|Picture by Charis Tsevis|
I saw Kobe Bryant play the other night at Madison square garden. It was one of those events where you tend to watch a player more than the actual game. I’ll be honest; I felt a little weird for watching him, before, during, and after the game - analyzing his routine, interactions with teammates, and reaction to game situations. But then I realized Watching Kobe is akin to paying to see any other great artist perform. As a player or coach it’s educational. As a fan it’s both intriguing and insightful. I am always interested in seeing the little things that one does to get motivated and prepared for games. The meticulousness. The secrets. Greatness after all, is in the details.
Kobe kept mostly to himself and didn’t exert much energy during shoot around. Was it always like this? Or has his pre-game ritual evolved to conserve more in his 15th season? Is it more about the mental aspect now? He seemed to do more dribbling, in one spot, while surveying the court. He himself watching, he pulled Andrew Bynum over after his jump hook warm-ups to give him some pointers.
His actions during the player introductions were atypical. After the Lakers were announced, they all returned to their bench as the lights went off in the garden to introduce the Knicks. Except Kobe, who instead was out at the other side of the court pacing back and forth between baseline and the foul line extended with his hands in his pockets. At first I thought something was wrong; was he avoiding his teammates? Did he get into an argument with one of them? My brother thought he was acting sort of nuts. But after a while it occurred to me; was he envisioning the game before it begun? Was he laying a mental map of how the game would go? What he would do not just for the game, but play-by-play? What was he thinking? Or, was he taking in the sights and atmosphere, reveling in the moment of being at the garden, a place he plays only once a year.
Could it be that at that moment with all eyes on him, he was alone in his own world?
As soon as the lights came back on he snapped out of his pensive trance, and like a predator who has found the right moment to strike, darted to the basket to jump and pounce on the rim. This reminded me that no matter how sedated you think a lion (or snake) is, they are ready to attack. He twisted while hanging up there to ensure all components of his body were fully prepared for battle and then headed back to the Laker bench.
There are times when I have seen Kobe on T.V. and it looks as if he tries too hard to be the best player on the court. Fighting to still prove he can do it all. In those times, he takes too many contested shots. Goes one on one too much. And appears too selfish. Imagine how hard he can make it for his teammates. Then there are times like the other night at the garden. With efficiency and seemingly without effort, he plays at different level dominating the game. To start the first quarter he didn’t seem interested in scoring, but rather using and setting up his teammates. Yes! How can you guard him coming off a Pau Gasol screen? He can get into the lane at will and methodically pick apart the defense. Imagine how easy he makes the game for everyone else.
After letting the game come to him, Kobe then decided to put on a show. He started to make every shot he took, from where ever he took it, no matter who was guarding him. With time winding down in the first he was isolated with Raymond Felton on the top of the key (0:48 mark in highlight). He hit him with 2-3 fake spins that were so smooth it seemed to be all one motion. As everyone one in the building knew he would, including Felton, he shook free, elevated and sank the shot as time expired. He finished with 19 in the first quarter.
In the third quarter, he hit Danilo Gallinari with a cross over so hard he created five feet of space to pull up for a foul line jump shot (3:14 mark in highlight). And how perverse was that? I remember when Kobe was a kid crossing over gown men. Now Kobe is a grown man crossing over kids.
He finished the game with 33 points and 10 rebounds, light, in only three quarters of playing. He made moves and shots that made my brother literally shake with amazement. He had the garden chanting “M-V-P!” when he went to the foul line. He had our whole section talking, as one guy mentioned: “you’re lucky the game isn’t close, or else kobe would have 50 by now.” I didn’t doubt him. This is Kobe. This is fine art. This is greatness. The only disappointment of the evening was that the game wasn’t close enough to see Kobe play more. But still, in the fourth I watched him - laughing and playing around with Derek Fisher, shadow boxing a coach with a towel over his head. How cool is it to be that bad, for so many years? Simply put, Kobe was bigger than the Knicks. Kobe was bigger than the game.
Much to soon, it was over and Kobe was interviewed by ESPN. After, he again went to the other side of the court without his teammates, although this time with security, and this time to greet and hug someone. Who was this guy he was talking with? Was he as remotely good at what he did as Kobe was at basketball? I'll have to doubt it. Although, it might have been a pre-requisite for conversing with him.
As he walked off the court, and walked down the tunnel to lead him out of sight, a swarm of fans rushed to the seats closest to the exit, amassing to get a final glimpse of him before they had to wait another year. Chanting his name in hope that he would acknowledge them, Kobe gave them all a thrill and raised his hand in recognition. In that moment, in one of the most famous venues in all of sport, in all of it’s publicity, all those that admired greatness in the form of Kobe Bryant were able to share an intimate moment with him. And in turn, that emotion was reciprocal. For all the talk of this being Phil Jackson’s last game at the garden, the reality is, how many more games does Kobe have at the garden? In that moment, was there a chance for reflection of everything thing he has done to get to this point? The pinnacle, the prime, this moment. Did all the work and enormity of it flash through him?
The picture of it was sublime.
And then he was gone. We were asked to exit.
As I walked to the train, I saw a line down the block in front of Foot Locker waiting for him to make a midnight appearance. The line formed before the game, for those who wanted to see him and couldn’t get into the garden. I suppose greatness inspires greatness. It demands respect. It deserves emulation. To appreciate this, imagine all of the basketball players you have seen and know. Imagine the best. Now imagine, one of the ten best players of all time…… AT ANY POSITION. Think of everything it took to become that, both by effort and chance. The journey. The progression. And finally, the realization.
Wouldn’t you want to see that?