The death of Laker great and philanthropist Kobe Bryant has sent shock waves through the basketball world. Here, we take a brief look into his relationship with the San Antonio Spurs.
Remember that time when being overly critical of Kobe Bryant’s legacy became the “in” thing to do? Excel spreadsheets to the left, telling you how overrated his on-court impact was; to the right, his big mistake in Colorado hanging over his head like it was some sort of sophisticated joke only he couldn’t understand?
Yeah, I remember Saturday night too.
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But over the last two days, the unfortunate deaths of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others has forced into us a realization we’ve been subject to seeing oh-so-many times:
The love you receive while breathing is incomparable to the love you receive once that heartbeat stops. And for better or worse, most of the world has stopped, just for a few heartbeats — just for a few hours, even, to come together and co-align in admiration.
That’s just human nature. We’ve said all the things we should’ve said while he was alive, we’ve supported him in ways he’ll never know. Just a day and a decade too late.
As it relates to Kobe Bryant, the San Antonio Spurs and their indelible rivalry for Western Conference supremacy, I can’t help but draw back to the second real memorable moment in observing Kobe Bryant.
Fascination washed over adolescent me as that NBA on TNT theme began to play. The camera pans to the arena; in comes Kobe Bryant — decked in all white, arriving from a Colorado courthouse to a California basketball court to try his hand at saving a series. He arrived in one of those convertible golf carts, riding on the passenger side, a determined look in his eye.
Now, let me explain something to you about most 6-year-olds. We aren’t thinking about athletes and their sexual escapades. We don’t care about who’s doing what with who. As far as this young man knew, girls in 2004 probably still had the “cooties.”
The television stayed locked on either Nickelodeon or ESPN and when it was on the latter, you could absolutely feel the negativity Kobe generated.
For no other reason than for my love of a super villain, who just so happened to co-star as arguably the best player in basketball, I was hooked. The Tim Duncan jersey in my closet mattered not. I was rooting for Kobe Bryant to win a championship in 2004, convinced it was as far as a human could get from being human.
It wasn’t the first moment in the Lakers-Spurs rivalry and it certainly wasn’t the last. But when you add in the height-of-their-power stakes of that time and the drama factor, it certainly ranks as one of the most memorable.
That night, the Lakers won 98-90, anchored by Kobe Bryant’s 42 points (he’d generated a reputation as someone who always out-punched the weight of his circumstances, even when he had every reason not to).
Two nights later, the Spurs were all but dispatched after the demoralizing 0.4 shot and quietly faded into the summer with dreams of a championship at least another calendar year away.
In the Duncan-Kobe era, the Spurs and Lakers locked horns seven different timesin the playoffs over a 14-season span. The Lakers won four of those, including Western Conference Finals in 2001 and 2008.
To illustrate just how high the stakes were, think about this note from Mike Finger of San Antonio Express-News: whoever won the series between the respective Lakers-Spurs series advanced to the NBA Finals every single time.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that there was always something for everyone in this rivalry. In Bryant’s career, he matched up against Duncan a convenient 82 times, nearly winning half of them (39-43). But, he stole the edge in postseason play, winning 18 of 30 during the second season.
You think about just about any other rivalry of that time period: Clippers-Warriors, Suns-Spurs, Lakers-Kings, Heat-Pacers. Peer into the vaults of those, and you’ll always find something unnecessary: locker room fights where sometimes the wife has to get involved; other times, dirty plays and unnecessary jabbering back and forth.
Over 82 games, there was nothing between the Lakers and Spurs but deep respect.
But, just for a second, let’s reconsider the series in the spring of 2004. The reason behind bringing it up? Despite a full season’s worth of games between them, it’s difficult to find one that encapsulates the rivalry more than this particular round.
Bryant, ever one with a flair for the dramatic, had the light on him as brightly as ever as the most divisive athlete in all of American sports.
He’d been chipped at both physically and mentally. You think about the tall orders in front of Kobe that spring — from finger lacerations and surgery-repaired shoulder aggravations to three court hearings a week to his relationship with Shaquille O’Neal to his Colorado endorsements — you wonder how many mortal men could’ve mentally survived it.
And Duncan — as polar an opposite as it possibly gets — plays a role we’ve almost never seen in professional sports. The league’s reigning regular-season and Finals Most Valuable Player serves as a secondary subplot in his own story.
Ask yourself this. Do you remember the shot right before Derek Fisher’s 0.4? Somewhere, it’s one of the greatest shots that no one discusses. How about the play design of the Fisher shot? Who clears the red sea and draws two defenders to get Derek Fisher a one-on-one look over Manu Ginobili?
It served as the competitive peak of two franchises that over an 18-season reign from 1997-2016 combined for 13 Western Conference titles, 10 NBA championships, a 2,254-1,312 record (postseason included; the Lakers’ post-2013 years terribly dilute this) and a whopping 68 playoff series wins across 92 different series between the two of them.
You talk about the level of competition; Bryant has even gone on record in saying that if not for the Spurs, the Lakers would have likely “ran the table” for 10 consecutive championships in the decade.
And yet, on Jan. 26, none of that competition mattered.
One look around the AT&T Center — home to many 40-point performances and game-winning shots — told the story of a rivalry that was built on blood, sweat and tears and now, only tears were left to give. Even players with a proclivity towards a lack of emotion, think Tim Duncan, let the waterworks flow during Saturday’s game against the Toronto Raptors.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a player whose impact so closely permeates among this many generations. A player capable of connecting with fans of all ages and circumstances.
Almost anyone associated with the San Antonio organization weighed in with condolences and a memory, something that showed the impact to which Bryant touched the hearts of even his opponents.
Perhaps DeMar DeRozan, said to have owned every pair of Kobe sneakers in the world, said it best when asked what the former 2008 MVP meant to him
“Everything. Everything. Everything I learned came from Kobe. Everything. Take Kobe away and I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have love (for basketball). I wouldn’t have passion and the drive. Everything, everything came from him.”
The history’s been there; from the relationship between Gregg Popovich and Kobe Bryant relationship during the Redeem Team gold-medal run in 2008 to the always-frequent run-ins in the postseason, there’s one conclusion we can make.
The Lakers and Spurs are separated by a million things: Hollywood mystique vs. blue-collar hustle. The I-10 highway. But when the situation is bigger than basketball, the two couldn’t be more closely connected.