(In honor of Kobe Bryant’s 36th birthday a look back at one of his iconic performances played April 14, 2004 in the Rose Garden in Portland. It was the last game of the 2003-04 season and the Lakers were trying to win the division. That was what was public. What was private was Kobe and his teammates silently feuding over his shot selection and his on court moodiness, specifically not taking shots to prove a point.
It had been both a tough year and a brilliant year for the eight year veteran who traveled back and forth from courtrooms in Colorado to NBA competition. Kobe was a free agent at the end of the season and his future was in doubt. So turmoil was the ghost hanging over the team all year long. But then came the last day of the regular season and the city of Portland and two overtimes and Kobe playing 53 minutes and Kobe being…Kobe.)
If you have ever lived in Portland, if you ever have had a craft beer at one of the bars on 11th Ave, if you have ever seen the homeless teens crowded like butterflies in downtown doorways, if you have ever been in the rainy cold that does not seem to disappear, ever, then you know what it means to be in a city that truly loves one thing and especially hates another. They love the Trailblazers in Portland, Oregon. And they hate the Lakers in Portland, Oregon.
In 2004 the Lakers had the two best players in the NBA on the same team in Kobe and Shaq, both in their prime. They added Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Still, the Lakers had to fight with Sacramento for superiority in the Pacific Division.
The last game of the season was April 14, 2004. If the Lakers were to claim the #2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, if they were to mute the turmoil in their mist, they had to win in Portland, in the city that despised them.
For the purple and gold it had been a tough, trying year. Everybody was mad about something. Kobe’s sexual assault pre-trial hearings had him traveling back and forth from Colorado to wherever the Lakers were playing that night. Gary Payton didn’t like Phil Jackson’s offense, he didn’t see where he fit in. Karl Malone battled injuries all season long. And Shaq bitched about a contract extension with Dr. Jerry Buss. Once during a game he shouted at Dr. Buss, “Pay me my damned money” as he ran down the court. So it was Lakers turmoil to the nth degree, something that Phil Jackson and all of his talk of circles and mysticism could not heal. It was a fractured team with players that could be, when provoked, dramatic, immature and whining. But on the other hand, as athletes, they were dynamic and mesmerizing and die-hard competitors. And as basketball players they were 4 future Hall of Famers trying to get along.
And so here they were in Portland, a place that never forgot what the Lakers did in 2000, in game 7. The Blazers had the game won, were up by 13 going into the 4th quarter. But Kobe and Brian Shaw and Robert Horry dismantled the Blazers in the final quarter. It was a game in which Kobe led in every statistical measure: points, rebounds, assists, blocks. The win vaulted the Lakers into the NBA Finals and three championships in a row. The loss drop kicked Portland into NBA purgatory for a decade.
The arena filled quickly that night, all of that red and black. It was the last game of the season, Fan Appreciation Night, and the mood was what you would expect, rowdy and loud. Kobe in warm-ups was lustily booed but he was used to it by now, he rarely heard it, especially when something was at stake. Phil Jackson seemed amused by it all as he strode over to the bench.
By the time the first quarter started most of the team seemed lethargic. The plan was to fly out the night before but the Lakers plane had mechanical issues. They waited until the morning. Kobe and Shaq were the ones ready. They were responsible for half of the shots. Karl Malone and Gary Payton were a wreck. They missed all 6 shots they took; Payton was 0-4. It was beginning to look like a usual Lakers/Blazers game in Oregon with the Lakers sleepwalking early and the Blazers looking like they were touched by God. They made 6 out of their first 7 shots. The Blazers were shooting 50% at the end of the quarter. The Lakers couldn’t buy a basket; they missed 15 shots and were shooting 37%. Blazers 28, Lakers 22.
Neither team did anything remarkable for the next eight minutes and with the second quarter nearly over Karl Malone, Gary Payton and Kobe made consecutive shots. The score was 48-45, Blazers. Kobe played in the paint and had two dunks and a layup. He was up to 11 points. The Lakers outscored the Blazers in the quarter and trailed by five. Blazers 50, Lakers 45.
Karl Malone sprained his ankle at the end of the second quarter and wouldn’t return. In his absence was ugly basketball. The Lakers went 7 minutes between field goals. They scored 14 points in the quarter. Basically, unwatchable if a division title was not on the line and if the Blazer fans were not foaming at the mouth with Beat LA and Kobe Sucks chants. Missing 5 out of 8 shots Kobe had 8 points in the third. 19 points and counting. The Lakers were trailing by 7. Blazers 66, Lakers 59.
Kobe started out the fourth quarter in Kobe style. He made the first two shots. Then Shaq made a layup. By the time Kobe made a technical free throw the Portland lead was cut to 4. Whether the Lakers knew it or not Sacramento was trailing big in Golden State. If they could find a way to pull this game out they’d lock up the division. On cue, Shaq made a layup to cut the lead to three. With 4 minutes left Gary Payton tied the score with a triple. Soon after, Kobe made a three to give the Lakers the lead 82-81.
