The crowd roared as they rose to their feet. It was the type of applause reserved for a special occasion; a moment frozen in time. Kobe Bryant, the five-time champion and two-time NBA Finals MVP, faked once, faked twice, fake three times and as predictably as the shot went up, it went down. Born Ron Artest, Kobe's longtime wing man gave a fist pump. Head trainer Gary Vitti looked on, unmoved as ever at the magnificence he had seen, a magnificence transcended down player by player, title era by title era. But this was the Celtics, after all. Add a little green to an arena with 18,000 Lakers fans and a buzz becomes a roar. The math is simple. As elementary as Kobe hitting another shot over the outstretched hands of a defender in green.
"Splash." Two minutes later, color commentator Stu Lantz would vocalize the action of the basketball through the net, as the TWC Sportsnet broadcast went to commercial. The crowd was still humming from Bryant nailing yet another bucket. Like a rock hitting a still pond, the arena went from holding their breath in nervous anticipation to a joyous ripple of noise.
For the Black Mamba, this was normal. Rising up over a defender, hitting a shot and hearing the deafening roar of a crowd? Casual. Day in the life. Nothing he hadn't done before. But this time, the crowd erupted in near unison. The Lakers were playing the Celtics in the spring time in a game that had so much meaning to Bryant and his teammates. It was breathtaking, in the most literal sense of the word. The arena was going haywire.
But this wasn't for a title. No. It wasn't for playoff seeding or home court advantage or even a titanic regular season battle between two foes that would see each other months later.
It was a shot in the first quarter of a meaningless April game between the soon-to-be 16-60 Los Angeles Lakers and the playoff-bound (but realistically playoff-mortal) Boston Celtics. Three quarters later, the Lake Show would indeed fall to the hated C's, leaving them just one loss away from at least tying the franchise mark for futility. The loss put them behind the eight-ball and a near lock for being the worst Lakers team of all time.
Still, the crowd adoringly cheered Bryant as he hit the shot, applauding with a sonic ferocity only akin to a gigantic made bucket in a playoff game. It was that loud. I would know. I sat in the stands Sunday, watching Kobe for my final time, comparing and contrasting against the last time I had seen the Mamba lace them up against the Celtics. It was Game 7 in 2010. It was intense. I could barely breathe. STAPLES Center was tense and every bucket, no matter at what point in the game, was treated as if it could be the last. The crowd feverishly cheered for the Lakers, Kobe in particular, and erupted every time he made a bucket.
It was almost the same on Sunday.
I understand the reasoning. With the conclusion of game 76, one of the greatest players ever and one of the very best in the history of the league's best franchise only had six more contests left. For 90 percent of the crowd, it would be the last time they'd ever see Kobe Bryant in person. Considering the way he's been shooting this season, it's not illogical to think that it could be the last basket they would ever witness him making. Any fan of this franchise deserves to treat KB like a conquering hero, which is the most apt description of what he's become. A grizzled fighter, body weary from years of battle, having sacrificed his own flesh and bone in dedication to the cause. It seems for every ounce of blood that he had given to the crowd over two decades, they returned to him in kind with vociferous gratitude. Were the parting shots he made inconsequential, given not only the timing of the game, but the forsaken nature of the entire season? Absolutely. But that wasn't the point.
The crowd wasn't applauding the shot that Bryant made -- it was the 11,660 he made before that, not to mention the 2,014 he's hit from mid-April to late June. They cheered with shocking enthusiasm in reverence to all he had given the city, the team and the franchise. They rose to their feet for all the times they couldn't. It was incredible. It was bizarre.
It was pathetic.
I sat there in amazement as 18,000 other people lost their minds cheering for the worst Lakers team we've ever seen and its leader. A dysfunctional team whose tales of in-fighting and dissension have almost overcome the cheers of Kobemania runnin' wild. A squad that tied the record for worst defeat of all-time just a week prior. A group of guys and a coaching staff that own the second-worst record in the league and the worst record in the West. A team that will go down as a stain on the otherwise pristine facade of not just the NBA's crown jewel, but one of the best professional sports has to offer. To me, it's a gigantic, horrific disconnect. After all, this is The Lakers.
Not the lakers.
The Lakers. Period.
Every shot Kobe hit on Sunday, it was like he hit a game-changing shot against the Celtics in the Finals. The audience was going bananas. It was hysteria. There was an air of positivity there, completely understandable considering what tickets are going for these days. It was amazing. Fans were losing their minds. Fans treated it like the Lakers were actually heading towards winning something. The excitement was palpable. But to me, it felt wrong.
Like Kobe has said a multitude of times in the past, if the Lakers aren't winning a title, the season was a failure. Black and white, nothing else to it. For the Lakers, their history and their future, the championship is everything. Every other goal, every other honor, every other trophy is window dressing. Nothing matters as much as holding the Larry O'Brien in June. In fact, nothing else matters. That's it.
In my decades of Lakers fandom, I understand it. It's what my family has instilled in me and the five titles I witnessed with my own eyes taught me. For most cities, the 2004 campaign would have been one of the most memorable of all-time. Two Hall of Famers in the twilight of their careers joined up with two future Hall of Famers, won 56 games amidst serious injury problems and charged into the Finals as the heavy favorite. They lost to the Pistons in five games. Where's the conversation about that team? That season?
It doesn't exist. It's not important because they didn't win the last game of the year. They lost. They won 56 games and 17 games in the playoffs and no one gives a damn about that squad. Because they didn't win the chip. Plain and simple.
The Lakers are -- rightfully so -- held to a higher standard. They don't retire numbers unless a player is in the Hall of Fame or is a lock for it. Just ask Jamal Wilkes. They don't have to advertise season ticket packages in the newspaper or air ads on TV. Those tickets are sold on prestige and reputation alone. The Lakers don't hang division banners in STAPLES. They don't even hang Western Conference title flags. One banner matters.
This is not any other franchise. Winning is the most important thing. That's what guarantees immortality. Not moral victories in a lost season or a Pyrrhic win to be forgotten years from now. Lakers fans are held to the same standard. No one here flinched when the Lakers went to the Finals in 2010. We knew that the real victory was four wins away.
Great players have retired on the Lakers over the years. Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper...the list goes on and on. For many of those players, their exits were not only anticipated, but pre-announced. None of them came close to the hysteria that's following Bryant and his every bucket.
This is why I find the cheering for Kobe so distasteful. We've been here before folks. We've seen more great players come and go from this franchise in two decades than most others have seen in their existence. And now we're seeing it again, but buried in the backdrop of the worst, most disgraceful Lakers team ever.
Reserve this type of applause for a team that wins. Explode like that when we have a player hitting a shot in a game that matters. I'm truly not trying to be a buzzkill here, but like everything in life, there is a time and a place. Hold back this type of praise for what this organization truly stands for: winning.
This is Kobe's last week in the NBA. But that's not the correct sentence.
This is Kobe's last week in the NBA, as he captains the worst Lakers team in NBA history. That's the right one.
No player, no matter how important in franchise history is more important than the team. And this team is absolutely horrible.
It's not that I don't think Kobe should be honored. He should and with heaps of praise thrown at his feet. Even I got a little sentimental when I realized it was the last time I'd see him on the court in a uniform with my own eyes. But what I've seen at the arena the past two weeks is overboard considering the circumstances surrounding his departure. Cheering him when this team is so bad and considering everything else we've seen over the past six decades is disproportionate to the great legacy that this franchise has forged.
I'll cheer for Kobe, one of my favorite players ever, if not my favorite. But not like this. Not when the Lakers are at their lowest point ever. Because for me, I won't ever forget this season. And not because of Kobe Bryant.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino