On Sunday, arguably the greatest player ever stepped in, hunkered down and defeated a worthy opponent, one whose run in recent months has faced heavy skepticism and much detraction. Though the favored prevailed, there was enough seeded doubt to keep things interesting. As it stood, however, the king remained the king, until further notice.
Indeed, the Los Angeles Lakers won their sixteenth NBA championship and seventeenth as a franchise since 1946, tying the Boston Celtics for the most of any franchise, with LeBron James claiming his fourth title and fourth Finals MVP. If he isn’t already there, Anthony Davis is very nearly at a point where his Hall of Fame candidacy is ensured at 27. Against the tapestry of a global pandemic and election year tensions stateside, the NBA committed to the bubble, and the Lakers committed to defense in Game 6. Sometimes, it seems, lockdowns work.
I didn’t sleep much more than half an hour this past Saturday night; after a not-altogether late but nevertheless busy night, as happens to people who are increasingly willing to talk about it, I was awake most of Sunday morning, thinking of dreadful things, people I’ve wronged, anxiety I’ve caused and the places I can go to where I know that, no matter what, I will be safe. It just so happened that, on the evening prior, current Los Angeles Laker LeBron James passed arguably the quintessential Los Angeles Laker, Kobe Bryant, to move into third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
Kobe Bryant never stopped. He was the basketball embodiment of Clipse’s “Grindin’,” and, as ESPN’s Bomani Jones pointed out on Monday, a distillation of what would become the NBA’s #RANGZ culture. The gifs prove it; the track record is undeniable. That, of course, isn’t the whole story, but we have now missed out on what would paint a complete picture of Kobe, who passed away Sunday morning along with eight others, including his daughter Gianna, at the age of 41.
“Once a Knick, always a Knick.”
These are the words emblazoned across a picture the New York Knicks chose to post in celebration of Amar’e Stoudemire signing a one-day contract on Tuesday so that he could retire with the franchise he helped revitalize in the summer of 2010. At 33, the man who once posted a picture of himself bathing in red wine decided he had had enough of basketball, or perhaps that basketball had had enough of him.
Few in the history of professional basketball embody the kind of paradox he does. To a certain generation of NBA fans, he represents one very distinct, dynamic kind of player; to another, ever-so-slightly generation, he represents a broken promise, an undoing not entirely or even at all his own, but a bulky set of talcum shoulders on which to rest blame nonetheless.
Both on and off the court, NBA All-Star Weekend always manages to provide once-in-a-lifetime moments and opportunities. This edition, held over the weekend in Toronto’s polar hellscape, was no exception, with a live reading of Space Jam and an all-time classic duel between Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon in the Slam Dunk contest° preceding a record-smashing Game on Sunday.
Amidst the revelry, it would have been easy to miss the announcement of this year’s finalists for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Along with Shaquille O’Neal, Sheryl Swoopes, Kevin Johnson and Yao Ming, Allen Iverson received a nomination for the players category, re-opening a dialogue which had somewhat flamed out since Iverson last played in the NBA in 2010¹. It stands to reason that Iverson deserves to be in the Hall, if only for the sake of his play and, subsequently, his influence not being so easily forgotten.
Since he announced his retirement, effective at the end of this season, Kobe Bryant has played more like the Kobe of old than the broken shadow he has become. The “Kobe of old” here is the Bean, the player who came off the bench and won a Slam Dunk contest before ever winning a championship. In those days, through 2006 in fact, Kobe sported the number 8.
Since undertaking his own re-branding a decade ago, he has worn the number 24. Like any decent American sporting organization – because this is how we choose to honor our favorite athletes in this country, for better and for worse – the Los Angeles Lakers will eventually hold a jersey retirement ceremony for Kobe. What number they will retire, however, has sparked debate, with Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak saying it could even be both 8 and 24. Plenty of teams have retired the same number for two different players, and plenty of players have had their number retired by multiple teams, but if Kobe has both of his numbers retired by the Lakers, that may set a new precedent.
The question is, if Kobe Bryant is the Greatest Laker Ever™, why stop at just the two numbers he actually wore?
Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes
of the earth will wail.
We knew this was coming. It was written, and now it shall be done. The general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, Mitch Kupchak, predicted this a year ago. With a quasi-poem in the Players’ Tribune, Kobe Bean Bryant, arguably the most intense and focused human being ever to walk this planet, let alone play this sport, announced his retirement from the NBA, effective at the conclusion of this season. In light of his throwback, 31-point performance, including a game-sealing shot, let’s take a moment to celebrate one of the greatest, and most divisive, players ever.
Wake up, dust off your finest Jordans, throw on a pair of sunglasses and tell the world to deal with it, because the NBA is finally back on your television tonight. Three games featuring five playoff teams from a year ago, including the defending champion Golden State Warriors, return us to the hardwood. So much has transpired this offseason, it can be easy to get caught up in it. Such is life in the 24/7/365 NBA, if you allow it to be.
We can only say and think so much about basketball, however, without there being any games. Before the first tip-off of the season (Cavs/Bulls or, if you prefer, Hawks/Pistons, tonight at 8 pm), let’s spare a thought – not necessarily a prediction, though there will be more than a fair share of those – to each franchise, in alphabetical order. Some of them may be painfully obvious or extremely misguided, because I guess I don’t think about the Minnesota Timberwolves nearly enough. Anyway, best of luck to the following teams, especially the Knicks. Those dudes are gonna need it.
It’s almost the middle of September, which means it’s almost October, which means it’s almost time for basketball season. With the NFL stumbling over itself at every turn – which, come to think of it, is how most of its current players will spend their autumn years, in their mid-40s – and baseball casually winding toward the postseason (we see you, Mets), basketball still stakes a claim in some part of the sports conversation, even if you aren’t watching EuroBasket games in the middle of your afternoon (On Wednesday, Italy mounted a comeback to force overtime and beat Germany, 89-82). Tuesday’s announcement that NBA division winners are no longer guaranteed playoff spots kick-started much of the hibernating excitement which will roll us into the upcoming season.
With basketball season breathing down our necks, it’s time to start considering how some of the pieces of Adam Silver’s puzzle will fit, how they will interact with one another and how they can realize their potential. One of the most interesting teams for this basketball season has long been a laughingstock, even with a generational talent who may very well be the best pure center in the NBA. Now, that team has two potential game-changing centers, as well as a hodgepodge of players who either grew out of previous roles or never quite fit into them in the first place. The Sacramento Kings aren’t good, yet, but they could be, and they’re seemingly better; they aren’t stable, yet, but they were for a brief time last year; and they aren’t a favorite, which may end up making them one of the most dangerous teams in the league.
Yesterday, the NBA officially announced Wardell Stephen Curry II as the MVP, and rightfully so. With the possible exception of Russell Westbrook during the second half of the season, nobody was more consistently electrifying than Curry, whose barrages of three-pointers and Vine-worthy displays of ankle-breaking handles impelled the Warriors to a league-best 67 wins. Curry’s play leaves you gasping for air, wondering if the sun rises simply to shine on the scrawny kid from Charlotte and his band of audacious musketeers.
Instead, however, I want to talk about another product of North Carolina, an injured point guard who never so much inspires gasps as he does head-nodding. He is the smartest on-court player in the league, perhaps its best backcourt defender, as polarizing as he is mesmerizing. On one leg, he may have just ended the greatest sports dynasty of the last two decades (“may have,” only because nothing is certain in San Antonio’s Fountain of Youth, and that sentence could’ve been written anytime from 2006-2013, with any number of slayers replacing Paul). The time has come to lavish praise, begrudgingly if you must, on Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards in history.
The NBA announced its All-Star starters this week, with a certain pair of Spanish hermanos at the forefront. Interestingly but not surprisingly, Steph Curry beat out LeBron James and Anthony Davis as the highest vote-getter, and the Eastern Conference has an entirely new backcourt for the first time since 2000. Elsewhere, Kobe Bryant, destroyer of efficiency ratings, has become Kobe Bryant, destroyer of his own rotator cuff, and LaMarcus Aldridge’s injury has the Blazers reeling.