Three moments that might have broken Kobe Bryant but instead defined his legacy

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The moments that could have broken him instead ended up defining him.

It always seemed to be that way with Kobe Bryant.

Three different times in his career something that could have crushed him instead became a defining moment that re-shaped Kobe Bryant’s legacy and how we think of him today.

The first of those moments was May 12, 1997, when the Lakers were in a back-and-forth Game 5 of a second-round playoff series against the Jazz. Already down 3-1 in the series, it was win-or-go-home for the Lakers and things were stacked against them: Byron Scott was out with a sprained wrist, Robert Horry had been ejected for letting Jeff Hornacek get under his skin, and Shaquille O’Neal had fouled out. Kobe, primarily a bench player that rookie season, was pressed into action — and in the most Kobe of ways tried to take over.

Kobe attempted a game-winning pull-up elbow jumper as time expired in regulation — it was an airball.

So was his next jump shot. And the one after that. And the one after that.

Four airballs in a row in the clutch minutes of a playoff game on national television — it was humbling and potentially devastating. Kobe had grown up picturing himself draining exactly those kinds of game-winners, and he had airballed them all while his team lost. It led to rivers of newspaper ink and plenty of fan talk in bars — Lakers fans were angry the precocious rookie didn’t know his place. Laker coach Del Harris was shredded for leaving Kobe in the game.

Kobe’s response? When the Laker flight home after that loss landed in Los Angeles, he went directly to the Pacific Palisades High School gym and worked on his shot all night long, literally until the sun came up. Kobe refused to let the failure in Utah define him, or even slow him down. He worked like a maniac on his game and shot all summer long.

By the following February, Kobe was starting in the All-Star Game at age 19.

It was that will and that work ethic that won over fans — and earned deep respect from his adversaries — over a 20-year career that was polarizing yet made Bryant an icon of the game.

Kobe’s life — and the life of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, as well as seven others — was tragically cut short Sunday morning when the helicopter they were riding in crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, California. There were no survivors.

“For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “He was one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game with accomplishments that are legendary: five NBA championships, an NBA MVP award, 18 NBA All-Star selections, and two Olympic gold medals. But he will be remembered most for inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball and compete to the very best of their ability. He was generous with the wisdom he acquired and saw it as his mission to share it with future generations of players, taking special delight in passing down his love of the game to Gianna.”

Kobe’s early years, rise to the NBA

Kobe Bean Bryant was born on August 23, 1978, in Philadelphia. The son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe was named after an expensive style of Japanese beef.

In the 1983-84 season, Joe Bryant had fallen out of the NBA and took his family to Italy, where he continued to play professionally. It is there Kobe’s lifelong love of soccer started — he would credit the sport for his good footwork — while he continued to work on his basketball skills playing for the youth team of Pallacanestro Reggiana (his father’s club for a couple of years). Kobe lived in Italy for seven years and throughout his life spoke fondly of those times — and could do so in fluent Italian.

Kobe returned to high school in the Philadelphia area and rose to stardom leading Lower Merion High School to the 1996 Pennsylvania state championship.

Following in the footsteps of Kevin Garnett and others, Kobe decided to forgo college and went straight into the NBA Draft. Laker legend and then GM Jerry West worked out Kobe and greatness recognizes greatness — West wanted Bryant. What happened next was Laker legend: West talked the Nets John Calipari out of drafting Kobe, then set up a trade with Charlotte, which drafted Kobe at No. 13 and traded him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac.

It was that rookie year that Kobe airballed four-straight shots against Utah — and he vowed never to let that happen again.

The turbulent, championship Shaq/Kobe years

For a few seasons, as Kobe matured and the Lakers worked to find the right mix around them, Kobe and Shaq battled to control the locker room (Shaq won that battle) while the team never reached its potential on the court. For the 1999-2000 season, the Lakers brought in Phil Jackson and his triangle offense to try and maximize their talented roster. He did — although what Jackson really did that first season was get the Lakers to play much-improved defense and that was enough (the offense came along in later seasons).

Kobe and Shaq continued feuding but they won three straight NBA titles. On the court they were the perfect inside/outside combination for the era, but the always driven Kobe seethed at Shaq’s work ethic (like not showing up to camp in shape) and Shaq enjoyed needling the serious Kobe. The combination of winning, plus Jackson’s mediation and mind games, kept the balance of power… until he couldn’t.

After the 2004 season and a loss in the Finals to Detroit, Kobe was a free agent and the Lakers had to chose which superstar to build around. They wisely chose Kobe and traded Shaq to Miami.

The second moment: The sexual assault charge in Colorado

This was the second time in Kobe’s career where his actions could have destroyed him, but instead how he came out of it defined the second half of his career. Even if it left him with an asterisk.

In July 2003 Bryant was charged with the sexual assault of a 19-year-old employee of a hotel in Edwards, Colorado. Bryant admitted to adultery — which led to very public challenges with his wife, Vanessa, and the purchase of a reportedly $4 million diamond ring — but said he had not raped the woman, that everything was consensual.

