Somewhere along the way, Kobe Bryant moved beyond basketball star, beyond basketball legend, beyond even future Hall of Famer and into this rare stratosphere that might be best described as an Eiffel Tower player.
You know you are in Paris when you see the Eiffel Tower.
You know you are watching the Los Angeles Lakers because when the shot clock is running down No. 24, Kobe Bryant, will go and get the ball and find his shot.
There are only a few Eiffel Tower players in sports at any one time. Derek Jeter is one. Tim Duncan. Tom Brady. Sidney Crosby. These are not just great players, and they are not just team leaders and they are not just icons in their community. They are so deeply rooted in their game, in their team, in their time that it is hard to imagine the game going on without them.
So, yes, Sunday night with the Lakers was a bit strange. All the exterior things seemed normal. Before the game, kids still skateboarded in the open concrete area behind Staples Arena. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar walked out of the Lakers locker room. The retired numbers of Wilt and Magic and Kareem and Elgin and Jerry hung by the rafters. Laker Girls danced. Jack Nicholson wore black. Yes, it all seemed normal.
But it wasn't normal. Kobe Bryant wasn't here. Bryant was off somewhere else starting an Instagram account so he could post a photograph of the Los Angeles Times headline: "Injury clouds the future for Bryant, Lakers." Bryant tore his Achilles' tendon. He will not return for a long time. There is a question whether he will ever return. That's why he posted the headline. He craves motivation. He covets doubters. He focuses his considerable intensity on the long road back. It's personal.
In the meantime, the season goes on and the Lakers go on . sort of. Most of this season has been a downer for Los Angeles basketball. The Lakers had built this super-team, and the super-team had coughed and sputtered and dismayed. The Lakers, with a team overloaded with superstars, entered Sunday's game still needing a two-game combination of their own victories and Utah Jazz losses to clinch the final playoff spot in the West.
Nobody seemed confident they could pull off their magic number, not without Kobe Bryant. Sunday night, the Lakers played the San Antonio Spurs, the anti-Lakers, who quietly (as is their custom) came in with the second-best record in the West and a shot at the No. 1 seed. The game was viewed as such a mismatch that before it even started, a reporter asked Spurs coach Gregg Popovich if he would like to play the Kobe-less Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
Popovich, as you might imagine, shot the question down in world record time - "Do you really think an NBA coach would answer that?" - but this was the vibe. The Lakers without Kobe? You almost wondered if they would ever show up.
Then they did show up, and everyone remembered something kind of important about this team: The Lakers, without without Kobe Bryant, are still absolutely loaded. They might not be the most prudently constructed team. They might be a bit old and beat up. But it's not like the Los Angeles Lakers are suddenly some scrappy Florida Gulf Coast underdog playing walk-ons and players no one else recruited.
I don't think we lack confidence," Lakers coach Mike D'Antonio said. "There are no deer-in-the-headlights looks in that locker room." He had a little smile on his face when he answered these sorts of questions. Yes, of course the Kobe Bryant injury was devastating, but you know Mike D'Antoni was not expecting to ever answer these sorts of questions. It's like people entirely forget that his Lakers still have:
- Dwight Howard, one of the game's biggest stars, who was good enough to drag Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu to the NBA Finals.
- Pau Gasol, a four-time All-Star who, by Basketball Reference's NBA similarity scores, ranks with Elgin Baylor, Elvis Hayes, Rick Barry and John Havlicek after his first 11 seasons.
- Steve Nash, a former MVP, a future Hall of Famer, who at 39 is living in a perpetual cycle of day-to-day injuries but is supposedly feeling ready to go as the playoffs about to begin.
- Metta World Peace who, in D'Antoni's words, has "carried a few teams through the years."
- Veteran point guard Steve Blake, who took over the game Sunday, scoring 23, grabbing five rebounds, dishing four assists, making a couple of steals.
The Lakers (44-37) beat the Spurs for their fourth straight win (one more win or a Utah loss and they'll be in the playoffs). The entire team played with a sort of ferocity and energy that, well, reminded of Kobe Bryant. It was an often ugly game. Both teams shot 37 percent from the field. Gasol went 3-for-17 and missed shots he probably has not missed since junior high school. San Antonio's Tony Parker was even worse, going 1-for-10 before he was mercifully benched.
"Did you rest Tony for health reasons?" Popovich was asked after the game.
"No, he's totally healthy," Pop said. "It wasn't he because he was resting. He was playing awfully."
Popovich paused. "Is that a word? Awfully?"
"We know how to play basketball," Dwight Howard said. He scored 26, grabbed 17 boards, blocked three shots and survived the hack-a-Howard strategy that put him on the line 17 times (he only made eight, but two big ones down the stretch). Howard was at the heart of what (should the Lakers make the playoffs) figures to be a very different kind of Lakers team, a non-showtime team, a muck-it-up kind of team, a non-Kobe team.
D'Antoni was asked several different times in several different ways if he thought the Lakers could pull off that kind of transformation this late in the season and without the man who has defined Lakers basketball for almost 15 years. He answered affirmatively each time, but you get the sense he doesn't really know. How can he know? Even Sunday, with the Lakers winning, you could sense them looking around for Kobe when they needed a basket, when the play had broken down, when the game was careening to its finish. You could sense the fans looking for him too.
"It will take time," D'Antoni said.
"We know it will not be one person who fills the void," Gasol said. "It will take all of us to do that."
When the game ended, the purple and gold streamers fell from the ceiling and "I Love L.A." blared over the speakers and the Laker Girls danced and Jack Nicholson smiled. Without Kobe Bryant, there are doubters everywhere. Then again, that might be exactly what this team needs.