Love It or Not, How Kobe Bryant Became America's Favorite Athlete
Once upon a time there was a man named Kobe Bryant.
Kobe played basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers. During the summer of 2007, Bryant let the team know that he was not happy with the direction that the team was headed.
Having experienced two straight post-season butt-kickings that were worse than anything Mel Gibson had experienced in any of his films, the Lakers looked as if they would remain at ground zero.
After a summer that saw Kobe demanding trades, backing down, and then doing the whole thing over again, the question of what Bryant wanted would have made Inception seem transparent in comparison.
Twenty trade demands and reversals later, Kobe ultimately decided to remain in the city of Angels.
The regular season eventually arrived to find Number 24 still donning purple & gold. Stranger still, it seemed as if Kobe was actually enjoying playing team ball for the first time. After 37 games, the Lakers held a surprising record of 26-11.
The good vibe was palpable, and reminiscent of the good old days when the Lakers had been contenders. But LA would soon be brought down from the clouds—O.K., "billowing plumes of smog," it is LA, after all), losing starting center Andrew Bynum to a knee injury...suddenly the Lakers found themselves in desperate need of a big man.
On February 1, team GM Mitch Kupchak managed to pull off a trade more lopsided than DJ Mbenga’s face. The Lakers said ‘hola’ to the lanky Spaniard Pau Gasol, and ‘adios’ to Kwame Brown, who, in his short stint in L.A., had proved to be as useful on the court as a pet rock.
In Gasol's first game, Bryant dislocated the little finger on his shooting hand, but, thanks to a balanced night of different Lakers putting the ball in the hoop, LA walked away with the win.
With Gasol in the line-up the Lakers showed themselves as clear contenders, going on to win 27 of their last 34.
Kobe capped a brilliant season for both himself and his team by winning his very first MVP award. (‘bout damn time!)
But even having the Western Conference's best record the Lakers were not considered the favorites going into the post-season. That honor went to the team with the NBA's best record and L.A.’s long-time rival, the Boston Celtics.
Favorites or not, the C's were forced to play 20 of a possible 21 games before attaining the Eastern Conference crown. The Lakers on the other breezed their way through the first three rounds, posting a post-season record of 12-3 on their way to the Western Conference championship.
For the 11th time in NBA history it would be a Lakers-Celtics final, and the intensity of this rivalry could be felt from the opening moments of game one.
The Celtics came out victorious in the first game, which featured the worst "Willis Reed wanna-be" moment in NBA history. What’s more, the person faking the injury was nicknamed "The Truth."
Oh, the irony…
Attention, all you young players out there: for future reference, when you’re writhing in agony over your alleged injury, make sure to get carried off the court and then put in a wheelchair; re-entering the game at some point tends to weaken your case.*
On to game two. The Celtics, again came out victorious in a game where Leon Powe (yes, he still plays) appeared to break Michael Jordan’s unofficial record for getting favorable foul calls.
As the scene moved to L.A. for game three, the Lakers were determined to get back into the series. And, sure enough, Kobe & Co. brought to the game the level of intensity necessary to get the job done and walk away with the W.
The Lakers now had the chance to even the series. By half time in game four, it seemed as if that prospect was well on the way to becoming a reality. Los Angeles led by as much as 24 at one point, but the Lake Show then proceeded to throw up a second-half performance that rivaled Snoop Dog's rapping in "California Gurls."
When the dust had settled, the C's were only one win away from raising banner number 17. The Lakers somehow managed to squeak out a win in game five, and whittle down Boston’s series lead from two games to one.
The series shifted to Boston for what would be the last game. From the outset the Lakers played like they’d left their best back in L.A. They were beat to loose balls, rebounds, and every other possible ‘something-to-get-beat-in’ category. The Lakers simply didn't have it, and didn’t seem to want it, so the Celtics took it.
With only 53 seconds away from the end, the game had to be stopped for a spill on the court: Paul Pierce had dumped the Gatorade container on head coach Doc Rivers... Very nice. Maybe next time a victory lap, complete with back-flips? When the mops were finally retired and the game was able to run its course the final score read 131-92. Championship number 17: signed, sealed and delivered.
To add a little more salt to the wound, the inevitable post-game interview with Kevin Garnett featured the equally inevitable ‘looking ahead’ question. Did he foresee a repeat? "ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!!" was the reply.
Bryant and the Lakers then slunk off the court for the final time that season.
(To be continued...)
*Exceptions: Soccer, WWF, Women's Beach Volleyball.
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