Kobe Bryant, the Lakers, the Kings, the Queens, floppers and aspiring actors/comedians squeezed, together in that doomed building formerly known as Arco Arena, were the equivalent of NBA first cousins who despise each other and are related only by blood.
Blood, sweat, tears.
Actually, it was more like sobbing. Gallons of water were wasted in Sacramento in the spring of 2002, after the Lakers defeated the Kings in Game 7 of one of the most compelling Western Conference finals. And so much for closure. The player who still believes he owns the place – and that would be Bryant, who is retiring at season’s end – expects to makes his final appearance Thursday, just months before the old barn is put out to pasture.
“I’m going to miss it,” said Bryant, 37, who sat out the past three games because of a sore shoulder but accompanied the Lakers to Sacramento and was listed Wednesday as questionable. “It was like old school. I played in the Forum, and the stories you hear about the old Boston Garden … those are classics. The cowbells, the towels, the constant yelling and badgering. That’s the one place in the league where the fans are literally on top of you, and there is no arena etiquette, which is fantastic.”
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(The Kings) should have won. That was the second-toughest series ever after the 2010 Celtics (in the NBA Finals). Man, we couldn’t figure them out. It was like trying to catch smoke with your bare hands. It was the ball movement, the fact they had playmakers at every position. They had shooters at every position. They had length, speed. We couldn’t get hold of them. They just didn’t handle the pressure of the moment.
Kobe Bryant, about the Lakers’ victory over the Kings in the 2002 Western Conference finals
He laughed as he talked, because, after all, he earned the last laugh. His Lakers tortured the Kings before the Giants could even spell the word. The Kings’ first trip to the NBA Finals was all but booked, and then it wasn’t. The first NBA title was theirs, because they would have been overwhelming favorites against the Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets, and then it wasn’t.
Ah, but thanks for the memories. That epic Kings-Lakers drama had everything, including an officiating scandal, scintillating individual performances, beautiful collaborative basketball, blown opportunities, missed free throws, a mysterious cheeseburger room-service caper, and it ended with Kobe and Shaq and Phil Jackson celebrating a fork-to-farm, in-your-face victory.
The worst of it for the Kings, though? The bitter taste that lingers?
Bryant swears the better team lost.
“(The Kings) should have won,” he said while seated at his locker in Staples Center late Sunday afternoon. “That was the second-toughest series ever after the 2010 Celtics (in the NBA Finals). Man, we couldn’t figure them out. It was like trying to catch smoke with your bare hands. It was the ball movement, the fact they had playmakers at every position. They had shooters at every position. They had length, speed. We couldn’t get hold of them. They just didn’t handle the pressure of the moment.”
No cheeseburger in paradise
Bryant is retiring because of the usual NBA natural causes: His body is breaking down, and his franchise is committing to young players and the next era. As he tours the league for a final time, accommodating journalists with lengthier interviews and candid insights and anecdotes, every stride of his farewell tour is being documented by his personal video crew. This is a tipoff to the next chapter of his life, the one he envisions without basketball.
Though plans change – players often speak longingly of retirement and a divorce from the game, only to return because of boredom – he has no desire to own a franchise, sign overseas, work in a front office, and absolutely zero interest in coaching. Instead, he envisions a career as a storyteller. Films, books, articles, the digital frontier, something daring and cutting edge, consistent with his playing style.
When Lakers legend and former team president Jerry West reminisces about the transformative summer of 1996, when he lured free agent Shaquille O’Neal from the Orlando Magic and signed a fierce, wiry teen named Kobe Bryant, he can’t stop talking about the kid with the polished, precocious skill set and surprising charisma for someone so young.
Bryant’s former agent, Arn Tellem, manipulated the Kobe-to-Lakers scenario, pressured the Charlotte Hornets into trading for the draft rights to Kobe, with Kings general-manager-to-be Vlade Divac sacrificed. Divac thus endured the double-Kobe whammy: Traded to the Hornets for Kobe, then deprived of a championship six years later in large part because of the future Hall of Famer’s performances.
Divac was emotionally shattered, abandoned by the organization that brought him to the United States and taught him everything, including the English language, and he threatened to retire and return to his native Yugoslavia. A month later, he changed his mind and went to Charlotte, where he began to reinvent his career.
