Fifteen years ago, the toughest place in the league to play was up north where dreams of royalty and crowns were punctuated with ringing cowbells and hand painted signs. It was the not modern Arco Arena that created chaos and bedlam for the visitors in town. The one team that didn’t care about any of it was the most feared bunch of NBA assassins who backed up their rock star status with ungodly performances, arrogance and sheer talent.
The Los Angeles Lakers led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were the defending champions. They were the two best players in the league. Whatever off court beef the Bryant-O’Neal personality mismatch created, in game Bryant and O’Neal knew how to win. They knew how to win in Sacramento. Arco didn’t faze them one bit.
So it was particularly interesting that the Sacramento Kings made it their mission to shut them up.
Phil Jackson loved needling the locals, calling their beloved place a cow town all the while smirking with his contemptuous smile. The Kings sycophants, on cue, became outraged. But this is where it gets complicated. If you want to ruin something great you have to interrupt it, divide it, then conquer it.
The Kings didn’t have a Kobe, they didn’t have a Shaq. But they had something just as dangerous, a team that could shoot and liked to pass the ball. They had generosity on their side.
It was a rivalry with equal parts hatred and eye rolling and disgust. And it was a rivalry with an understanding of what was at stake: NBA dominance.
The Kings were the best team, record wise, in the Western Conference in 2001-02. They jettisoned White Chocoloate aka Jason Williams to Memphis and brought in Mike Bibby. They were 1st in pace and 2nd in scoring. They were 2nd in rebounding, 3rd in steals and 4th in assists. They were 3rd in 3-point defense, and 9th in field goal defense. They won 61 games. Chris Webber had a 24.4 PER, the second highest in his career.
The Kings had an arrogance and a happiness; they believed this was their time and that the Lakers were ripe for a crushing fall. If it had to be someone, the Kings wanted it to be them to snatch the throne away. And so it ushered in one of the most dramatic Western Conference Finals in NBA history: the Kobe Beef game, the Horry buzzer beater, the Refs Conspiracy game, the Choke Job of a game 7. It wasn’t a movie but it could have been.
The Kobe Beef Game: Waking up in the middle of the night sick to his stomach because he ordered a hamburger from room service, Kobe spent the night and day vomiting and replenishing his fluids. The Lakers already had a 1-0 lead in the series, having beaten the Kings in the first game, taking homecourt back, to the chagrin of the bell-rattling Kings faithful who were horrified at losing home court. Would Kobe play? Would he not play? That was only a small part of the questioning. Who made that hamburger? Who ordered it diseased? Was the bad burger punishment for beating the Kings? Was Sacramento taking this rivalry a little too far?
As for the game, Kobe was ashen and obviously recovering, his face was all sweaty everytime he launched one of his patented jumpers. He had 22 points to go with Shaq’s 35. The Kings only played 7 players. Webber and Bibby had 20+ points. Bobby Jackson had 17 and it was enough to even the series.
The Horry Buzzer Beater: The Lakers trailed the series 2-1, and trailed most of Game 4. The Kings were a confident bunch. They came into Staples and won Game 3 without much resistance from the Lakers and here they were in Game 4, leading in the final seconds of the game. Kobe drove the lane past Doug Christie, leaving him in the dust. Seven seconds dwindled to four. Kobe missed a floater. 99 times he makes that shot. Shaq missed the tip in. 99 times he makes that put back. Vlade batted the ball out. 99 times it goes to mid-court ending the game. But the Lakers were, if nothing else, filled with luck. The Basketball Gods seemed to love them.
The ball ended up in Robert Horry’s hands. He shot it as time expired. Net. Ballgame. Win.
The shock of the defeat had Chris Webber lowering his head, his eyes glazed. Mike Bibby stood in place before moving, as if paralyzed. Horry was the hero. In a manner of seconds the series went from the Kings up 3-1 to the series tied, 2-2.
Afterwards, Vlade Divac said it was, “a lucky shot. You don’t have to have a skill in that kind of situation.”
Horry fired back. “It wasn’t no luck shot. I’ve been doing that all my career. He should know. He better read the paper or something.”
