For most of Kobe Bryant's much-hyped farewell NBA match, the game between Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz was farcical. It basically resembled a glorified exhibition, a testimonial match. There was a swirl of anticipation but, truth be told, the match meant nothing. The Lakers were about to complete their worst season ever, an ugly smear for a proud franchise, while the Jazz's season ended just moments prior to the match, after the Houston Rockets clinched the final Western Conference playoff spot.
With nothing riding on it, the match didn't even resemble basketball as we know it. The Lakers were feeding Bryant the ball at nearly every opportunity. As he had for most of a mediocre farewell lap, Bryant continually forced terrible shots that mostly missed. The spectacle was generally cringe-worthy but no one really seemed to care. All that mattered was that Bryant conjure some throwback images; even the scoreboard seemed irrelevant. The Jazz led for most of the match, yet no one seemed to even notice.
There were occasional flashes of Bryant brilliance, like when he hit five straight shots in the first quarter, but that was juxtaposed by stretches where he looked totally washed up, a timely reminder why the 37-year-old is retiring. Reinforcing his greatness, Bryant could still score when he drove to the basket, but he mostly settled for ugly three-pointers, increasingly evident that he simply did not have the energy to get to the rim.
The current NBA has moved away from one-on-one basketball that defined Bryant’s entry into the league, with teams now preaching ball movement and teamwork, the overwhelming mantra for Golden State Warriors' record-breaking season.
On a night where nostalgia reverberated, Bryant was intent on reviving a bygone era by shooting at record-breaking pace even though it was detrimental to his team. Ironically, Bryant was being willed to shoot, the same man who was criticised throughout his career for being too selfish, a "ball hog". But on Wednesday night, everyone was seemingly content with this; the parochial Lakers fans were seeing Bryant's gaudiness for one last time and even the Jazz could feel satisfied notching an inevitable win despite being relegated to a sideshow.
And then the incredible actually happened. Had this been a Hollywood film, it would have been mocked for being too clichéd and corny. Somehow, Bryant conjured the miraculous and tapped into every ounce of his greatness to produce one of the most astounding endings in sports history. In the last two minutes, he scored 15 points and didn't miss a shot, guiding the Lakers to an improbable victory.
No one could quite believe what they were seeing because Bryant could barely move, 20 years at the elite level had basically rendered his body useless. He was trudging around like an old man without a walking stick. He was gasping for air like an unfit person who decides to spontaneously go for a run.
Amazingly, with less than a minute to play Bryant magically hit an unbalanced three-pointer under pressure — an unwise shot that had not been falling all season — and then made a pull-up jumper to put the Lakers in front. The Jazz were crumbling under Bryant's trance. The Staples Centre was bedlam, as if the Lakers had won a championship. High-brow celebrities were jumping out of their seats like common fans. Even Kanye West seemed happy with the world.
The Lakers had won a game they never should have, and Bryant scored 60 points, his highest total for seven years. No one had scored more points in a game this NBA season. To use a cricketing parallel, it would be as if Sachin Tendulkar scored a triple century in his final Test innings.
Of course, Bryant shot the ball 50 times — the most of his career and the most by anyone in the modern era. But who cares about statistics and squabbling over semantics. Those last two minutes of Bryant's career will forever resonate because the improbable actually eventuated. We invest so much time and energy in sports because it is a form of escapism and entertainment. More than that, it's a prism where the miraculous occasionally happens and we, mere mortal sports fans, can marvel and relish in that.
I've never been a big Bryant guy — I'm a diehard Boston Celtics fan — but even I found myself jumping around like a lunatic when he was hitting those shots at the end. It was like I went into a time warp and became a kid again when sports meant more than anything to me.
When you're watching something so incredible transpire in front of you, it's hard not to be magnetised. Sports fandom is basically the last vestige of our childhood, and regardless of age and status it allows us to act acceptably irrational and immature.
More often than not, it is those transcendent figures who have a knack of producing superhuman deeds. It's why we hang onto them even when they are well past their prime. We hope for one last century or a match-winning basket. We cherish those final magical moments, which in the process takes us back to an earlier time in our life. It's sentimentality about ourselves, as much as it's about the athlete.
Bryant's last two minutes so memorably tapped into all that. For a brief moment, it felt like the 2000s again. It was also a timely reminder of a genius at work. Bryant never had LeBron James' overpowering physique, Michael Jordan's athletic gifts where he could walk on air or Steph Curry's unlimited shooting range. For 20 years, Bryant traded on his unwavering confidence and resoluteness.
He never quite matched Jordan's astonishing achievements, but Bryant is the closest we've seen after a long line of "next Jordan" players flamed out long ago. Bryant genuinely believed he was destined for greatness. He worked the hardest and had the ultimate killer mentality. Injuries never made him lose focus, he just kept grinding away. Missed shots would not deter his confidence.
Any way you spin it, Bryant's last match was a fitting microcosm for his incredible indefatigable career. He just kept believing, defying his body's aches and misfiring radar to deliver a finale for the ages. Amid some of Hollywood's most famous figures, Kobe Bean Bryant delivered a fairytale ending out of nowhere.
Long live sports.
First Published On : Apr 15, 2016 09:34 IST