The case and Kobe’s marriage is the kind of juicy celebrity story that sells tabloids and his case got wall-to-wall coverage across the nation. Graphic details of blood and positions became front-page news. Bryant lost endorsements, and had to fly from court dates in Colorado to Staples Center for games, at points barely making it on time.

Kobe’s legal defense team used the kind of victim shaming tactics that keep women who are raped from coming forward, but it worked — the victim refused to testify and the criminal case was dismissed. The woman filed a civil suit, which was settled out of court. The case was behind him, but it would always leave him tarnished.

Rather than be destroyed by all this, Kobe came out of the Colorado incident with a new attitude — or more accurately, he publicly embraced the polarizing nature of his personality and game. It’s what came to define the second half of his career — love him or hate him, he didn’t care, but you had to respect his game. His “hate me” ad for Nike perfectly summed up this new attitude.

For the next few seasons after the Shaq trade, Kobe put up monster individual numbers — he averaged 35.4 points per game in the 2005-06 season — but with a thin roster the team did not succeed.

That was until just before the trade deadline in February 2008 when the Lakers traded for All-Star big man Pau Gasol out of Memphis. That year Kobe won the MVP — the only time in his career — and the Lakers reached the NBA Finals, where they fell to the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce/Ray Allen Celtics.

The next year, the Lakers would beat Dwight Howard‘s Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. The following year, Kobe and company would get their revenge on the Boston Celtics, giving Kobe his fifth NBA ring (and second-straight Finals MVP).

Also in there, in 2008 and 2012, Kobe would play a critical role for Team USA as it won two Olympic gold medals. On a team loaded with talent, Kobe went to coach Mike Krzyzewski and asked for the toughest defensive assignments — he was going to lead by example on that end of the court. It worked.

The third moment: Kobe tears his Achilles, makes one more comeback

In 2013, as people started to wonder how many more years Kobe would play, he got on a hot streak and was putting up numbers — and then he tore his Achilles.

It happened in a game against Golden State, and Kobe legendarily hobbled to the free throw line and still took his free throws (which would have allowed him to re-enter the game, something that was never going to happen).

This became the third time Kobe could have been broken and instead used it to define himself again. It drove him to play a few more seasons and leave the game on his own terms.

Kobe was 34 when he tore his Achilles, he had five rings and a resume full of accolades, and he knew his career was winding down. He could have just walked away and nobody would have questioned it.

That’s not Kobe — he was going to leave on his own terms. No injury would dictate the terms of the end of his career.

Kobe rehabbed almost the entire next season, playing just six games, and then the following season injuries to his other leg kept Kobe at just 35 games. Again, his will and drive refused to let that be how he would leave the game.

Kobe returned for the 2015-16 season and won more fans over around the league during a farewell tour. Kobe played hard that season and as much as he could, and in his final game dropped 60 points in an unforgettable performance.

That drive, that passion — something first evidenced in a high school gym in 1997 after an ugly loss — is what drew so many fans to him. It was something in Kobe that people wanted to see in themselves and took inspiration from. It led to a wild, entertaining, amazing ride.

A ride that ended far too early.

Mark Cuban’s plan for a restart, “I don’t think we can go the old tried and true way”

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Wild, fanciful ideas for restarting the NBA that would never fly in a typical year — 1-16 seeding, or maybe a soccer World Cup-style group stage — are getting an airing this season because everything is on the table. As the NBA moves closer to a restart plan, countless ideas are being floated.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has his own plan.

Shocking, I know. But it’s interesting.

“What I proposed is that we extend the playoff format to 10 teams from each conference, and play at least five games prior to going into playoffs,” Cuban said laying out is plan to NBC’s Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live.” And if we do that, every team in the Eastern Conference would have a chance to make the playoffs, and all but two in the Western Conference would do it [Ed. note: Golden State and Minnesota].

“Then, what I would do, once we got 10 and 10, I would reseed them, and 17 would play 20, and 18 would play 19, in a one-game series. The winner then would take on the eighth-place seed in a five-game series, while the No. 1 seed in each conference would get a bye. Then you go ahead normally from there.

“That gives us a chance to have more meaningful games, it gives almost every team a chance when we come back for whatever is left of our regular season. I think we’ve got to change it up some, I don’t think we can go the old tried and true way.”

Cuban later added, speaking to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, that he wants to see all 30 teams come to Orlando for regular season games, building excitement for the NBA’s return in every market. This dream, however, seems a long shot, and Damian Lillard spoke for a lot of players when he said he’s not playing if there is not a path to the playoffs for Portland.

Cuban’s point that this is the year to try something different, not to play it safe, has real validity. This season is already upside down due to the corona

Cuban’s plan is a long shot, but is it any longer a shot than any of the other ones out there?

 

Wizards’ Bradley Beal: Thunder considered trading James Harden for me on draft day 2012

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The first three picks of the 2012 NBA Draft, which was held in June:

1. New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans): Anthony Davis

2. Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets): Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

3. Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal

That August, the Thunder reportedly offered to trade James Harden to Washington for Beal. Washington reportedly rejected the offer due to Harden’s desire for a max contract extension (which Wizards owner Ted Leonsis denied). The Rockets were more than willing to pay Harden, and Oklahoma City dealt him to Houston that October.

