With his team down by 10 at halftime Tuesday night, when losing could end both the season and the Lakers' five-year run, an already physically and emotionally drained Kobe Bryant wanted to have a brief word with his teammates. "I told the guys," he said afterward, " 'It's just a game.' "
That's not what you normally hear for a halftime speech in Game 4 of a playoff series against the defending league champion, but nothing about Bryant's season has been normal. Fewer than 10 hours earlier he had pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault charges in Eagle, Colo., then flown home to play one of the great games in NBA playoff history before an adoring crowd in a city accustomed to seeing everything, but still not knowing what to make of this melodrama, of the contradictions and conflicts of such a melodrama. And there's something particularly sobering about facing four years to life in prison if he's found guilty that will make basketball, even high-stakes basketball, seem like what it is: a game.
After having about as enjoyable an evening as he could under the circumstances Tuesday night, after scoring 42 points in a winning performance both riveting and revelatory, Bryant was asked whether he has a greater appreciation of the game because of the more serious drama in his life.
He paused for several seconds, smiled and said, "Yeah, there is [a greater appreciation]. It takes your mind away from so many things. When you love your profession, when you love your job, it's an escape, no matter what that profession is."
His voice rose barely above a whisper, and he said he had slept for an hour after arriving at Staples Center, then felt nearly devoid of energy at times during the game, in which he had to pace himself after two- or three-minute bursts of play. Among the many ironies is that even so, Bryant had what broadcast analyst Marv Albert called afterward, "One of the great playoff games I've ever seen."
And afterward, Bryant said, "I feel numb right now. I'm tired. I just want to get some sleep." He looked as if he would keel over and fall asleep on the floor if the conversation lasted more than another minute or two. "It's very draining."
The greatest irony of all, it seems to me, is that he has been drained like this all four times this season when he has flown from Colorado to Los Angeles to play for the Lakers. Yet, each time he has played brilliantly, seeming to grow stronger later in the game before appearing ready to collapse afterward. And Tuesday night's performance was not only the best, it was the most necessary to his team's chase for another championship. And during those 41 minutes, Bryant actually enjoyed himself. "I've been playing this game since I was three," he said. "It feels so good to get out there and play, to get up and down. It's fun. I enjoy it so much. The pressure, the stress. To get out there on the basketball court is an escape."
Those two-plus hours of basketball have become so enjoyable, in fact, Bryant said he likes the confrontations with San Antonio's Bruce Bowen, perhaps the toughest defender he has to face in the Western Conference. Only there can he operate with no lawyers, no accuser, none of the accuser's family members. It's just basketball, the thing he has loved since age 3, and now finds to be the only thing he can enjoy fully. Bryant said he had "flashbacks to when I was a kid," on Tuesday night.
Watching Bryant play under these conditions -- and this is the second time in the playoffs he has done so -- has a certain Twilight Zone dimension to it, and not just for him. Nobody would ever use the word "rabid" to describe the crowds that have attended Lakers games, either at the old Forum or at Staples Center. Yet, the games when Bryant flies back from Colorado to play have taken on a personality decidedly un-L.A. On Tuesday night found people standing almost every time Bryant took a shot -- even on a technical foul free throw -- in the second half. And by the time he had worked himself into a Jordanesque trance in the fourth quarter, and was draining shots that never touched the rim, people were exhorting and encouraging Bryant at a level you usually find in Green Bay or Portland, some small burg united by the one local team.
We should never, ever be caught by surprise at anything that happens in Hollywood, not after seeing a phalanx of police cars chase a white Ford Bronco down the freeway on TV. Still, the entire evening just dripped with drama.
Doug Collins, calling the game on TNT alongside Albert and Mike Fratello, said afterward that describing the action felt like walking a tightrope. "Nobody in the world loves basketball and great performances more than I do," Collins said. "And he's one-upping himself every time he comes back from Eagle, Colorado. And you want to convey to the viewers just how great he is. From the standpoint of describing basketball, you just want to be as excited to the level the performance would normally demand. But you simply have to be sensitive to all that's going on. There are sensibilities that you absolutely have to be aware of in this situation."
So on one hand you have a great player turning in one of the great games in his career, when his team needs it most. And on the other you have a man, accused of rape, insisting he is innocent of that charge. It's a minefield in these politically correct times.
And the obvious discomfort of dealing with these contradictions is exactly what makes it such high drama.
"I'm impressed," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said, "with the way Kobe is able to compartmentalize. You wish none of this had happened. It's awful for everybody."
At 7:30 a.m. in Los Angeles we watched Bryant enter a Colorado courtroom, by 7:50 p.m. here we watched him play perhaps the best basketball of his career. "It was Michael-like in the array of shots he made," Albert said.
Fratello said it was "right up there with the best playoff performances I've seen. He hit floaters, three-pointers, he went down the baseline, he got bumped and put up that shot lefty. He showed every shot. You want to see a variety of shots, youngsters? Watch the tape of what Kobe just did."
Collins, who coached Jordan when Jordan was Bryant's age, said, "He dispirits you because he scores on great defense. And in doing so, he just sucks the air out of your team."
Popovich actually complimented his defenders, even though Bryant was so completely unstoppable. "I got a couple of looks [during timeouts] like, 'You would like me to do what? Stop him?' "
Derek Fisher, Bryant's teammate and back-court mate since the two came into the league together eight years ago, said, "I told him, 'This is totally amazing, what you can do under these circumstances.' I just wanted him to know that. The excuse is there not to perform the way he has. It would be easy and understandable to give in. I don't think any of us can understand what he's going through. But I think it is a reminder in a lot ways, watching him, that basketball is a small part of what life is really all about."