On the John
Originally completed May 30, 2010
Like any outdoor public space in Chicago worth its water fountain, the Wicker Park comes alive when the calendar strikes summer. We are now one week into the season, which, I believe, may actually be locked in.
The park was casually occupied this afternoon: full, not crowded; sun/air bathers on towels; tree-leaning readers and journalers; two guys tossing a Frisbee; two others with a baseball; two others with a football; couples on strolls; singles on benches; flocks of friends; neighbors playing chess; a few on bikes; dogs and photographers; and new parents giving fresh humans their first full sensory afternoon.
One such parent, a man who looked my age, was pitching a tennis ball underhanded to one such human, a boy of maybe 24 months. The boy was a dynamo, connecting on every third pitch while displaying a postured batting stance, firm bat grip, and potent eye on the ball. He already protects the plate with the confidence and authority of an 8-year MLB veteran, and yet more beautiful than his prowess was his pure love of the game. He smiled throughout, did not fall to pieces on every “swing-and-a-miss,” and even had sense enough to change it up here and again from the tennis ball to a red beach ball twice the size of his own head.
This went on for at least a half an hour. Some solid hits smoked past Dad, and then they switched and gave Dad some BP. The boy threw, overhand, and did a damn fine job of it. When he was not distracted by pigeons swooping overhead, he was busy delivering chest-high pitches that hugged the outside corner. He even appeared to change speeds.
The inning ended, I suppose, and the boy returned to the plate. The pair was joined by a young, blonde-haired woman, presumably the boy’s mother, who trotted out to the playing field and took up residence as catcher. She wore a navy blue Yankees t-shirt, a detail I found unnerving in light of witnessing this just-out-of-the-womb prodigy and his imaginary major league future.
Is this how Derek Jeter spent his Memorial Day Sunday in 1976? Did Kobe Bryant spend Memorial Day Sunday in 1980 draining jumpers? I wonder. These men entered the professional ranks in the same summer, Jeter becoming the New York Yankees’s everyday shortstop on Opening Day 1996, Kobe joining the Los Angeles Lakers two months later in the June draft via trade. One the Next Great Yankee, the other the Next Great Laker.
Since that time, they have combined for nine championships, 23 All-Star appearances, 7 regular season/ASG/championship MVPs, 12 defensive recognitions, and now, at the ages of 35 and 31, they are once again defending champs in their respective sports, with Kobe gunning to tie Jeter’s ring count by nabbing “one for the thumb.”
Kobe took another step toward that fifth ring last night, courtesy of several fourth quarter daggers nearly as impossible for an offensive player to conceive as they are a defensive player to defend. In the words of that guy from The Black Album, “This man is mean! He’s killing all you jive turkeys!”
Good gracious! We start at 95-90 Lakers, Suns on a 16-4 run, 4:37 to play, shot clock down to four seconds. Artest flips a pass to Kobe, top of the top of the top of the key. Jared Dudley bites on a shot fake, leaving Kobe to take one dribble to the half-circle. He pulls up with two seconds on the 24 and 6’10 Channing Frye charging. This forces Kobe to adjust to a one-handed floater hiiiiiigh over Frye’s reaching hand. SWOOSH! 97-90 Lakers.
Phoenix makes another run, 6-2 this one, with a layup on a frightfully beautiful behind-the-back dribble penetration from Nash. 99-96 Lakers, 2:18 left in the game. Next possession, Kobe takes a pass from Odom on the right side and is immediately engulfed by Frye and the six foot eight Grant Hill. 12 seconds on the shot clock. A spin to his right loses Frye and gets Hill turned around. Raise up. Bucket. Easy.
105-100 Lakers. Under 40 seconds to go. Shot clock under 10 once more. Kobe in the same spot just inside the arc, Hill ALL OVER HIM, perfect position, a smart, rangy, veteran defender. Shake. Dribble. Pump. Pump. Shot. Falling away. Past Hill’s long arm. Back of the rim. Bottoms.
And that’s all she wrote.
Even his airball to close Game 5 – the one Artest caught and banked for the dub – was a brilliant miracle. Two defenders on. Kobe in three-point land with his heels nearly clipping the sideline. The entire basketball-lovin’ world knowing where Odom’s inbound is headed. And so it goes, to Kobe Bryant.
