On the Wednesday night of his Boston debut, an 18-year-old thinner version of Kobe Bryant gazed at the famed parquet floor that creaked and dipped in spots every time he moved in the lay-up line. For a moment he paused and gave a momentary glance to the championship banners hanging high above, way up the Boston Garden. He thought he was ready for the moment. He so wanted to be.
Months earlier he worked out for Boston and Celtics legend Red Auerbach admitted “I think this kid is going to be a hell of a player. But he can go either way. He seems to be solid, but he’s a high school kid. You’ve got to make a choice based on what you need today. But I think he’s a hell of a player.”
Auerbach had turned the 1996 draft over to his pupil and former Celtic M.L. Carr. When the Celtics worked Bryant out in a green Celtics jersey he wowed everyone. Bryant said afterward, “Dude that was the freakiest sh—. I don’t know if it’s the mythology of the Celtic Green or whatever, but they bring out the practice gear and open it up and the shorts are there and it’s like the green flows. I’m looking at it like ‘Do I really have to put this on? I’m comfortable wearing the sh– I have’. But I quickly moved past that, man. It’s like, I’m quickly about to become a professional. If anything, I understand the history of this franchise and this franchise has done amazing stuff.”
The Celtics didn’t draft Bryant but drafted Antoine Walker who attended Kentucky and was ready to contribute. In his second season, Walker was an All-Star and he was responsible for the Celtics going to the Eastern Conference Finals. But he wasn’t Kobe. Two decades later, Carr reminisced about Bryant’s workout:
“It was unbelievable. We put him in a lot of catch-and-shoot situations. We put him in dribble across the middle, pull-up and shoot. We let him stroke a little bit from the 3-point line. But it was a lot of quick release, get-it-off–quick [shots] to see if he could do that because we knew at the next level, he was going to have to get it quick against better defenses than in high school.”
Celtic General Manager Jan Volk who was present for the workouts said “If you closed your eyes and thought a little bit, you might have thought you were watching Michael Jordan. He did everything well–beyond well. He was exceptional in everything that he did.”
A few months later, Kobe Bryant’s first Garden game was forgettable. He wasn’t angry the Celtics didn’t draft him. He played 20 minutes and looked like a rookie, like he wasn’t ready. He took seven shots and missed six. He missed all his threes. He had 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block. It was a 2-point night. It was the second night of a back-to-back after playing in his hometown of Philly the night before, a Lakers win. Nevertheless, it was the Celtics. And losing to them, under any circumstances, whatever excuses you care to offer, was always grim.
Contrast that with his last Garden performance. Kobe Bryant walked into the building and faced the storied franchise so intertwined with his Lakers beauty and heartache. He had come full circle from that 2 point night so long ago. Subtract two points from his 32,967 total and that’s what Bryant had accomplished since leaving the Garden that Wednesday night, a long time ago. Now older, quieter, more resolute, he did a very Kobe thing. On a bad shooting night, and with his daughters and wife watching courtside, he drained a clutch three to seal the victory. It was redemption.
* * * * *
Dave Cowens and his reddish brown hair and big shoulders looked like a Celtic, even before he was one. Cowens was only 6-9 but he had a rugged body, a square jaw and he played center with a boxer’s intensity. Cowens won two titles for the Celtics, was Rookie of the Year (1971), MVP of the league (1973), a seven-time All-Star and the recipient of many defensive honors, not to mention a Hall of Fame inductee. Cowens even coached the Celtics for a year.
Cowens also coached the Charlotte Hornets which is how he came into contact with a 17-year-old Philly kid named Kobe Bryant. In 1996, the Charlotte Hornets had the 13th pick in the NBA draft but were looking to draft out. They had just finished a 41-41 year and had one goal in mind. Get to the playoffs. A draft pick wasn’t going to help them at all. On the roster, the Hornets had Kenny Anderson at the point. They had prolific shooter Dell Curry. They had scorer Glen Rice. They had athlete Kendall Gill. They needed size up front, not a high school player who wasn’t even 18 on draft night.
So, when Dave Cowens went with the plan to trade Kobe Bryant because Bryant wouldn’t play if he was drafted, he was thinking about his team, not Bryant’s future or the possibility of a promising career. Over the years, a lot has been made about Bob Bass, the Charlotte General Manager who traded young Kobe Bryant. But no one dares mention that it was a Boston Celtic who gave the trade his blessing.
In the short term, Cowens was right to go along with the plan. Vlade Divac got the Hornets to the playoffs for two straight years, extending Cowens job security. But when the Hornets didn’t make the playoffs. Dave Cowens was fired. It was 1998.
In 1998, 19-year-old Kobe Bryant averaged 19.9 points and 5.3 rebounds. He made it to the Western Conference Finals, losing to the Spurs. It would be the last Western Conference Finals loss in Bryant’s 20-year career.
* * * * *
The Lakers and Celtics have always been intertwined, with the Garden in the middle of things. In the ’60’s, the Lakers played the Celtics six times in the Finals, losing all six. It made no difference that three of the Finals went to seven games. In overtime at the Garden, in 1962, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor accounted for 76 Lakers points; they lost by 3. Another year the Celtics beat the Lakers in the Garden by 33 points despite West’s 33 points. A 2-point Garden loss in a game 7 the following year sent Jerry West and Elgin Baylor into a collective funk in 1966.
The ghosts of those Boston Garden failures lingered for another decade as another group of Lakers, far removed from Baylor and West, guided by a maverick visionary in Dr. Jerry Buss went into Boston and tried to win a title.
As a 6-year-old boy living in Italy, Kobe Bryant watched the familiar ghosts of the Garden rise up from the parquet and choke his beloved team. Magic Johnson was 5-14 with 15 assists in 1984, a good performance but Magic needed to be great. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar had 29 points on 54% shooting and James Worthy tossed in 21 but the Lakers bench only had 13 points. The arena was hot and sweaty, the crowd was aggressive and tough. The Celtics rode the wave of Cedric Maxwell’s 24 points, plus 42 combined by Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson. The Lakers lost another game in the Garden. Another game 7.
The next year, in game 6 at the Garden, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar was a dream killer, turning the raucous old arena into a silent space as he imposed his will via the skyhook. When he left the game in the fourth quarter with his finger raised in the number one salute, when he celebrated with Pat Riley and Magic Johnson and the rest of his teammates for burying the long-held, long talked about curse of the Garden, a vicious stranglehold on the Los Angeles Lakers, he didn’t know across the ocean someone else was watching.
His name was Kobe Bryant. He played soccer and basketball. He was seven years old.
* * * * *
If there was one arena he wanted to dominate it was the Garden. It was an honor. He was doing it for everyone who came before him and had their heart shattered. He did it for Elgin. For West. For Goodrich. For Hairston. For Wilkes. For Magic. For Byron. He was doing it for the ones after him, so they would know what it felt like to be both hated and respected, vilified and feared.
He scored 41 points in the Garden in 2002. Three and a half years later he scored 43 points. The next year the same thing, 43 points on 53% shooting.
In the 2007-08 season, the Celtics had Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The Celtics had been great all year, ever since they acquired Allen and Garnett over the summer. They were 13-2 in November. 13-1 in December. 10-5 in January. They were clearly the class of the league marching towards a NBA Finals berth, the first in 21 years. The city of Boston was giddy.
Across the country, the Lakers were treading water, having survived a Kobe Bryant trade demand. As if on cue, Trevor Ariza and then Pau Gasol fell into the Lakers lap. The Lakers went on a spectacular run to get themselves to the NBA Finals and a meeting with the hated Celtics, the Celtics who were the best team in the league that year.
Kobe and KG, the two high school phenoms, Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson, the two former players, now coaches, Paul Pierce vs, his hometown team- the script wrote itself.
The Celtics won the first two games, the Lakers the third. In the fourth game, the Lakers had a 24 point second-quarter lead that disappeared It was an 18 point lead at the half. It was a 2 point lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter. With 4 minutes left in the game, the Celtics took control, courtesy of a Eddie House jumper and never looked back. Kobe and the Lakers were crushed. Kobe hadn’t played well, he didn’t score 20 points but he had 10 assists and 4 steals. The Celtics were up 3-1.
The Lakers won Game 5 and went back to Boston to the new Garden for game 6. It was a nightmare.
The Lakers couldn’t score. Rebound. Pass. Get back on the break. Defend. The hostility of the crowd affected the new Lakers who weren’t used to a pathological level of adversity. Pau Gasol was punched around all game by Kevin Garnett and was forever identified for his submission in the face of Garnett’s angry aggression. Kobe Bryant couldn’t be the savior. He missed 15 shots. Lamar Odom was a no-show. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen dropped 52 points on way to a 31 point margin of victory that swept Kobe Bryant into a tragic misery as he dressed postgame amid the raucous cheers of the Boston faithful outside the arena. It punctuated his suddenly new reality, his devastation. His basketball world had fallen apart. For two years, he would be haunted.
He was a Laker who had failed in the Garden. He was a Laker who could not handle the ghosts. He was a Laker that couldn’t lead his team. But, he was Kobe Bryant, so he was a Laker intent on revenge.
Boston was going to pay.
* * * * *
Two years later, Kobe Bryant was 31 years old. He had a fourth ring. He was a Finals MVP. He was the defending champ. He had never not won two titles in a row. Now here he was with the most important game in his entire career in front of him. It was the 2010 NBA Finals. The series was tied 1-1. The Lakers needed to regain home court, after losing the second game at home.
Game 3 was a close game throughout with a lot of spotty offense. What was expected was a Kobe Bryant 4th quarter explosion. But what happened was a Kobe Bryant transfiguration. He set screens and moved the ball and did what everyone said was impossible (for him). He gave the moment to someone else.
