there and gets some stops. Games are won ugly but they’re won. And the Lakers are in the playoffs with the seventh seed and if nothing else they’ve earned the right to keep playing.

Spring is regarded as a time of renewal and hope. It’s not always pretty, it follows in the barren footsteps of winter after all. The NBA season is too long for the health of its players. It affects all teams and the San Antonio Spurs will be heading into the first round with issues of their own. For the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s a transitional era in ways that are sometimes willfully ignored. Their earth has been mined and harvested, it is in need of replenishment and the new CBA has thrown a few obstacles into the mix. It’s not to say you can’t use your remaining assets though or that you can’t use them well.

The past, present and future of the Lakers has coalesced for the moment – it may not be the most stable of circumstances but there is at least some acceptance – from a head coach willing to let his team play to its strengths to a team willing to share, no longer bound to a singular voice. The expectations game will be back in the summer, one way or another. For at least this moment however, it’s simply the game of basketball.

Sunday night marked the arrival of a new, long-term houseguest in Lakerland – the ghost of roster future.

In the absence of Kobe Bryant – a scenario initially not expected to come to fruition for handful of years – all eyes will be on Dwight Howard to recapture his MVP form of years past and anchor the team at the both ends of the floor. In short, after having the luxury to allow Howard to acclimate to his new surroundings and battle back from injuries at his own pace, the Lakers now need their franchise center to act the part. Sunday night marked Howard’s first game as the team’s long-term anchor, and Dwight delivered, devastating the Spurs to the tune of 26 points, 17 rebounds (6 offensive) and three blocks (plus a dubious goaltending call on a Tim Duncan hook I the lane), flashing his once-unrivaled speed and power in the post, and truly dominating on the glass. The result from a team perspective was no less encouraging, as the Lakers, in the maiden voyage without their superstar and leader, took a major step in sealing the postseason berth has at times seemed so elusive, with a 91-86 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.

However, Dwight was not alone in elevating his game in Kobe’s absence. Steve Blake turned in crowning performance as a Laker, connecting on four of eight 3-point attempts en route to 23 points, to which he added five rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals. Providing a much-needed spark off of the bench was Antawn Jamison, who kicked in 15 points, burying three of five 3-pointers himself, and grabbed six rebounds in 20 minutes of burn. Lending additional support were Jodie Meeks, who despite hitting just three of 11 shots, hit a massive pair of 4th quarter 3-pointers, as well as Pau Gasol, who simply could not get a thing to drop. However, despite a putrid 3-for-17 showing from the field, Pau left a positive mark on the game with 16 rebounds (5 offensive) and three blocked shots of his own.

It must be said that the Spurs were far from their best on Sunday night, with just two (Tim Duncan and Matt Bonner) of 10 players that took the floor making at least half of their shots. Duncan, though outquicked by Dwight in the early going and unable to keep him off of the glass, played a fantastic game, scoring 23 points on 11-of-22 shooting (including a pair of thunderous throwdowns in the second half), grabbing 10 rebounds, handing out four assists and swatting three shots. Of historical significance, with his final bucket of the night, the greatest power forward the league has ever seen ran his career tally to 23,759, good for 22nd on the NBA’s all-time list, two points ahead of the previous holder of that distinction, Charles Barkley. Unfortunately for Duncan, who, like pre-injury Kobe, is more than a decade and half in and still playing some of the best ball of his career (24.4 PER, 21.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per 36 minutes and career-best defensive rebound and block rates), he received little support from his normally reliable running mates.

Chief among the struggling Spurs were Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, who shot a combined 2-for-15 from the floor (1-for-10 for Parker, 1-for-5 for Leonard) and combined for just 12 points, though it worth noting that the duo combined for 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Also, despite managing a double-double of his own (11 and 10), Tiago Splitter missed eight of the 13 shots he attempted, more than a couple of which were seemingly easy layups. Danny Green managed an identical 5-for-13 from the field, hitting just two of seven 3-point attempts, while Nando de Colo, Cory Joseph and DeJuan Blair managed just four points on 2-for-11 shooting. Now, it’s clearly unreasonable to expect two of the Spurs’ top three starters to shoot worse than 15% from the field while one of their starting bigs blows numerous chances at the rim, but a fair amount of credit is owed to the Lakers’ perimeter defenders, who challenged the Spurs’ on their 3-point attempts, forced an inordinate number of long 2-point jump shots and, in perhaps the greatest testament to their performance, held the Spurs to a single unsuccessful corner 3-point attempt.

That the sustainability of some of the offensive efforts can be called into question, and the Spurs did little to help themselves in a game that was certainly winnable are true, but tonight, wholly irrelevant. With the playoffs in the balance, in the absence of their emotional talisman and offensive catalyst, the Lakers put forth excellent effort at both ends, and ultimately had enough to gut out a massive victory against an elite Spurs team playing for its own playoff positioning, setting the stage for a win-and-you’re-in showdown with the Houston Rockets Wednesday night at Staples.

