Kobe Bryant’s last game in Phoenix was mythical. The crowd that used to loathe Bryant’s every move, who would jeer at him and sling pejoratives and abuse his way patiently waited for him to emerge onto the court. Some of the awed were players like Devin Booker and some were fans who made the lonely four-hour drive from L.A. There’s a morbid fascination with players who have lost their youth, a sort of awe, as if it too is talent-rich. Some of the early arriving fans were faithful Suns season ticket holders impressed at how Bryant had seemingly fought every obstacle off, even the dredges of time, even the cruelty of a professional sport. But now that he was an old player with one foot out the door, there they were, huddled with their camera phones and hand-painted signs and Kobe jerseys. They were leaning over railings when he trotted onto the court. They chanted his name and cheered as if this was a game 7 of the Western Conference Finals instead of a road game and a Lakers team that was pretty miserable to watch. But rookie Devin Booker only had one thing in mind.
Impress his idol.
Devin Booker was not guarding Bryant one-on-one until the end. When it happened, Booker’s eyes lit up even as he tried to be cool about it. Afterward, he spent a good 15 minutes in the locker room talking to Bryant, just listening and trying to take it all in. He was given a gift even though this was Bryant’s farewell to Phoenix. Kobe handed over his game shoes to Booker with the inscription: Be Legendary.
If basketball is truly about affliction more than it is about grace, then Bryant had sewn up all four corners. The pain of losing. The pain of fatigue. The pain of pain. The pain of blame. No one player advanced the Pat Riley supposition more so than Kobe Bryant: there is winning and there is misery.
And in his five years before this year, for Devin Booker, there was losing and there was misery. Add in Bryant’s tragic and sudden death, and there were a lot of low moments framed around Booker’s excellence: his 70 point game in the Garden, his 59 points in Utah. Nevertheless, his team was usually on the losing end of things.
Devin Booker was an All-Star for the first time when he replaced Damian Lillard who had to pull out with a groin injury last year. A dejected Lillard was the first one who brought up Booker’s name as his replacement, which is how far Booker had come. He had earned respect. And rightly so.
Devin Booker is having an absurdly excellent playoffs but that alone doesn’t make him legendary as Bryant demanded. Be a legend on the court simply means give yourself up to the game, and accept how great you are, and don’t take shortcuts. Don’t cheat the game. Don’t be afraid. Be the best player. Own how special you are.
In the regular season, Booker took nearly 1,100 jump shots and made 44% of them. In the 3rd quarter of games, Devin Booker put up more shots than any other quarter and shot 48%. He’s an emotional player and in those wasteland years when he was snubbed, he moaned about how NBA coaches didn’t like him. It was never about that. It was about earning your respect.
Booker is from Mississippi and Grand Rapids and he idolized Kobe Bryant and was selected 13th like Kobe was selected 13th and plays the same position as Bryant. That Bryant doesn’t get to see Booker thrive is heartbreaking and one more reason for Booker to approach the playoffs with a Bryant-like intensity. Booker has more touches in the playoffs (72.8) than in the regular season. (56.2), more points per game in the playoffs (29.7) than the regular season (25.6), more minutes played in the playoffs (40.8) than the regular season (33.9). That’s how you are legendary. In the playoffs, you take your game to an unstoppable level.
This is Booker’s first taste of the playoffs and before he dominated the Lakers in six games, it was the kind of career where Booker had to justify himself. But no one, not even his critics who accused him of being a ball hog who doesn’t make players better, can argue the results. Earlier this season, he scored 43 on Minnesota (57% fg), and 45 on the Bulls (70% fg). At home in the playoffs he scored over 30 points per game and on the road, to advance, he shot 68%, 80% from three, and pulled 11 rebounds.
That’s the definition of legendary.