A study in contrasts, the Lakers’ epic rivalry with the Spurs came to define their retiring star’s career
SAN ANTONIO — If we are all defined in some measure by the nature and intensity of our rivalries, then perhaps the reflection of Kobe Bryant‘s glory will live longest in the Spurs.
But for the better part of the past two decades, the best rivalry in the NBA has been L.A.-San Antonio, the quintessential duel of both form and function.
So when Bryant walked off the AT&T Center floor for the final time on Saturday night, following a 106-102 loss, pounding his heart, blowing kisses and applauding the crowd that had so often treated him as a villain, it was a mutual acknowledgment of respect in the aftermath of all the battles.
It was, after all, the Spurs who taught him to raise his game.
“Their discipline,” Bryant said. “When I first came into the league, I played with a lot of emotion, I played with a lot of rage. But to beat San Antonio, I mean that year we got swept in ’99 really showed me another level of the game in terms of the coldness with which they played, the discipline they played with. That’s when I realized I had to get my game to that level, and get it there now. They helped me find that next level of discipline.”
“It was fun,” he said. “The most fun was when they had home-court advantage (in the 2001), and we had to come up here and play, and we wound up getting both games up here. It was intense — we knew what they could do, we knew how they would play, we knew their momentum, we knew how they liked to execute — but there were just some nights where we never could get in front of them. Their ball movement, we were always kinda chasing the game.”
Bryant fittingly went down firing in the Alamo City, shooting 9-for-28 to score 25 points, but was the featured attraction with a night-long buzz inside the arena and a three-minute pregame montage of his career on the giant video screen as a salute from the Spurs, followed by a standing ovation and chants of “Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!”
“It was a great night for Kobe, which is thrilling for me because I think he’s great,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Theirs is a study in contrast, the Hollywood glitz of the Lakers and Bryant’s nonpareil talent against the no-nonsense, team-first mantra ingrained by Popovich and the relentless continuity of the Spurs.
“I think that starts at the top with Pop, starts at the top with the ownership,” Bryant said. “They’re very clear on what the identity is, very clear on what they stand for, what they represent. They’re very clear on the style of player that they want to have. They’ve been consistent with that year over year. That’s why it becomes easier for them to select certain players to draft, certain players to trade for. Because they’re looking for certain type of player. That leads to consistency.
“We’ve had changes. We have Dr. (Jerry) Buss passing away, have Jeannie (Buss) and Jim (Buss), you have Phil (Jackson) coming and going. You have all these things going on and so as a result system changing as well. So there’s a lot of inconsistency. What they’ve done here which is phenomenal, probably compared to the Patriots, is have so much consistency from top to bottom.”
How might similar consistency have changed the arc of his own career?
“I wonder that, but just for fun,” Bryant said. “I can’t sit here and complain. I’ve eaten pretty well, so I can’t complain that there’s no dessert left.”
It is rapidly approaching the end of an era, the brightest stars that entered the NBA in the 1990s — Tim Duncan (39), Dirk Nowitzki (37), Kevin Garnett (39),Manu Ginobili (38) and Bryant (37) — now twinkling toward black.
“I think you could make a case for that,” Popovich said. “A lot of great players for a very long time competing against each other at the top of their games and their teams doing very well. I think you could make a case for it.”
But as if he couldn’t resist one last fire dance down memory lane, Bryant lit his fuse for a third-quarter performance that was equal parts sizzle and nostalgia. He drove through traffic to beat defenders off the dribble for a finger roll and pulled up to stab in vintage jumpers. In one 90-second stretch Bryant scored on a three straight possessions with shots from behind the arc that were long, longer and longest. The last was a 26-footer from the left wing despite getting fouled by Patty Mills. Bryant pumped his fist after that one as the San Antonio crowd again chanted “Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!” in admiration. He scored 16 points in the quarter, shooting 6-for-12 and 3-for-6 on treys.
“Actually, I thought he was great,” said Spurs point guard Tony Parker. “The fans were into it and it felt a little like the old days in the playoffs.”
“It was like watching Michael (Jordan),” Popovich said. “I was just watching. It was great. It was great. We made some mistakes. He took advantage of it. He’s fantastic.”
There isn’t one Kobe play specifically that endures with Popovich.
“Not really,” he said. “I just see him turning and fading on the baseline on both sides, over and over and over again. People playing great ‘D’ on him and he rises up over them with that beautiful touch and just knocks them down. I see him doing it all the time in my dreams. It’s not one thing with Kobe. He’s been doing it for so long, it’s just a body of work you remember with him.”
Since announcing on Nov. 30 that this would be his last season, any time Bryant has visited another team’s arena for the final time has been part of a farewell tour and a chance to reflect. In that vein, he said the rivalry with the Spurs has meant even more than playing the Celtics.
“It’s more personal because it’s the rivalry that I played through,” he said. “The Celtics rivalry is something I grew up watching. I played against them a couple of times in The Finals. But San Antonio was year in and year out. The year we won the championship it was like, ‘Well, Tim was hurt so it really doesn’t count.’ So the second run it was, ‘OK, you guys had a shortened season and we had Tim when he was hurt so now let’s see what’s up.’ ”
It was the back-and-forth, the give-and-take, the punch and counter-punch pull of Lakers vs. Spurs that kept them and us riveted and fully engaged for all those years.
It’s what he’ll miss most.
“Yeah,” Bryant said. “Competing against these guys on the court. Trying to figure out what in the hell Pop’s thinking. With Tony and Manu and Tim and what their scheme is next. What they’re setting you up for next. How to counter that. Aside from that, in the city just walking around. Strolls on the Riverwalk the night before big playoff games. Just relaxing and taking it all in, kind of the quiet before the storm.”
When the winds finally stopped howling and the horn sounded, Bryant wrapped his arms around the Spurs’ rising star Kawhi Leonard. He also hugged Boris Diaw, Danny Green, Mills, Parker and Duncan. He and Popovich then shared an embrace, smiles and a few private conversations before Kobe turned and walked toward the tunnel one more time, raising his arms and saluting the crowd that for so many years came to jeer him.
“It’s an amazing feeling because we have had so many heated games here,” Bryant said. “So it feels good here at the end to be able to have this amount of respect.”