The Refs Conspiracy Game: Sacramento led the series 3-2 and were back at Staples Center. A win would seal a trip to the NBA Finals for Sacramento. A loss would set up a game 7 in Arco. The game went back and forth. There were 11 ties and 13 lead changes. The stars came out. Webber had 26 points and 13 rebounds. Bibby dropped 23. Shaq had 41 points and 17 rebounds and Kobe had 31 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists. The game had a good flow, pressure on both sides. Tie score going into the fourth.
But then the refs had to keep their whistles going. The first foul was Scott Pollard on Shaq. Then, Webber fouled Devean George. Vlade Divac fouled Shaq. Clearpath foul on Kobe by Bobby Jackson. Lawrence Funderburke fouled Shaq. Chris Webber fouled Shaq. 90-90, tie game. Four minutes left. It felt like an eternity, like the quarter was an hour with all the stops and starts.
It kept going, the whistles. Vlade Divac fouled Horry. 92-92. Two and a half minutes left.
Lawrence Funderburke fouled Shaq. Doug Christie fouled Kobe. Lawrence Funderburke, who at this point was a fouling machine or a pawn for the refs to use to send the Lakers to the line, fouled Rick Fox. Hedo Turkoglu fouled Rick Fox. Bobby Jackson fouled Kobe. 103-100 Lakers.
Doug Christie fouled Kobe (after Kobe bloodied Mike Bibby’s nose with an elbow and Bibby turned to the refs as if to say- do you see the damned blood running down my face?). 105-102 Lakers. Turkoglu fouled Horry. 106-102 Lakers.
Game 7 up next.
The Choke: Game 7: Arco was Arco meaning cowbells, fans, screaming, hysteria. The fans thought it would matter to the Lakers but they were used to hostility and actually thrived off of it. It didn’t make them play worse, it made them ramp up their aggression. On the other side of the equation, the energy suppressed the Kings. They missed free throws. They shot airballs. They had bad decisions, this for a team identified by their ball movement and chemistry.
The Lakers were the two-time champs and stayed calm and composed throughout the overtime. The Lakers were two years removed from that hellacious gutsy comeback on the Trailblazers when they trailed in a game 7, in another Western Conference Finals. These Lakers loved pressure, were addicted to it, while the Kings had to adjust to an environment they had never experienced.
Years later, Mike Bibby admitted the circumstance got to the Kings. But it came down to this: Peja Stojakovic tossing up an airball with 13 seconds left to win the game, ruin the Lakers, go to the NBA Finals. He gagged badly. In overtime, Webber made the first shot but the Kings looked tired, gassed and a little bit anxious. Not nearly as confident as when they first started. The Lakers were sharks feeding on blood.
Robert Horry: “I thought they tensed up down the stretch when Bibby was taking all the shots and the others were hesitating.”
Kobe Bryant: “We kept our composure. That’s why championship experience shows through.”
Chris Webber: “They accomplished what they wanted to do, that’s all I’ll say about them.”
14 years have passed. Sacramento, who has never recovered from that loss, has been a fixture in the NBA lottery, mining young talent and coming up short. The Lakers have done Lakers things. They won the NBA title after that Sacramento series, their third in a row, a triumph no team has accomplished since then. But basketball changes and the Lakers lost their championship swagger after the 2001-2002 season, recovering it seven years later in 2009 and 2010. Now they are losing at a historic pace, and Kobe Bryant has retired.
Except for the fanbases, that 2002 game is in the history books, a footnote. Another game 7 Western Conference Finals game is here. The Warriors are the home team that plays with generosity and selflessness while the Thunder have a two tiered system. Except their two players don’t always embrace everyone else. It is a reminder that the 2002 Kings playoff team left a lot on the table, unfinished. Either the Thunder or the Warriors may leave a lot on the table, unfinished.
Part of game 7 lore, history will tell you Kobe Bryant left very little to chance. He played in two Western Conference game 7’s, one at home, the other in Arco. He won both. He took advantage of every opportunity which perhaps is the entire point of game 7. Do you. Be the best at it.
Sacramento didn’t follow through in 2002. They didn’t have the Kobe mindset nor did they have the Kobe talent. The Kings were an unselfish team that loved to play together; they had their hearts broken.
But here’s the difference in 2016. Oklahoma City has a Kobe archetype; his name is Kevin Durant. Golden State has a Kobe archetype; his name is Steph Curry. It’s a fair fight.
Except. Pressure changes circumstances. Who will choke in game 7? And who will be the hero?
photo via llananba