A funny thing happened halfway through the 3rd quarter of Game 3 of the 2009 NBA Finals. I sat through the lackluster Laker 1st half, one which allowed the Euro-Magic to outwork them each and every time down the floor, curled up on the couch. Pillows, blanket, your typical weeknight dose of relaxation. I'd felt guilty about skipping my cardio one too many times, but whatever, the Mets were playing the Phillies, and the NBA Finals were on. Who cares. I sat through the halftime show, one eye on the conversation between Bill Russell and Dwight Howard (Didn't he do the same thing with KG last year?), and another half-closed, dozing on the couch. The Magic, up by 12 at the break, seemed ready to take a giant step towards upsetting the Lakers in the Finals.
And this sort of upset me.
Hey, I'm no Kobe Bryant fan. At least, I don't think I'm a Kobe Bryant fan, or rather, I have not traditionally been a fan of Kobe Bryant. But all of a sudden, I'm pulling for Kobe to win another title.
For years and years and years, the league has tried to cram the next Jordan down our collective throats. Goes all the way back to the mid-90s, when we were asked to buy into Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill as superstars. Google Allan Houston, and check out the kind of money he made at around the same time. We were desperate for a hero, because the league has always had heroes, so we tried to convince ourselves that these knock-off superstars were cut from the same mold as Mike. They were not.
Kobe was crowned Mike's successor before Mike had even retired. I never felt like it took. I will absolutely give Kobe all of his accolades - 81 points in a regular season game in this decade is more impressive than 100 way back when for Wilt - but that killer instinct, the thought that if Mike took the shot, it was going in, the way you could believe in him, no matter what, was just never on Kobe's face. It was more an imitation of MJ, a derivative, a proxy. Not the real thing.
I've learned to accept this. No one will ever convince me that there was a greater basketball player in our era than Michael Jordan. But if Kobe's Lakers can piggyback on their miraculous, come-from-behind win in Game 4, which put them up 3-1 in the series, he'll win his 4th NBA title. I've never rooted for a team, except Jordan's Bulls and admittedly, the Charlotte Hornets. I'm more interested in the players, which ones rise up in big moments, who has been able to perform under the most pressure, and who comes to the closest to Michael's standard, to two three-peats, six rings, all that glory. And if Kobe gets his 4th, he'll be able to say he's in the discussion without sounding like a child at the kiddie table asking for another helping of mashed potatoes.
So there's Kobe, scowling, not laughing in Italian, not showboating, oblivious to the crowd and the moment and all that. And in that 4th quarter and OT, when the Lakers needed baskets, he was there, and he looked like Michael. Sure, Derek Fisher added two more game-winning jumpers, but it was Kobe, in dark sneakers and socks, hair shaved close, full extension on the jumper, twisting, weaving, finding Gasol for a big dunk - pulling up from 18, time and again, refusing to let an unprepared, young, inexperienced Magic team turn this into a tie series. He was great last night, and during the game I realized that you have to decide to be great, you have to consciously choose to do the things you need to do to be great.
So at 10:55 PM, I got up off the couch and walked to the gym and got on the treadmill. And 47 minutes later (I did sprints until I couldn't go anymore, than walked until I got my wind back, then sprinted and jogged, back and forth), my legs were sore, and I was gassed, but Kobe had kept me there.
I don't have one NBA team I root for. I root, instead, for young teams to take a leap, for a mid-level player to have a breakout year, for rookies to play to their potential. I rooted for Michael, I root for LeBron, and now I'm rooting for Kobe, because you want to say you've watched the greatest play the game. It validates the time you've spent on the couch, knowing you should go work out, but unable to tear yourself away from the game. And if you're watching greatness, it makes you want to be great. So instead of spending my night sleepily flipping channels, avoiding real shut eye, I dragged my lazy ass to the gym and did my cardio.
And then, somewhere after midnight, when I was barely able to take another step, Fisher hit the second three, looking like John Paxson, and Kobe was there, and Phil, too. And it was great.