For the past two decades, Kobe Bryant has mesmerized us. Something about his talent, his indomitable will, and his uncompromising desire to win drew us in. Fans and haters alike have watched year after year, cheering him, cursing him, and being amazed by him.
Now, with the light at the end of the tunnel growing brighter by the minute, Bryant gets one last opportunity to perform on Christmas Day. It will be the first time he has been healthy enough to play on Christmas since 2012, and no doubt the Black Mamba will be looking to put on a show.
In years past, Kobe has spent Christmas in a number of high-profile grudge matches, taking on Shaquille O’Neal’s Miami Heat, LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and later Heat, Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns, and of course Garnett, Pierce and Allen’s Celtics. In most cases these contests ended in a loss for the Lakers, but they were always an opportunity for Bryant to shine with the eyes of the nation watching.
This season though, with the Lakers acting as the league’s doormat, the game itself doesn’t have that true grudge match feel to it. Sure, the “Battle for Los Angeles” is intriguing, but realistically the Lakers aren’t in the Clippers stratosphere right now. As such, the game wasn’t given marquee billing, instead being shifted to the late time slot that will begin well after most east coast fans are tucked in their beds.
Still, any game involving Kobe Bryant is must-watch TV, and this game is certainly no different. As the king of Los Angeles for the past 20 years, Kobe defending his city from the barbarians at the gate — the ones named Paul, Griffin, and Jordan — offers plenty of opportunity for entertainment, even if Bryant’s task is a near-hopeless one.
And Lakers fans won’t be the only ones rooting for Kobe and the underdog purple and gold, as the Los Angeles Clippers have become the most hated team in the league. The “other” LA squad, while immensely talented, has drawn the ire of fans across the nation thanks to their incessant whining and shameless flopping. It’s these qualities that we find repulsive in our sports stars, and as a result, the Clippers have found themselves pushed into the role of basketball’s bad guys.
Bryant, on the other hand, has no shortage of supporters thanks to his near cult-like following around the world. He has also had plenty of detractors over the years, but even the staunchest of haters have softened their stance during Kobe’s farewell campaign. With Bryant finishing his career on a non-threatening Lakers team, the accolades have poured in from former foes, all expressing respect for his impressive career. Road games have turned into de facto Kobe Bryant appreciation nights, with fans around the league cheering for one more jaw-dropping performance from their former conqueror.
It’s a theme that isn’t uncommon to us; the one-time villain transitioning to the role of the anti-hero as a reverence for the former antagonist sets in. For example, the T-Rex was a fearsome killer in Jurassic Park, gulping down helpless humans and sacrificial goats alike. At the end of the film though, she saves the day when she decides to try some Raptor meat, gaining a slight measure of redemption in the eyes of the audience. Clearly, the behemoth couldn’t be trusted, but her ferocity was helpful in the end.
By the end of the fourth film though, we were cheering when the aging Rex emerged from the paddock to challenge the new big bad, the Indominus Rex. We felt sympathy when it looked as though the Indominus would deal a death blow, then relief when the Tyrannosaur came roaring (pun intended) back.
Similarly, the long-in-the-tooth Kobe steps into the role of anti-hero in taking on this newer menace. Bryant is massively outgunned, with a misfit crew of rookies and veteran role players alongside him, and the result will almost certainly be another Lakers loss. For perhaps the first time though fans across the league, not just LA fans, will be hoping for a turn-back-the-clock performance.
Given the way Kobe has been playing lately, we very well may see some fireworks. In his last five games, Bryant is averaging 23.8 points on 46 percent from the field, a big increase over the 34 percent he is shooting on the season. He has also averaged a team-high 4.6 assists, and used his underrated passing skills to get the young Lakers open looks.
With his patented fade-away jumper falling and the look-away passes flowing, Bryant’s resurgence has been spectacular. Few could have expected this kind of excellence from Kobe, especially after a horrendous start to the season that featured one cringe-worthy airball after another. He claims he is finally getting his legs under him, but regardless of the reason, we are finally seeing the Mamba that fans have been hoping for.
Really, that may be the best Christmas gift that the Lakers can give this year. A win would be asking too much of the rebuilding team, but a special performance from the 37 year old Bryant would fit nicely under the tree.
We know that Kobe puts in an incredible amount of time and effort in order to haul his aching joints up and down the court night after night, and that excellence can’t be expected of him all the time. There will be nights where he looks his age and more, where nearly 20 years of NBA basketball manifest in the form of missed shots and lethargic play. It’s unavoidable.
Ask any aging athlete though, and they will tell you that there are those moments, fleeting as they may be, where everything clicks once again. Legs feel lighter and the game slows down, as though 10 years have been wiped from the ledger.
We are seeing this effect right now. For the first time in years, the game once again looks easy for Kobe. When he is playing at a high-level like this, we can’t help but be taken back in time with him, no DeLorean needed. With each baseline jumper, no-look pass, and cheshire-cat grin, we are brought back to the days when Bryant ruled the NBA, and in that moment it feels damn good to be a Laker fan again.
In spite of the hopes of fans across the league, the Clippers will likely walk away with a win today. It may even be a blowout. But let’s hope that on this, Kobe’s last Christmas in a Lakers uniform, that there is enough magic in the air to allow Bryant to continue to play the hero and remind us all of why he is one of the all-time greats.