Friday, April 22, 2011

On Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Long Goodbyes

I find it extremely difficult to write about the Lakers, particularly Kobe Bryant. I realize this sounds disingenuous coming from a lifelong, diehard fan that's seldom short on opinion, but it’s true. It’s not for a lack of experience with, or knowledge of, the franchise and its history, or a shortage of opinions on the state of the team, but rather a personal policy of trying to steer clear of a) unabashed homerism and b) the all-too-common “my relationship with my team is personal, and you wouldn’t understand” shtick that seldom wins people over.

With all of that said, I recently came to a realization that warrants further exploration. Plus, it’s time I get the fuck over myself.

In the aftermath of the Lakers’ playoff-opening loss on Sunday, a game perhaps best known for Chris Paul exerting a control over time and space not seen since the days of Magic, Michael and Larry, I lost my shit. I managed to keep from coming totally unhinged publicly, though not before hopping onto Twitter to stick a fork in the latest era of the most successful and dynastic franchise of the past three decades, and the first sports team I ever loved. In the hours and days following my mini-meltdown, I concluded that a) knee-jerk, angry tweeting may get me into trouble one day, b) CP’s evisceration of the Lakers was more emblematic of his greatness than of fatal flaw in Kobe & Co. (though it’s worth noting that I have NO recollection of the Lakers ever having the ability to guard smaller, quick point guards- especially one with Paul’s transcendent skill set) and c) whether or not Game 1 itself had an “end of an era vibe” to it, this has subtly been the overarching theme of the 2010-11 Lakers’ season.

Phil Jackson, who joined the Lakers prior to the 1999-2000 season and has won five of the last 11 NBA titles with the franchise, has no more than 26 games left on the Lakers’ sideline. Only three players remain from the 1999-2000 title team- the first of the post-Magic era- and one of them (Brian Shaw) is now an assistant coach. Derek Fisher, one of just two guys to collect all five rings from the current Laker dynasty as a player, is also still very much in the picture. Never an offensive juggernaut, Fisher, now 36 years old and clearly on his last NBA legs, remains the emotional anchor of this team and beloved figure across Laker Nation, though his on-court effectiveness is now almost entirely dependent on experience and guile.

Which brings us to the subject of one, Kobe Bean Bryant. Like Fisher, Kobe’s in his 15th NBA season, and boasts an identical five-ring collection. Over the past decade and a half, he’s taken Laker fans on an incredible journey, running the gamut of emotions

The famous summer 1996 workout in which a 17 year-old Kobe destroyed one of the greatest perimeter defenders in NBA history and then-Laker assistant, Michael Cooper. Rookie Game MVP and the dunk champ 1997 All-Star Weekend. Airballs in Utah. The mini-fro. 30+ for the first time as a pro. Toe-to-toe with the king five days later. Starting the 1998 All-Star Game, despite not starting for his own team. The first time he REALLY took over a game. Closing out the Forum on the wrong end of consecutive playoff sweeps. Enter Phil Jackson. The first time over 40. The Oop. We’re back! Dueling 50s in Oakland. Sweep the West in 11. Down Philly in 5- back to back! 56 in 34 minutes against Memphis. Three-peat! A double-nickel for MJ...

Eagle, Colorado. Pummeled in the Palace. Shaq & Phil exit, not on the best of terms. Phil’s back, hatchet buried. Kobe 62, Dallas 61 though three...


3-1 series lead over Steve Nash’s Suns as a #8 seed. Said 3-1 lead blown, Suns in seven. Four straight 50s. Falling short (again) in Phoenix. Kobe wants out. Improbable 30-16 start to 2007-08. Memphis FedEx’s Pau to L.A. NBA MVP. Back in the Finals. Beaten by Boston. A ring without Shaq… and then another, with sweet revenge against the C's.

14 years in 214 words. Not bad, huh? And here we are. A decade and a half of triumph, achievement and a staggering catalog of once-in-a-lifetime performances, with side orders of frustration, heartbreak and anger.

By virtue of his preps-to-pros path to the NBA, Kobe is still just 32 years of age. However, by virtue of that very same path- along with 48,000 meaningful minutes played, dozens of preseason games and thousands of hours of maniacal training- he’s the owner of the oldest 32 year-old body in sports. He continues to rank among the NBA’s elite, but the guy that got to the rim at will and was a night in, night out threat to go off for 60 is no more. As a result, it’s tough, as a Laker fan, to know what to make of the current version of Kobe Bryant- one that possesses as great a basketball mind as there is in the NBA, unrivaled technical aptitude and a work ethic that is the stuff of legend, but is no longer invincible. Can he still lead the Lakers to another title, maybe two? He’ll need more help that ever (I’m looking at YOU, Pau) and it will take more out of him than in previous years, but of course.

