In a few hours, sports fans will have a huge decision to make. In two different arenas, history will be made.
In Oracle Arena, one chapter could be added to a tome capturing the Golden State Warriors’ march through history on their way to becoming the greatest team of all time. Just a few hundred miles away in the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, another chapter will be ending. The book on Kobe Bryant’s illustrious 20-year NBA career will be dotting its final i’s and crossing its final t’s.
On the surface, the decision seems easy. The Warriors’ conquest of the NBA this season has been entrancing every step of the way. From every killer Steph Curry crossover to Draymond Green’s brash playing style bowling into the lane while throwing darts to the perimeter to Klay Thompson going nova and scorching the nets for what seemed like weeks at a time. The Warriors have given us every single reason to watch them this season without even needing to mention their record.
Let’s be clear: 73 wins is a lot of wins. Hell, to break the threshold of 70 wins should be considered something special. Because this team is so great with one of the greatest players we’ve ever seen play the game, many take it for granted. The Warriors, should the beat the Memphis Grizzlies tonight, will be one of the greatest teams ever — not only in the NBA, but in sport history.
What exactly does 73 wins mean? Well, on the surface, it puts these Warriors in the same class as the 1996 Chicago Bulls whether they win a title or not. And it’s not likely they’ll falter along the way. The only thing standing in their way is the best San Antonio Spurs team of all time with one of the best point differentials the NBA has ever seen and the Warriors have run them out of their building twice while also delivering the Spurs their only loss at home.
Last year’s NBA finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers and full-on heist-mode LeBron James showed us that supernova performances are not going to throw this team off of their game. There’s not much one can do against this team, and that’s why they’re worth watching. Their sheer dominance is something we may never witness again in our lifetimes.
But, still, 370 miles away, there’s something that may be worth your time. The Lakers are going to be worth your while whether you’re attending that game or just watching. And, if I were you, this is the game I’d be watching.
Sure, 73 wins comes once in a blue moon. We may not ever see it again, but these Warriors are going to remain great. Kobe Bryant has 48 minutes left in his NBA career. That’s it. He’s done. One game. One last tipoff. One final buzzer.
There’s so much to watch for here. How do the Lakers introduce him? How will the fans receive him upon his final introduction? What ceremonies will take place before and after the game? What is Kobe going to be like before the tipoff? What will he be like after? How many shots will he shoot? How many points will he score? What shoes will he wear?
This is going to be iconic. This is going to be one of the biggest moments in sports history. This is going to be the moment in Lakers history. For such a storied franchise, the Lakers have never had a player quite like Kobe Bryant.
Sure, they’ve had players who have been better. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Shaquielle O’Neal. All of those guys are at least in the same breathe as Kobe Bryant if not better. That’s not even counting early legends like Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. The Lakers are the most storied franchise in league history.
But here’s the thing: Bryant is a more unique player than all of them. None of the players mentioned above played for the Lakers as long as Bryant did and none of them built the same connection to the fans as Bryant did. Bryant literally forced his way into Lakerdom after being drafted by the Charlotte Hornets. Drafted at the bottom of the lottery, Bryant wasn’t really expected to be the player he is today. He came in the league as a hooper’s son with raw skill, a green, snotty nose and all the confidence in the world.
We never really knew who Kobe was during his first three years or so with the Lakers. It took being pushed around by Shaq and a rape trial to bring out the mamba that we know today. No, neither of those are positive things, but they both really happened. They are both part of what makes Kobe him, and in a weird way, what brought him closer to Lakers fans everywhere.
Bryant is the only player out of those mentioned above to play in two different eras of Lakers basketball. He won three championships with Shaq as the alpha and then, after he willingly forced him out, the Lakers fell into mediocrity. But there Kobe was in all of his glory. Getting shots up game in and game out, producing multiple mind-blowing 50 and 60 point games on every opponent to put a hand in his face and even giving us an 81-point gem against Jalen Rose and the Toronto Raptors.
It took winning two more titles to win over the American public again, but by then Kobe didn’t give a damn. After years of misery being number two to Shaq, forcing him out and taking the reigns of the franchise, demanding a trade multiple times after dealing with mediocrity, and stealing passes from Smush Parker, Bryant had enough. He was going to be him. He was going to win his way. He was getting up every shot he could.
Look, is Kobe the greatest Laker ever? Probably not. But he’s been there. He’s been through the battles with them — even if he’s sustained some self-inflicted wounds. But without those wounds, we wouldn’t be here today. The Black Mamba would never be. And the NBA just wouldn’t be the same.
I’m not telling you this game will be more quality than whatever the Warriors produce tomorrow night. Chances are it won’t be. It’ll be ugly, slow and we’ll probably be able to build a home with the tons of bricks thrown up between the Utah Jazz and the Lakers.
But this is it. Kobe is done. He’s gone. No more. For some, this is a moment to cheer. For some, this is a moment to weep. But the bottom line is this is a moment. And inside this moment will be many more moments that we’re just never going to see again.