The NBA has never had an ending to a regular season like it before, and unlikely to ever see one like it again. On Thursday April 14th Australian time, California was buzzing with basketball fever. Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors were on the verge of setting a record 73rd victory in the Bay Area while the Staples Center was all about one man – Kobe Bryant.
The 5-time champion Lakers legend completely divides opinion across all spectrums of the sport. He stands alongside the greatest Lakers to ever play the game, set the bar for minutes played, points and delivering in the clutch moments.
But then there is the other side of the coin. An infamous rape allegation in 2003 ended up being settled out of court with the victim receiving death threats before being run out of town. On the court, Bryant was a key architect in driving Shaquille O’Neal away from the franchise and throughout his career he was criticised for being an egocentric ball hog more concerned with uplifting brand “Black Mamba” than being a team player.
The great conundrum for all basketball fans is that all of these things are true. Having been given the green light in the eyes of the law since with allegations dropped and settled, should such an issue still be held against him? And does his greed on the court contribute directly to the Lakers success during the 20 years he spent at the club?
The reactions to Kobe’s send off range from the delirious to the underwhelmed, analysing the shades of grey in a polarised sporting culture. Childs Walker in the Sydney Morning Herald penned a thoughtful piece on the pro’s and con’s of a career etched in glory but smothered in controversy, likewise the lads on The Starters podcast, discussing the absurdity of a final game propelled into the stratosphere when in realty, the Lakers and Kobe Bryant have had a season to forget.
His 60-point effort was a record for a final game, taking another record 50 shots to get them. It was an occasion months in the making whereby the Utah Jazz and Kobe’s teammates took a significant back seat to the show. The cameraman regularly cut away to Jack Nicholson, Jay Z and Kanye West, illustrating how much glitz and glamour was attached to the farewell.
Contrast this to the party the Golden State Warriors were throwing at Oracle Area. The win over the Memphis Grizzlies took Steve Kerr’s side past his own Chicago Bulls outfit from the 90s, demonstrating how driven and determined this group of players are to go back-to-back and silence the delusional critics who believe they “got lucky” in 2015.
Star man Steph Curry bagged 46 points, yet rather than sing and dance to centre the attention on himself, he remained humble, talked about the playoff picture and retired back to his quarters. No fuss, just keeping his eyes on the prize.
As a rule Australian sports fans are drawn to characters like Curry more than the Kobe Bryant’s of the world. In the AFL, professionals like Nick Riewoldt, Adam Goodes and Bob Murphy are elevated as examples for the younger generation to look up to. They personify values of sportsmanship, being selfless and never taking the game for granted.
But as a sports fan, how could you not be drawn into watching the grand finale? This 20-year veteran, the face of the Lakers franchise, a man who features on Nike commercials with Lionel Messi all across the world, a Gold Medal Olympian, a standard bearer for the game, how can you look away?
The bottom line is the NBA is not the AFL and nor does it fit into the realm of the Australian sporting culture. Basketball at its peak is about the stars and Kobe Bryant is hands down one of the brightest there has ever been. For all his faults, of which he has many, the NBA is a greater product because he graced it for two decades.
The Playoff Picture
Now we’ve said our final farewell to Kobe, the real game begins. The Warriors record counts for nothing. All the road trips, injuries and past performances are swept aside. This comes down to best-of-7 game series and with it, history is about to be made.
Eastern Conference Fixtures:
- Indiana Pacers vs. Toronto Raptors – first game tip off 2.30am Sunday April 17th
- Boston Celtics vs. Atlanta Hawks – first game tip off 9.00am Sunday April 17th
- Detroit Pistons vs. Cleveland Cavaliers – first game tip off 5.00am Monday April 18th
- Charlotte Hornets vs. Miami Heat – first game tip off 7.30am Monday April 18th
Western Conference Fixtures:
- Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors – first game tip off 5.30am Sunday April 17th
- Dallas Mavericks vs. Oklahoma City Thunder – first game tip off 11.30am Sunday April 17th
- Memphis Grizzlies vs. San Antonio Spurs – first game tip off 10.00am Monday April 18th
- Portland Trail Blazers vs. Los Angeles Clippers – first game tip off 12.30pm Monday April 18th