The day before the L.A. Lakers came to town, John Wall found himself watching a documentary on Kobe Bryant. Wednesday night, he saw him up close and personal as they dueled and the 20-year veteran won in a dramatic showdown.
The chatting between the two during dead balls was frequent. Even before halftime of what would become a 108-104 win for the Lakers, just their third in 18 games, the affinity they had for one another was evident. It was a 37-year-old legend, global icon and five-time NBA champion being honest with the 25-year-old lightning-fast point guard in his sixth season eager to soak up any wisdom he could.
"He told me, 'I wouldn't catch you 10 years ago and I wouldn't catch you now' when he grabbed me one time on a foul," Wall said.
Wall realized in Kobe Bryant's Muse, released earlier this year, that Bryant had the same banter with Michael Jordan.
"A lot of people say he's an ***hole," Wall, who had a game-high 34 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds and two steals. "Just playing against him, understand when you step on the court with him, you shouldn't be friends with nobody. You should want to try to rip somebody's head off and be the best player on the floor, in the world."
"We talked and certain things like that. Try to pick people's brain as much as possible. He was asking Jordan questions in the middle of a game. When I have an opportunity to guard or play against him, I'm not real friendly when we're playing but like a timeout you might say something."
Bryant did most of his talking during game action. He had a season-high 31 points. After a strong start when he scored 18 in the first half, he was dormant until the fourth when Bryant dropped in 12 points. The teams traded turnovers and it led to Bryant's three-pointer to break an 87-all tie with 5:56 left.
Bryant missed his next shot as he backed down the smaller Bradley Beal to the mid-post and Wall pushed the tempo to get a layup as the Wizards (7-9) regained the lead. Then it was two free throws by Wall, a drive to the basket for a layup by Bryant, a floater over the 7-2 Roy Hibbert by Wall and then a crossover dribble for a pull-up jumper for him over Hibbert again.
Ultimately, however, it was Bryant who won out. Wall made four consecutive foul shots, Bryant drained a three with 59 seconds left, Wall made a feed to Marcin Gortat to tie the score at 101 and Bryant's isolation play for a bucket over Beal to put the Lakers ahead for good.
With D.C. being a transient city, there's a melting pot of fans. When cornerstone franchises like the Lakers and New York Knicks come here, there always will be a disproportionate amount of cheers for the visitors.
But this was different. The more aggressive Bryant became in the fourth quarter, the louder the cheers. And more people among the sellout of 20,356 joined.
The writing was on the wall long before that. The Wizards had erased a 19-point deficit and took the lead on a three-pointer from Wall with nine minutes left in the third, 62-61.
Applause? Not even a faint one. There were bigger cheers for the children playing a game on center court for halftime entertainment. By the time Wall went to the foul line to shoot a pair of free throws to trim the deficit to 98-97, boos overtook the venue. Even those rooting for the Wizards at the beginning, or so it seemed, turned in favor of the "heel" as the saying goes in "pro" wrestling. They rooted against the supposed good guy in Wall -- a two-time All-Star and who led the Wizards to an upset of the Cleveland Cavaliers the previous night, turned this franchise from a loser to a winner and has given of his time and money exorbitantly to D.C. that the NBA honored him last month -- and got behind Bryant.
Showing appreciation for Bryant is one thing. Booing the franchise player for the Wizards who is trying to win a game is another. Fredo Corelone displayed more loyalty.
At least Bryant enjoyed himself.
"It was really great. It was fun," said Bryant, who was saluted as he left the floor at the end. "Felt really good to play the game in front of the fans and have that amount of appreciation and love is just really a beautiful feeling.
"It seems like it has pumped some life into us to play with some more energy. For myself, I hope I can stay injury-free."
The Bryant who was a surly, steely-eyed cutthroat killer all of his career with the Lakers is gone. His last three seasons have been riddled with injuries and over the weekend he finally made it official he's retiring. The atmosphere humbled him though it came at the expense of demoralizing the Wizards.
"He didn't look like an old guy. I said that a month ago. A week ago. It's not about the Lakers or other players. It's about one guy who can get hot one out of 100 games," Gortat said. "And hopefully he's not going to get hot against us. I jinxed it."
Asked about the overwhelmingly pro-Kobe crowd when the game ended, it was a mixed bag of emotions for Gortat, too.
"It felt bad," Gortat said when asked about it being a road game at home. "It's Kobe Bryant. It felt bad that we lost but it was just amazing what he did. I was fortunate enough to play during his legacy. You're talking about one of the greatest in history. Just as people speak about Michael Jordan, that's how we speak about Kobe Bryant."
Wall, who had a history of injuries early in his career, believes Bryant can still play at this level skillwise. The health part of the equation is tricky.
"I feel like he can play five more years. It's just about physically can he do it," Wall said. "A person that puts so much into this game of basketball, has the footwork, has the angles and knows how to get to where he wants to be he doesn't have to be athletic or be faster than anybody anymore. ... That's why he's Kobe Bryant."
All of the chaos Wednesday begs this question: If you're Bryant in his prime or a superstar free agent from the outside looking in, does this make you more or less inclined to consider coming to D.C.?
The 800-pound elephant in the room can't be ignored. The other 29 teams in the NBA who will compete with the Wizards for those same free agents will bring it up in the recruitment process.
Like players say the day after a bad performance, "Film don't lie." Neither does the soundtrack.
"He hadn't been playing well, hadn't been shooting well, got to the fourth with basically the whole damn crowd him," said Wizards guard Garrett Temple who guarded him some. "It's been like that the last three and a half years I've been here. Whenever a good team comes in, a historic team comes in, you're going to have a lot of fans go for that team. ... We knew what we were getting into."
Cheering Bryant for what he has done for the game? Totally acceptable. Showing him more support than the franchise player for the home team that's struggling to get back to .500? Shameless.
John Wall deserves better than that.
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