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Regardless of the hype, Sunday wasn't a great day at the Sadhouse on Madison.
Most of the time the Bulls toil in a quiet cavern until the last six minutes or so, when fans, who pay an average of $82 per ticket, get revved up at the prospect of the team scoring 100 points. Depending on the sponsor, this will get them a free taco, burger, or donut.
However, Sunday was different. Right from the opening tip, every time Kobe Bryant touched the ball, the more than 23,000 in attendance became energized, alert, and lively.
A couple of minutes into the first quarter, Bryant hit a three-pointer, and the UC went crazy. Here are the Bulls on the cusp of missing the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons, smarting from home losses to the likes of Minnesota, Phoenix and Brooklyn (three bottom-feeders with a combined record of 46-122), and "the greatest fans in the world" are cheering for a diminished star from the opposition who has played a mere 15 games in Chicago in the past 20 years.
We are led to believe that basketball is the ultimate team game. Sure, the Warriors have Stephen Curry, but their passing, team defense and unselfish etiquette are what drives the victories. San Antonio never has had a player of Curry's or Bryant's talents, but the entire roster buys in to Gregg Popovich's team philosophy, accounting for five NBA championships. The Bulls wouldn't have won squat without Michael Jordan, but he enabled his teammates to play far beyond their abilities. Just ask Scottie Pippen.
Meanwhile, the Lakers came to town not as a team but as an inconsequential supporting cast - the Washington Generals could have played the same role - for Kobe Bryant, their oft-injured, egocentric 37-year-old has-been who's being treated with kid gloves by fans, coaches, players and writers.
The Lakers now have lost 46 of 57 games. They have a young team which night after night gets it brains beat out as Bryant plays almost 30 minutes while hitting slightly more than a third of his shots and about one-in-four from beyond the arc. He makes no difference in the success (or lack thereof) of the Lakers. It's all about him. Sitting on the bench Sunday as the Bulls beat the Lakers 126-115, Bryant was all smiles and laughter, waving to the crowd and basking in the glory of the contrived, ill-conceived Farewell Tour.
With three minutes remaining in Sunday's game and the Bulls up by seven, the crowd was chanting "Kobe, Kobe, Kobe." Coach Byron Scott, whose hands surely must be tied by the front office, dutifully inserted Bryant back into the contest rather than enabling his young crew to get the experience of playing together in a relatively close game. Bryant took one more shot, missing it, although he did make two of three free throws.
Adam Silver and the NBA are lapping it up. How else can you explain two teams - one mediocre and the other downright horrible - playing a nationally televised game on a Sunday evening? The whores of sports programming, ESPN, are only too happy to be part of the grand plan.
What has happened to dignity? It was absent when a depleted Willie Mays tried to hang on at age 42. Or Muhammad Ali, just shy of his 40th birthday, squaring off against someone named Trevor Berbick.
Okay, these are extreme examples. But the point is that Bryant is spending the winter touring the country as though he were Pope Francis. He admits that his body is used up, tired and hurting. Why didn't he simply call it quits after last season? Well, hello. The unquenchable neediness to soak up the adoration from those willing to provide it continues to drive him. That is sad not only for the athlete but for those who want to be a part of it.
So the Lakers are content to tank an entire season. At least the Cubs were honest about it. Everyone from Jack Nicholson to Laker fans who can't afford a seat at the Staples Center understands that the second-worst record in the NBA will earn a high draft choice. This is no secret. The Farewell Tour has nothing to do with wins and losses or developing talent for the future.
And lest we not forget that this is the guy who at the very least had consensual sex in a Colorado mountain resort 13 years ago while awaiting surgery for an injury as his wife remained in Los Angeles. The young woman involved had a different story about the consensual part. Charges later were dropped, although the alleged victim did receive a settlement from Bryant.
In addition, controversy infected the Lakers for most of eight seasons when Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal played together. Whose team was it? Who cared? Laker fans, I suppose.
Once Phil Jackson arrived as coach, the team was loaded with talent, enough to compensate for the contentiousness between Kobe and Shaq as the Lakers won three consecutive championships, 2000-02. However, Bryant and O'Neal continued their childish feud until Shaq was traded to Miami.
In a year or two, a couple of other NBA stars, the Spurs' Tim Duncan and the Mavs' Kirk Nowitzki, will retire, having played about as long as Bryant, who ranks third all-time in scoring behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. Neither has the stature of Bryant, but Duncan has been a fixture on those five championship teams, and Nowitzki has been an All-Star in 13 of his 18 seasons and is one of the finest big-man shooters ever.
You think either one of those guys will stage a Farewell Tour? Maybe, but it will be much more in the context of, say, Derek Jeter in 2014. First of all, playing in San Antonio and Dallas is different than the exposure Bryant has received in Los Angeles on a team that for years was among the league's elite. In addition, Bryant was a flashy, exciting player in his prime. Duncan and Nowitzki are athletes who show up, say little, play hurt, contribute, and have egos requiring less space than the Grand Canyon.
Are Duncan and Nowitzki respected? Of course. But not adored like Kobe. Saying farewell to the Farewell Tour can't come soon enough.
1. From Rory Clark:
Glad to se you are not one-dimensional! You can write on basketball, too!
As usual, you are right on point. To be sure, Kobe Bryant is a talented basketball player. As a person, I detest him. Selfish is an understatement. In basketball statistics, "A" usually stands for Assists - for Kobe it stands for "Afterthought." If there is nothing else he can do, he will pass. There are 33 million reasons why he is still hobbling around a basketball court. I hadn't thought of the "tank a season for the draft pick" reason. Wow. I've never liked him. I never will. He's not likable. And because of that, contrived is a great way to describe his farewell tour. I say good riddance, too.
Well said and well written.