One if these days I’ll wake up and the A/C won’t need to be on, perhaps not for an entire day. I yearn for cool and gray but facts is facts, summers in Texas don’t end in August or September. The school year and other seasonal benchmarks may commence but the triple-digit days will continue. Our esteemed governor (and presidential hopeful) is on record as not believing in the science of warming. He also recently opined that people in California move here for the weather. I lived a major portion of my life in Southern California. Nobody from that region moves here for the weather. Nobody.
At the end of the Lakers’ season, I wrote about letting Phil Jackson go, about gratitude for the long and chaotic ride. The stunning loss to Dallas was so thorough, that finding a form of acceptance was like a port in a storm. I haven’t changed my mind about Phil coming back - his body’s simply too broken to sustain more coaching. Regardless, it’s the Mike Brown era now, for as long as it lasts and assuming it even begins which is assuming a lot these days. Still, there’s the time-stamps, triggers that slip in and allow you to steal away.
Kobe Bryant turned 33 a few days back, his birthday was noted across the blogger universe. Phillip Barnett at FB&G asked readers for their favorite memories and I was tempted to encapsulate a feeling but found it rambling and amorphous - late night thoughts dodged and drifted as I fell into a few hours sleep. These elusive thieves lingered over coming days - that from all the transcendent moments, I’m struck by Kobe's darkest, most fractured period. Not incidentally, the 2003-2004 season was chronicled in one of the most incendiary sports journals ever written, Phil Jackson’s "The Last Season".
It was a tough and ugly time in Denver. The hurt and repercussions rumbled across the western conference’s fractured tectonic plates and beyond. It was messy, it engendered anger and mistrust and bandages were ripped off as quickly as they were applied. Kobe entered training camp late, coming off knee surgery and in the middle of a court case that would have him flying frequently, weighing less than we had ever seen and raging at everything and everyone. If there was a time when a person would want support, if there was a time not to pick a fight with Shaq, this would have been it. He picked a main card of course. Two days before opening night, the L.A. Times’ Tim Brown wrote about the Return of Star Wars. Jim Gray's ESPN interview followed and a bumpy season was underway.
Past trials and tribulations are no obvious means to a celebration. These were portals however, to a complicated season that in ways, mirrored our last one. Each ended in epic series losses, with Phil Jackson riding off. Each featured Kobe in significant transitional stages. He turned 25 just prior to the 2003-2004 season but his body seemed much older - a dizzying parade of injuries, surgeries and injuries again. The act of playing provided sanctuary however, these isolated moments contrasted and transformed, set apart from the court dates and loss of endorsements, the feuds with Shaq and Phil.
Kobe wrenched his surgically repaired right shoulder in January. Upon coming back, he promptly sliced an index finger open. He showed up against Orlando with his arm and shoulder swathed in a padded blue sleeve. Stu Lantz said he was basically playing with one hand. What followed was one of the season’s most memorable games as he dueled against T-Mac, taking over in a patented 4th quarter bombardment.
The series against the Spurs was a prime example of Kobe overcoming obstacles - flying back and forth for court dates, often looking exhausted before games and taking IV fluids after. He put on a memorable clinic in game 4 with 42 points, owning everyone in the second half and absolutely torching Bruce Bowen, time and again. Check out the elevation, even on shaky pins.
I still think the Lakers would have beaten Detroit with a healthy Karl Malone but a loss is a loss and with it came the dismantling of the team. The finals were not without a few highlight reels however and none better than Kobe sticking a 3-pointer in Rip Hamilton’s face to send the game into overtime. Phil referred to it as the "what the fuck", a play he learned from Red Holzman who could never remember its name. Watch the footage as the ball goes from Shaq to Luke to Kobe, with Hamilton caught on a switch. It would be their lone victory in the 2004 finals, one more than 2011.
I’d be remiss in not mentioning a moment of unintentional levity. With free agency looming, Kobe threatened to walk and take Slava with him. Phil thought it "the worst plan imaginable" but for me it was pure gold. Was there some unlikely kinship between the two? I can remember them on the bench with Kobe gesturing in animated fashion, perhaps delving into the complexities of the game and even beyond. Slava nodded in a typically stoic manner and watched whatever was in front of him. Islands in the sea.
It's these elusive moments that tugged at me while reading Phillip's post - not highlight reels in their entirety but those sections within a game as Kobe found his groove. Sometimes his scowl would drop, sometimes it wouldn't. Sometimes a crowd would carry him, sometimes he performed in pure defiance. But for me there were little pieces of light that jabbed at a dark season, time signatures from a brilliant career.
Eight years have passed and his birthday is again marked by a summer of turmoil and transition. His team was blown out in the finals, the coach that he’d finally found peace with left. Brian Shaw was fired and Mike Brown was hired, without Bryant’s knowledge or input. The layoffs continued and even the owner that he had come to rely on throughout the years, faded into the woodwork, replaced by a son whose priority is Andrew Bynum. And then came the lockout.
A younger Kobe would have fired in all directions. I look at a player who was isolated from others in the community and see him now, mobbed at the Drew League, speaking for solidarity at a union meeting, traveling the globe, smiling and reaching out. I see a family that’s intact, healthy and happy. And, a guy who in real and meaningful ways, learned and came out the other side. Still, to old doubters and a new generation that may yet see a season of basketball - beware the smile of a killer. Happy thirty-three.