The sickness wasn’t the worst part. The IVs I got before the game, the needles were so big, and I got them in both arms; I couldn’t stop them from bleeding during the game. So Gary (Vitti) was taping it up, and at one point, I couldn’t bend my arm it was so constricted.
Kobe Bryant, on his food poisoning before Game 2 in 2002
“I was devastated,” Divac said. “I had become very comfortable in L.A., and having Magic (Johnson), I was more like a complementary player. In Charlotte, I became more of a facilitator, making everybody better. I had shooters like Glen Rice and Dell Curry, Anthony Mason, even my backup Matt Geiger. My two years there were good.”
But the heart goes where the heart goes, and Divac longed for a return to the West Coast. To the shock of many of his friends, he took a leap of faith in 1998, becoming the first free agent of note to sign during the organization’s Sacramento era.
Within months, former general manager Geoff Petrie assembled the nucleus of the team that would take the Lakers to the limit three-plus years later.
With no weakness at any position, the Kings had the best record in the league (61-21) and the coveted first seed.
“I remember climbing that mountain,” former Kings guard Doug Christie said, “and finally we got there. We knew we were the better team. We were ripe and ready. Then that series was so intense, the cities of Sacramento and L.A. going at it, their two alpha dogs in their prime, their dominant big man against our center who was big, with a skill set. When I look back on it now … there certainly were things we would do differently. But it was magnificent basketball.”
Fourteen years later, the dissection of that seven-game classic remains a roller coaster adventure. Christie bemoans the Kings’ sluggish start and eventual defeat in the series opener at Arco. Divac is haunted by the blown 24-point lead and last-second tapback to Robert Horry in Game 4. Nearly every NBA journalist voiced suspicion about the officiating that sent the Lakers to the free-throw line 27 times in the fourth quarter of Game 6.
Kobe offers his own take, citing the Kings’ horrific foul shooting (16 of 30) in the deciding Game 7 and the toxic room-service meal he says hampered his performance in Sacramento’s bounce-back Game 2.
This is his story, and he’s sticking with it: Room service the night before. A bacon cheeseburger for the entrée. A slice of cheesecake for dessert. Someone, he insists, deliberately messing with the meal and giving him a serious case of food poisoning.
“The sickness wasn’t the worst part,” he said. “The IVs I got before the game, the needles were so big, and I got them in both arms; I couldn’t stop them from bleeding during the game. So (trainer) Gary (Vitti) was taping it up, and at one point, I couldn’t bend my arm it was so constricted.”
Assessing his legacy
As he sat in the near-empty locker room, one of the greatest Lakers offered one anecdote and opinion after another. Among other things, he was sparse in his praise of today’s teenagers entering the league and acknowledged his demanding, driven persona and indefatigable work ethic led to conflict with some of his teammates, O’Neal among them.
“(O’Neal) wasn’t really a hard worker,” Bryant said. “He’d try to get into shape during the season, and he’d get injuries and all kinds of crap. We could have won more championships (together). But, honestly, there was always going to be chatter, that I needed him to win championships, and that was never going to be my legacy. There was going to come a time and place when I was going to venture out on my own.”
Persistence, man, that’s what I think about Kobe. He comes back after everything, after serious injuries, too. I’ve never heard him complain. He wanted to be great. He worked for it. Those are the things I think of.
Lakers forward Metta World Peace, on Kobe Bryant
That road has not been without potholes. As he continues on his farewell tour, he reminds journalists he plays to win titles, not make friends, dictate conditioning routines or teach teens how to defend a pick-and-roll. And while his legacy consists of five NBA championships, one MVP award, 17 All-Star berths and two Olympic gold medals, it includes one massive, messy legal matter; his reputation took an undeniable hit even after charges were dropped following his arrest for sexual assault in 2003.
“Persistence, man, that’s what I think about Kobe,” Lakers veteran Metta World Peace said. “He comes back after everything, after serious injuries, too. I’ve never heard him complain. He wanted to be great. He worked for it. Those are the things I think of.”
Asked about Bryant’s final visit to Sacramento, World Peace, who led the Kings to their last playoff appearance in 2006, smiled and shook his head. “He loves playing up there. Sacramento is a great place. That should be fun.”
Kobe vs. Kings
Kobe Bryant has played 62 games against the Kings
- 26.7: Points per game
- 6.0: Rebounds per game
- 5.2: Assists per game