But then the momentum changed. Kobe missed. And then he traveled. He bricked two free throws with less than a minute left. The cheering crowd was nearly spastic. They were going to beat the hated Lakers; they were. Kobe missed a three pointer to tie the game with ten seconds left, seemingly the Lakers last gasp of oxygen.
Ruben Patterson, the self-proclaimed Kobe Stopper, had to make one free throw to ice the game. Patterson took pride in his (inflated) sense of self and his defensive skill. With the crowd in a frenzy because the game was just about over- the Blazers had slain the enemy- Patterson went to the line. Walked up arrogant as always. Free throw number one left his hand: he missed. Still a three point game. The crowd was anxious now, face in their hands, heart in their throats. Free throw number two: he missed again. The crowd let out a groan because they knew what was coming. They instinctively knew.
Kobe. He was coming.
Portland is the type of city that Southern Californians romanticize about. It is an environmentally conscious young city with restaurants and bars, parkland, open space. Only an hour away from the city is the coast. Only an hour away from the city is farmland. Only an hour away from the city are mountains. Portland is liberal and non-religious and iconoclastic. You can garden, smoke marijuana, skateboard, play soccer, hang out downtown. Housing is cheaper than in L.A. and the air is cleaner. By 2004 the city of Portland was sick of L.A. transplants infecting their town and bringing with them their Los Angeles Lakers allegiance. L.A. transplants showed up when the Lakers were in town. You knew who they were, they seemed to breed, these obnoxious Kobephiles wearing #8 jerseys and chanting We Love L.A So here they were with 8 seconds left, a small band of Lakers faithful, loud and anticipating Kobe to do something spectacular.
And here they were with 8 seconds left, Blazer fans, standing, hating that Kobe was about to do something spectacular.
He touched the ball. He dribbled once. He was being hounded by Patterson, the Kobe Stopper. Patterson was all over him. Kobe dribbled again. He couldn’t shake Patterson. He dribbled again. And again. Patterson was smothering him like gravy on potatoes, fouling him really. Kobe pump faked, Patterson didn’t leave his feet. Kobe pump faked again. With Patterson draped on him he launched up a 26 foot rocket shot to tie the game. The ball didn’t have the nerve not to go in. Lakers 87, Blazers 87. Kobe had 12 points in the quarter. 31 in the game. The Lakers fans went ballistic, their deity came through again.
In the first overtime Shaq scored 6 of the 8 points in the period. He overpowered the Blazers while Kobe rested on offense. Kobe missed the only shot he took. It was at the end of the overtime with the clock running out and the score tied 95-95.
Both teams were exhausted by the time the second overtime rolled around. The Lakers did not score a basket until 90 seconds were left in the period. Kobe hit a three pointer to give the Lakers a three point lead. Damon Stoudamire was hardly fazed. He came back at him to tie the score at 100-100. By this time Shaq had fouled out. Brian Cook replaced him and his dunk made it 102-100. Without hesitation Stoudamire hit again, an 18 footer. 102-102. Nine seconds left and Kobe got the ball. He took a 20 footer and missed. It was an easier shot than the one he made at the end of regulation. He was pissed at himself. Really pissed. Now the Blazers had the ball and gave it to the hot hand, Damon Stoudamire, who diced through the lane without Shaq in the paint and put in a sweet layup. 104-102. Two seconds left.
It couldn’t happen again. Could it? But really? Could it?
No dribbles. No pump fakes. No slides. No Mamba psychology. Everyone was standing watching. Portland fans holding their breath, Lakers fans holding their breath as Kobe cut to the three point line. He was tossed the ball. He didn’t think. He just threw in a shot as time expired.
“Now that’s the way to end the season”, Stu Lantz, said. He watched it all unfold, surprised but not surprised. Kobe’s theatrics no longer shocked the Lakers television analyst.
Lakers 105, Blazers 104.
Kobe: 37 points, 8 rebounds, 2 buzzer beaters. It was Kobe’s greatest skill, turning adversity into heroism. Running down the court he heaved himself into a crowd of teammates. “He told us ‘set me a good pick and we’re going home with a win’ “, Shaq recounted afterward.
In the tunnel Ruben Patterson asked Kobe for his shoes. “You’ve got to give me your shoes for that one”, Patterson said, still in disbelief. How else could he explain the shot Kobe made at the end of regulation when he was practically inside Kobe’s jersey. It had to be the shoes. Kobe gave over his shoes once he autographed them. Then he snuck out the arena and towards the waiting bus.
“That’s the sign of a great player. A great confident shot…good thing about having a courageous younger brother. He has my back.” And then Shaq was gone too.