 

It’s been about 12 hours since word hit that Kobe Bryant suffered what looks to be a torn achilles tendon. And, to be completely honest, I’m still struggling to form fully developed thoughts on the idea of him suffering this type of injury.

I’ve seen Kobe hurt before. The list of injuries he’s suffered and played through is endless — a torn labrum, severely sprained ankles, mangled fingers, a torn ligament in his wrist, a fractured nose, and on and on it goes. He’s been something different than human in his ability to battle and fight through. It’s part of what’s made him Kobe; one of the reasons that he has universal respect even from those who openly root against him.

This is different, though. Seeing him clutching at his lower leg, that look on his face — not of determination to battle through, but of knowing something was really wrong — was something unseen to my eyes before. He’s really hurt this time and the impact it will have on what’s left of his career is unknown. Will he play again? If so, when? How well? Have we seen the last of the Kobe Bryant we know?

Where he goes from here remains to be seen. On his Facebook page he spoke openly about the doubts he has about coming back strong and the fire that burns to do just that. Kobe, more than any other athlete of our time is complicated that way. He’s been the ultimate yin and yang player. He’s the guy with the genius level basketball IQ who sometimes makes the plays that make you scratch your head. He’s the ultimate solo artist who will throttle an opponent with fantastic team play. He’s the guy who offers the most biting critique only to later put his arm around a teammate and offer sage words of wisdom. It seems the players he is most frustrated with are the ones he respects the most; the ones who physically challenge him are the ones he wants by his side in the trenches.

In the past few months Kobe has talked about the mental drain of continuing to compete at the level he has been while wondering if he could continue to do it. The next day he’d remark how he could play for 5 more years if he wanted. This injury will challenge him in new ways and only he will be able to know how much he has left to give to try and get back to the court.

What this means for the Lakers is clear. They’ll still function as a team because they still have several very good players. Losing Kobe hurts in many tangible (and intangible) ways, but they can and will adjust. They’re professionals, after all. But Kobe was their best wing player and, for pretty much this entire season, their best player overall.

He carried their offense in a variety of ways and replacing his production will be nearly impossible. Replacing it from the wing, will be impossible. The Lakers simply don’t have the players to do so. Whether they make the playoffs or not — and I bet that they do — they’re worse off and whatever hope they had of challenging a top seed is now nearly gone. I expect they’ll compete hard and still challenge, but you don’t lose your 5-star general and become a better army. The team will close ranks and try their best and that will lead to some wins but it won’t be the same. It just won’t be.

I think Dwight Howard will try to fill the void of production, that Pau Gasol will take up the mantle of leadership, that Steve Nash will return and play his brains out (that guys is competitive too, you know). I think that team will still be entertaining and fun and a lot of things that we’ve wanted them to be all season. But they’ll be it without Kobe and that, for me at least, will be hard. And strange.

The quest for blame is on and I understand the sentiment. When things go wrong we want to know why. We ask and answer the question ourselves and then react accordingly.

Mike D’Antoni’s name will ring out as the culprit here and while I can relate to throwing blame in his direction, I don’t do so myself. Yes, one of his chief jobs is to manage a player’s minutes and to protect them from themselves. This is especially true of the super-competitive players who, if left to their own decision making, will play through whatever their bodies will tolerate. Kobe’s body can tolerate more than others and I do believe that D’Antoni could have been better at managing the situation to try and keep Kobe from playing to the level of fatigue he reached this year.

But Kobe wanted to play and the Lakers needed him to play. That much is not arguable. There wasn’t the luxury of rest when every game mattered so much. Do you rest Kobe now when there’s no guarantee the rest will even be applicable towards your ultimate goal? If the Lakers don’t the games they do with Kobe in the game for so many minutes, they don’t qualify to play the games where that rest matters. What then?

This is why the situation was lose-lose. The hole was too deep and the team had to fight too hard just to get in a position to qualify for the chance to reach their goals. It wasn’t supposed to be that way, but it was. Fault for that lies with everyone. With the players for playing poorly enough to lose all those games. With the front office for building a roster so dependent on a select few, aged players. With the injury bug who feasted on the Lakers all season. And, yes, with the coach who was too stubborn and sacrificed long term thinking for the types of short term returns that were needed to try and, ironically enough, get back to where the long term view could be taken.

It’s been a sick season that way and there is no remedy for it. So blame who you want, just know that whoever you blame isn’t alone, as there’s plenty to go around.

After all these words, I still don’t really know what to think about it all. Kobe and I are close in age. In a way, I’ve always related to him simply because we come from the same time and have been influenced by the same things when it comes to the game we both love. He’s one of the best to ever play the game and I’m just a guy observing it all from a distance, but that distance between us has been closed through my television, the internet, and a press pass or two.

His career likely isn’t over, but it feels like an era is. The era where I could depend on seeing number 24 (and before it number 8) take the floor under every conceivable circumstance certainly is. For that I’m incredibly sad, but also tremendously appreciative. I got the chance to see one of the very best ever do what he does best. I also saw him go down swinging, competing his hardest, performing at the some of the highest highs he ever has.

And in a way it’s fitting. Cruel and undeserved, but fitting nonetheless.