As a Laker fan since 1960, these last three seasons have been brutal. This year’s 17-65 record is the worst in franchise history, breaking last year’s record. How ironic that the NBA’s winningest franchise in total games, just compiled the 34th worst season in NBA history. Until Kobe’s final game, I was going to lead with: “Forgive me family and friends of Dr. Buss, the late former owner of the Lakers, but if he wasn’t already dead, the last three seasons would surely have killed him.”
To vent my frustration over the Laker incompetence in these past three seasons (65-181!) I had planned on a few choice words describing Laker management, which seems thoroughly rudderless. And then Kobe, on the final game of his illustrious 20-year career, had a night to remember for the ages.
Given his 60 points and leading the Lakers to a come-from-behind victory, some have speculated it was the greatest “last game” for any athlete in any sport, ever. It also completely destroyed the tenor I had planned for this month’s Snide World. (Oh well, I’ll save a little room at the bottom.) That night pitted the hapless Lakers, with the league’s 2nd worst record and the Jazz, which didn’t make the playoffs. And yet, demand to see Kobe’s final game was through the Staples Center roof. Stub Hub reported a courtside ticket sold for $27,500. (I wonder if that included parking?) Even tickets in the “nosebleed” section were going for as much as $700. Staples was also packed with celebrities, including: Jack Nicholson, Kanye, Beckham, Jay-Z, Adam Levine, Snoop Dogg, George Lopez, Jeremy Piven, Dyan Cannon and 25 of Kobe’s former teammates.
Frankly, I wasn’t sure I was even going to watch on TV. It’s been such a depressing three years and the thought of Kobe playing his final game with seemingly nothing on the line, was even more depressing. But my friend, Tracey, insisted. She not so subtly reminded me of his 5 NBA titles and 18 All-Star game appearances. She could have included his MVP in the 2007-2008 season and his MVP honors in the 2009 and 2010 Finals when the Lakers won consecutive championships. (Note: You know it’s a culturally changing world when a woman shames a man into watching sports!)
Here’s what Kobe accomplished that night: In scoring 60 points at age 37, he beat the record by 5 years! (Wilt scored 60 at age 32.) Kobe made 22 out of 50 shots, scored 23 points in the 4th quarter, and brought the Lakers back from a 14-point deficit in the final 10 minutes. He even had a game-ending steal and an assist. All in front of his wife Vanessa and their two daughters, and 17,388 of his best friends.
The game was so magical if you wrote it in a screenplay Hollywood would laugh you out of town. The evening included the moving pre-game speech by Magic Johnson, the standing ovation for Kobe, the last minute victory, the post-game speech by Kobe and his press conference with reporters, all memorable. In the press conference Kobe spoke in Spanish and Italian and even dropped a bit of Chinese words and told the reporter “I’ll be seeing you soon.” (The latter suggesting that Kobe, who has rock star status in China, might be playing there someday or at least giving exhibitions.)
From the storybook ending of Kobe’s last game, we now switch to the rather grim reality of the post-Bryant Lakers. Dr. Buss would not be pleased. He was determined to catch the Celtics who lead the Lakers in NBA Championships 17-16. While the Celtics are seeded No. 3 in the upcoming Eastern Conference playoffs and have a bright future, the Lakers are going to need ping-pong ball luck if they’re even to make the playoffs next year. (They have a 55 percent chance of keeping their draft choice in the June 23 draft.)
A Kobe-less Lakers has more questions than answers. After two “worst-ever” seasons, will coach Bryon Scott return? GM Mitch Kupchak seems to suggest so, but should Kupchak even return? Co-owner Jim Buss seems to suggest so, but should he return? (He promised if the Lakers weren’t “contenders” after three seasons, he’d walk, well, the Lakers won’t be contenders anytime soon so why wait to walk?)
On the bright side (if there is one) in 2016-2017, the NBA’s salary cap projects to $92 million, giving the Lakers roughly $60 million, or enough for 2 max players. So if they get lucky with the ping-pong balls, if the youngsters Randall, Russell, Nance and Clarkson develop and if they’re able to lure max players despite the Lakers’ obvious “rebuilding” status, one day, hopefully soon, the team might bask in the warm sunshine of success. As for now, I’m still basking in Kobe’s final game.