And this man of flesh and blood and springs in his knees leaps, spins, and creates Total Separation to successfully launch his shot. That it even neared the rim with any level of accuracy proves once more why Kobe is, still, the league’s greatest player.
Back in mid-December, following his game-winners against Miami and Milwaukee, I was talking hoops with DeAnna McLeary, lifelong basketball fan and co-founder of True Star Magazine. We were discussing Bryant in terms of Jordan, which is still the best way to discuss Bryant. The question: Which player do you want with the ball, the game in the balance and time ticking down?
Two years ago, I would have laughed that question away as ignorant and absurd. But now it must be faced, and our batting about of that question led to the next one, posed by DeAnna: “Can Kobe match Jordan in greatness? If so, how?”
Tough. Tough to achieve for him, tough to answer for us. But as I told D in December, the first step is winning at least two of the next three titles. That would give him six, tied with Mike, even if three came when he was his team’s second best player.
I say “even if” because back in ’02, the credit for those three chips always went to Shaq. It was hard to judge Kobe with the three-peat Shaq Lakers, just as it was difficult to judge Kurt Warner with the Greatest Show St. Louis Rams.
But the Cardinals opened our eyes to Warner’s greatness, and Gasol, Odom, and the rest of these 2008-2010 Lakers have helped us see Kobe’s.
I think back to the 2001 All-Star Game, for instance. For me, that game belongs to Allen Iverson first, Dikembe Mutombo second, and the East’s non-Iverson guards third, specifically Marbury, Ray Allen, and Vince.
You might recall Marbury drilling a pair of threes in the game’s final minute to first tie the game at 108 and then take the final lead at 111-110.
But the two shots immediately proceeding each of Marbury’s were jumpers nailed by the 22-year-old Bryant. The West’s lineup down the stretch featured four future Hall of Fame locks in Kidd, Bryant, Duncan, and Garnett; their fifth man was Webber, a borderline HOFer. The West had just watched their 21-point lead fly away, and so it was Bryant who strapped the team on his Number 8 jersey and emphatically declared his intentions to save face for the big, bad, favored Western Conference All-Stars.
It did not work. Mutombo (22 boards, 3 blocks) keyed in on Bryant, forcing the Laker guard to pass off to Tim Duncan, whose final shot rimmed out. I was so caught up in this thrilling come-from-WAY-behind victory – a win that served as basketball validation for short people – that I hardly cared what was happening when the West had the ball.
And it’s not as if I’ve never been won over by a player in a losing effort. Steve McNair in Super Bowl XXXIV, Larry Fitz in XLIII, Craig Biggio in the 2005 World Series, my Wildcats in the Rose Bowl. I just did not have a satisfying narrative in which to place Bryant at that point in his career. His fevered drive for victory was concealed within his monstrous image; his perimeter gifts and unique wiring obscured by fellow young, star guards Iverson, Carter, and McGrady; his mastery of the game difficult to separate from the influence of Shaq, Phil, and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Seriously though… take a look at his final shot in that ’01 ASG, deep in the corner over a lunging Mt. Mutombo. Ye gods! Before a player can employ the unparalleled physical skills to hit that shot, he must possess through-the-roof self-confidence to even attempt it. Kobe Bryant, money man. Everything he has accomplished since February of 2008 was predicted right there on those two fourth quarter shots on that fateful evening in our nation’s capital…
The sun has returned here in the park, announcing its presence with authority and leading to a break in the action for our young Jeter over there. The fountain has been stormed by children and 30-year-olds alike, all of whom are enjoying the cooling splash.
And in four days, Kobe Bryant will take the floor for his seventh NBA Final, a fifth ring in his sights following an absolute masterpiece of a Western Conference Finals. Maybe Jordan’s got nothing to worry about. Can’t say the same for the Celtics.
Copyright 2010, jm silverstein
From June 15, 2009: Becoming Kobe
From June 1, 2009, a comparison of Kobe-MJ-LeBron: More than just a puppet
And, because you deserve it…
The end of my favorite NBA ASG of all-time… start at the 2:00 mark of the first clip below
Shout out to Brent, Jimmy, Ryan, Josh, Jeremy, and Santullo’s for the work space! Thanks gang!