Derek Fisher was in the same Kobe draft class. He’d been through the same Kobe rollercoaster. He won the same amount of Kobe rings. He left, played for the Warriors and Jazz, then returned. It was in game three of the NBA Finals that Fisher gave the Lakers a four-point lead. Six minutes were left. Fisher hit a 20 foot jumper to give the Lakers a six-point lead. Fisher from the mid-range for a 5 point lead. Less than a minute left, Fisher rebounded a Bryant miss and put it in for the layup. He iced the game with two free throws. It was the final blow to the Celtics that gave the Lakers a 2-1 series lead, and home-court advantage (they would need it).
Bryant always wanted more. More wins, more titles, more scoring, more excellence. But on that night, in front of the Garden faithful, it was a regression in time. He was Kobe, the boy. The one who dreamed in Italy. The one who absorbed VHS tapes. The one who idolized Magic Johnson. The one who wanted to beat the Celtics more than he wanted whatever personal glory he could carve out for himself. On that night, when it was Derek Fisher’s turn, Bryant moved far away from the center, the lights, the adoration, the heroism. He became the faithful. The loyal. The friend.
* * * * *
Kobe Bryant has seen the Celtics at their best and he has seen them at their worst. He remembers the Rick Pitino years and the Jim O’Brien years. He has been booed in the Garden and he has been cheered in the Garden. He has lost games there and he has won games there.
It’s not the traditional image of Kobe Bryant that the city of Boston holds against him; they respect his ability to score, to impose his will, to attack with hyper-aggression even as they shake their head at his game-winning shot against Ray Allen in 2010, that impossible step back jumper. The Celtic crowd appreciates performances and talent and greatness and Bryant has tried to deliver it all, to not cheat the patrons.
The Kobe psyche is not what Boston hates about him. It is what he did in game 7 in 2010, on June 17th, the night when he made the city of Boston cry, that makes him the center of their wrath. Kobe won a game 7. He beat the Celtics. He broke their heart in a way a Laker never, ever had.
No one has forgotten it; you don’t forget your worst public sorrow. Doc Rivers has not forgotten. He had to have the Lakers championship banners covered up. Paul Pierce has not forgotten. He just shakes his head when asked what happened to their 3-2 series lead. Kendrick Perkins has not forgotten. He wonders about the knee, if it hadn’t been injured, then perhaps things may have been different. Eleven years going on eternity and the wound remains open. It still brings pain. And confusion. And questions.
How did a 13 point lead dwindle? How did Ron Artest make the biggest shot of his career?
Being up 3-2 in the NBA Finals and losing was not the Celtics way. It was not the Russell way. It was not the Cousy way. It was not the Bird way. It was not the McHale way. The Celtics fans, bitter about the loss, hate that they didn’t get the title and they hate that it was the Lakers who did, and they are pissed that it gave Kobe his fifth ring, the one Kobe cherishes the most.
“The last one. I beat the Celtics in game 7. I couldn’t lose to them twice.” (Kobe Bryant)
Jerry West lost to the Celtics twice. And Elgin Baylor lost to the Celtics twice but Kobe Bryant never, ever did. When he says he is a Laker for life it is because of this very intersection with himself, his accomplishments and history. He beat the Celtics on the Lakers home court when it mattered the most, in a game the Lakers trailed, when everything was on the line, when the Celtics thought it was over. It was a game 7 with all of the pressure and intensity and chaos a game 7 brings to bear upon the mind and the body.
Kobe Bryant is the only Lakers player to vanquish Boston on the last day of the season and to do it at home, and to make that victory, that title, that triumph, the last championship win of his Lakers career so it is what everyone remembers about him when they use the word champion. He slayed the enemy in his own backyard, on familiar and hallowed ground, in front of generous company; there were witnesses to the carnage. Ruthlessly, he broke the hearts of a team and a city, one that had harmed him first, one he both hated and respected. He tore their dream in a thousand jagged pieces and watched them suffer the consequences of a newly broken world.
So when Kobe Bryant enters the Hall of Fame posthumously, he will say goodbye and he will say hello. He will say goodbye to the Garden and it will be a goodbye to Celtic fans. It will be a goodby to Dave Cowens and M.L. Carr and what might have been. It will be a goodbye to the playoff atmosphere, and the Celtic winning culture that has saturated the league for decades. But it won’t be a goodbye to the Celtics themselves, to the men: Pierce, Garnett, Allen, Rondo, Rivers. He’ll never say goodbye to that 2010 Celtics team that was the catalyst for his redemption and a channel for his revenge. In a glorious game of wills, Kobe Bryant won. He is ever-present, forever saying hello, always reintroducing himself. His persistence was supreme. His arrogance was off the charts. He was tougher and stronger in the moment. He won the battle of attrition. He believed he was a sum and not the whole. He won the last battle of the Celtic-Laker war.