(*Author’s Note: This is the fourth in a 5 part series detailing my favorite sports memories of all-time.)
Full disclosure, I’m not one of those people who thinks that being a fan or a hater of a certain team is a binding agreement. I don’t think that we, as crazed sports fans, are contractually obligated to like or dislike a certain team for all of time.
I understand that some fans take vows, much like some twisted ESPN-induced wedding nuptials, that they will love, honor, and cherish the Washington Redskins or that they will loath, hate, and despise the Oklahoma Sooners. I get that.
While there are some teams that I feel that I will always have a certain level of hatred for (*Author’s note: here’s looking at you, BeVo and Butthead. Who’s “butthead” you ask? I’m not entirely sure, but it just kind of wrote itself. Maybe Mack Brown or DeLoss Dodds. You make the call.) I also subscribe to the age-old “out of sight, out of mind” and the even more clichéd, “time heals all football/basketball/track/soccer/team handball wounds.”
So when I say that I used to strongly dislike the Los Angeles Lakers and that they, through a sports-life-altering moment, became my favorites in the span of one game I understand that some of you will turn up your noses. You’ll flip me the “I will always hate the Lakers, even if Lamar Odom married my sister after he divorces Khloe Kardashian,” bird. Some might even challenge my fandom.
The simple fact is, and some of you will inevitably disagree with me on this until you’re buried six feet under in your team-colored caskets, there are moments in sports that can irrevocably change the way we look at a team or a player. I had both of these happen in one fell swoop in the winter of 2009.
My fiance and I had booked a cruise that departed from Long Beach in early January. She had surprised me with tickets to the Lakers and Pacers game at the Staples Center. I was giddy.
I had been to several NBA games in the past, all at the U.S. Airways Center to watch the Phoenix Suns, but this was a chance to see something totally different. It would be like watching the Packers at Lambeau or watching the Cubs play at Wrigley. If the Cubs didn’t perennially suck. It would be a chance for an NBA fanatic to see the place where the NBA logo once played. Where Magic had passed to Kareem and where Kobe Bryant not only wore a crown on his shoulder in tattoo ink, but wore the crown as (arguably) the best player in the league.
Prior to arriving in L.A. I wasn’t a Kobe Bryant fan. I found him arrogant, dispassionate about his teammates, but firmly believed he was one of the greatest athletes on the planet and would have killed to see him live. We managed to finagle a ride to the game from our extremely Japanese hotel (*Author’s note: how can any hotel be “extremely” Japanese, you ask? They had a meditation garden on the 8th floor that connected directly, by crushed gravel path no less, to a karaoke/sushi bar. That’s how Japanese it was.) and thereby avoided the inevitable cab ride that would’ve racked us up a Tom-Hanks’-salary-for-Larry Crowne-sized bill.
We arrived in time for the shoot-arounds and I promptly geeked out so hard that my fiance had to physically restrain me from jumping off the upper deck and sprinting down courtside. I settled for repeatedly reminding her who every player was that I could identify and taking grainy, low-resolution photos with my camera. Pau Gasol’s photo looked like a bigfoot sighting. Mainly because Pau simply looks like a Sasquatch.
Despite the fact that we were high up, I could see the game and the warmups and Jack Nicholson sitting courtside with an 18-year-old skeeze (*Author’s note: we had seen an L.A. gossip newspaper detailing Nicholson’s courtship of this true freshman from Brown University and were shocked when she showed up sitting next to the King of Hollywood.) with remarkable clarity. Even Sasha Vujacic’s greasy euro-trash version of the Hanson brothers’ hair was clearly visible, flopping in the night air.
Before the game tipped off the Lakers got their player introductions. For the intro, the team dropped down a huge square of white screens that had 6-story high projection images of the Lakers throwing down vicious dunks and rejecting shots with authority. I videotaped it with my camera and you can hear me, drowning out the PA announcer himself with remarkably high-pitched screams. Although the audio would suggest otherwise, I’m pretty sure I hit puberty a while before this.
The game was a high-paced, back and forth affair with lead changes and a great deal of drama. The atmosphere was perfect. There were celebrities, both real and imagined. “I swear that’s Leo DiCaprio right there. . .or. . .maybe it’s Matt Damon. No, definitely DiCaprio.” (*Author’s note: it wasn’t.) And a big-screen kiss from Heidi Klum and some girl who was also sitting with her and Seal that was cheered wildly by anyone with testosterone.
I’m pretty sure Phil Jackson stopped coaching to cheer for that.
As time ticked away the clearly superior Lakers couldn’t quite pull away. Kobe dropped 36 points with 13 assists and 7 rebounds. Seeing him live was incredible. He had complete command of the court. Even from where we couldn’t quite tell if Jack Nicholson’s date was wearing a shirt or not (*Author’s note: my fiance and I still debate on this one. He is Jack Nicholson, after all.) it was obvious that Kobe was the man.
The Pacers gamely kept the score close. It was a tie ball game as the Lakers got the ball for one last possession. Everyone in the Staples center had one name on their lips. Except for a few grossly Euro-Garbaged-up girls who had implanted-up their Vujacic jerseys and had been screaming at him the whole game in an attempt to score some future child support and/or green cards.
Kobe had the ball, slowly circling the outside of the three-point line as time wound down. There was something carnivorous in the way he eyed the basket. Something very tantalizing filled the entirety of the stadium.
Everyone knew Kobe was going to take the shot. Everyone knew Kobe was going to make the shot. Then. . .Kobe made the shot. As time expired Kobe hit a turnaround 2 pointer from the elbow for the win.
The fans went crazy. Even though the ending had been as predictable as High School Musical 3, it was amazing. Never before had I felt so confident that someone would simply will themselves into a heroic moment and never before had I seen someone fulfill a prophecy so effortlessly. Kobe had wanted to score. He’d wanted to win. Then he’d gone down the court, with an entire opposing team knowing that he would shoot the final shot, and done exactly that.
With that one night, that one game, that one basket, that one moment I metamorphosed. I became a Kobe Bryant fan. I became a Lakers fan. It was that incredible a moment, that cool. Just by being there, surrounded by A-listers and paparazzi and fans that could actually dance when they were shown on the “bust a move cam” I felt suddenly like some Hollywood bigshot.
Jumping around joyously while wildly celebrating with my fiance and the random dude in front of us sloshing eight dollars worth of beer (*Author’s note: at the Staples Center that’s roughly an 8 oz. beer.) was a great moment. It altered my perception of the NBA. It made me realize that certain games, certain moments of sporting bliss, can make you do a 180-degree turn faster than Blake Griffin in transition.
I had been baptized in glitz and glamor and steely nerves that not even Hollywood could capture in cinematic glory; born again in the purple and gold of Lakers fandom, I reveled in the moment and won’t soon stop.
It was a marvelous night, a great game, and a shot that I’ll never forget.