Apparently, Washington had a chance to land Harden earlier that offseason.

Beal on “All The Smoke:”

We’re sitting in the draft room. Sure enough, my agent is tapping me. He’s like, “It’s possible you might go to OKC.” I said, “Damn, how am I going to go there? I ain’t even worked out for OKC.” I only worked out for three teams – Washington, Cleveland and Charlotte.

So, the deal was to trade James to Washington, right? OKC gets the third pick. It was either the second or third pick. They were going to trade up to 2 or 3, get me, trade James to Washington.

I would have been in OKC with KD and Russ.

That was a last-minute decision. It was almost done.

I can’t tell whether Beal is also revealing a Harden-to-Charlotte offer or just got mixed up on which teams held the Nos. 2 and 3 picks. Obviously, if Beal was the main prize to the Thunder, they would’ve cared only minimally whether they got him with the No. 2 or No. 3 pick. So, there might have been trade talks with Charlotte, too.

But I’m not convinced Oklahoma City valued Beal that way.

The Thunder were a championship contender. They had just lost in the 2012 NBA Finals to the Heat. Oklahoma City couldn’t have depended on a rookie Beal to contribute on that level.

That’s why – in addition to picks/young player acquired from the Rockets for Harden – the Thunder also got Kevin Martin. The veteran Martin was much better than Beal in 2012-13. (Ironically, the open title window was also a strong argument for just keeping Harden, whatever his contract status).

But the 2012-13 season didn’t go as planned for Oklahoma City. Russell Westbrook got hurt early in the playoffs, and the Thunder lost to the Grizzlies in the second round. Martin left for a lucrative contract with the Timberwolves the following summer.

Even with the long runway Kevin Durant and Westbrook provided, Oklahoma City never got back to the Finals. Beal could have grown into a third star whose shooting complemented the duo. The Thunder might have won a championship with this trade (or, again, just keeping Harden).

The Wizards almost certainly would have won more. Harden has perennially gotten the Rockets to the playoff. (They’ve gone further in years he has had more help.) Beal hasn’t singlehandedly carried Washington like that.

So, this is an interesting “what if?” – if you take it at face value.

Beal’s agent warning him of a trade possibility means something. But we don’t know which other pieces were involved.

The Thunder didn’t trade Harden until just before the rookie-scale-extension deadline, suggesting they wanted to give themselves time to extend him themselves before taking the drastic step of trading him. Would Beal have been enough of a return to give up in June (or even August) on keeping Harden? Maybe. Harden didn’t fully blossom until reaching Houston. But I’m skeptical. At minimum, Harden had already established himself as young and good. Beal was young, promising and under greater team control. There’s significant value in the certainty of a player being at least a near-star, and Harden – not Beal – had that.

Even in hindsight, we’re still revisiting the situation with only limited information.

Report: NBA games could resume in August, not July

Bucks center Brook Lopez and Raptors center Marc Gasol
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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A week ago, the NBA was looking to resume games in July at Disney World.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In fact, there’s a possibility the first games played in Orlando could be in August, not July, sources said.

It’s good the NBA is being flexible on a start date. The coronavirus presents so much uncertainty.

The league is approaching its most lucrative time – the playoffs. The NBA should make every effort to play the postseason, whenever that can be done safely.

Everyone can figure out next season later, especially because there’s a willingness to delay the start.

Report: Pistons searching for new general manager

Pistons executive Ed Stefanski
Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Pistons hired Ed Stefanski as a senior advisor to owner Tom Gores in 2018. Among Stefanski’s duties: Assist in the ongoing search for a new head of basketball operations. But it quickly became clear Stefanski would just run the front office himself.

Now, two years later, Detroit is finally getting around to that general-manager search.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Detroit Pistons are opening a search to hire a general manager to work with senior advisor Ed Stefanski, sources tell ESPN.

Stefanski will be working with Pistons and Palace Sports Vice Chairman Arn Tellem on the process to hire a GM, sources said.

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

If Stefanski is still running the front office, a new general manager would be the No. 2 – equivalent to assistant general manager on many teams.

After taking over an inflexible roster left by Stan Van Gundy, Stefanski couldn’t do much. Stefanski’s big move was trading Andre Drummond to the Cavaliers just before the trade deadline. That positioned Detroit to have major cap space next offseason, but it’s unclear how much will actually materialize. The salary cap could drop due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pistons must determine whether they’re still building around Blake Griffin, the 31-year-old due $36,810,996 and $38,957,028 the next two years. Last season, he returned to stardom and carried Detroit into the playoffs. This season, he missed most of the year due to injury.

If they’re trying to win now with Griffin, the Pistons are short on quality complementary players. If Detroit is ready to rebuild, its pool of young talent – Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, impending free agent Christian Wood, its own first-round pick – is hardly assured of success.

After years of being stuck on a path charted under the Van Gundy regime, the Pistons can soon pick a new course. This is the time get the front office up to full staffing.