So while my public suggestion that we’d arrived at the end of the road for the current era of Laker basketball may have been spawned by the frustration and short-sighted anger of an irrational fan, it may not have been totally off base. This is not to suggest that Kobe Bryant’s at the end of the line, or even that his days as a top-tier NBA player are behind him, but the reality- one that’s not very comfortable to think of if for no other reason than it reminds us of our own mortality- is that we’ve entered a stage of the Kobe Bryant era that we never did with Magic, one that’s not been seen in Lakerland for nearly 40 years- the long goodbye.

For the first time in about four decades, Laker fans are dealing with a (at the time) locally beloved, top-6 all-time player that, while still excellent and capable of playing at a high level for several more years, has slipped noticeably from prime. Where we are now with Kobe is where we would have been with Magic in the 1990s, had his career not been derailed by HIV. We know it would have happened, but never had to see it. With Kobe, we're actually seeing it.

Hell, it was already happening- Magic had been destroyed by Kevin Johnson in the 1990 Western Conference Semifinals and was unable to overcome the defense of a young Scottie Pippen in the 1991 Finals. That he’d carried a good-but-not-great 1991 Lakers team past the Trailblazers (who’d been in the Finals the previous year, and would return in 1992) further evidenced his greatness and put any such narrative squarely on the back burner. Sure, KJ was a nightmare matchup for Magic in 1990 and “it was simply Michael Jordan’s time” in 1991 and, hey, Magic did win the league’s MVP award in 1990, but make no mistake, 1986-87 was NOT walking through that door.

The similarities between the careers of Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson are well chronicled. Neither has ever suited up for a team other than Lakers. Each is loved unconditionally by a fiercely loyal fan base (I mean the real Lakers fans, not the studio execs in the first dozen rows). Each owns five rings. Each is synonymous with a legendary big man with whom he built a dynasty. Each was been deemed “coach unfriendly” and demanded to be traded at some point.

For years to come, fans will debate their respective legacies in attempts to resolve the "greatest Laker of all time" debate. The winners, of course, are us, Laker fans who've been treated to nearly three decades of transcendent ball- plus 10 titles (and counting)- by two of the four greatest perimeter players of all time. In between sessions of thanking the sporting gods for our good fortune, we'll spend the coming years reflecting upon and celebrating the Kobe Bryant era. Rather than fixating on what he once was as a player and lamenting what can no longer do, we'd do well to savor the sunset of his legendary career in a way that we were never able to with Magic.


Crazy PIlls Too said...

Well put. Love being a Laker fan. Thank you Dr. Buss!!!

Anonymous said...

Nearly 40 years, huh?

It's only been 22 since Kareem's long, slow goodbye came.

Emile Avanessian said...

Though I did so intentionally, it may have been a mistake to omit Kareem's farewell tour altogether. While I believe that Kareem is the greatest center and second best player in NBA history, he never resonated with fans the way Magic did and Kobe continues to. Kareem was a great player, Magic and Kobe are civic icons.

dave m.. said...

E, this is a terrific post. Very nicely done indeed.

ashot said...

Kobe is long from done. They will 3 peat and possibly win a 4th ring too.

Anonymous said...

Very well put. While Kobe is still a sight to see, he doesn't seem to operate in a plane above other players the way he once did. During his long goodbye, he will have to find ways to defer to his teammates and let them take over at times.

We've seen some of that in the New Orleans series, and it hasn't always been successful. Remember, after game 1 of the series, Kobe himself said that he's #1 and Pau is #2, which has been the default for the last three years, and it should probably remain that way for now.

The tough part will come when Kobe will actually have to pass the torch and let Pau (or Bynum) be the first option. I'm not sure Kobe has it in his makeup to go from alpha to beta, or even theta.

Anonymous said...

I like this post.very logic,detailed, illustrative,knowledgeable and honest.I hope,whoever wrote this post will continue to do so. Because,not only that you painted us a perfect picture of the illustrious career of both magic and Kobe.But,you also gave us the future scenario of possibilities for this franchise to come. Yes,I believe you.. Kobe is not done yet,He probably has 2 to 3 more years left on his tank before we will see the big decline on his game. In closing,I just wanna say to everyone out there,that this guy will wind up to be the greatest ever to have played this game...I hate it every time Barkley says it on the air in their TNT telecast. that Jordan is. He is being unfair to Kobe because he is a Kobe hater.