[During the 1997 playoffs, Kobe Bryant was a bouncy 18-year-old rookie with boundless self-confidence. His me-against-the-world turned out to be a good and a bad thing. The bad was his two infamous airballs late in overtime of the deciding game of the Lakers-Jazz conference semifinals series, won by Utah in five games.
“My bad . . . my bad,” Bryant reportedly called out after the second dud and as the Utah home crowd broke out in a spontaneous sing-songy chant of “Aiirr balllll . . . Aiirr balllll.”
The good was Bryant shrugged off his moments of infamy and continued full speed ahead along his self-willed path to greatness. This article, which ran in Hoop Magazine during the 1997-98 season, tells the story of Bryant’s incredible resilience after the nationally televised airballs and all snickers at his expense. The story comes from the excellent Michael Ventre, then a columnist Los Angeles Daily News.
And just for the record, the Jazz would sweep the Lakers in the 1998 Western Conference finals. Bryant averaged more than 21 minutes a game and notched 10 points, 1.8 rebounds, and 1 assist per outing. Meager though those numbers were, of course, better Kobe-led winning times were to come in L.A.]
As airballs go, they were spectacular. Kobe Bryant does just about everything with Jordanesque flamboyance. Yet, when he threw up two now-infamous shots last year against the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals—shots that meant everything and hit nothing—he became just another high school kid in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Michael Jordan is everyone’s Kobe Bryant reference point. Jordan canned his shot as a sophomore for North Carolina to beat Georgetown for the national title. Bryant’s heroics for Lower Merion (Pa.) High School did not grab national headlines, so his indoctrination into a media maelstrom where only heroes and the goats exist came in Salt Lake City last May against the Jazz, before millions on television.
“When I missed those shots, it was like ‘Oh well, I missed those shots,’” Bryant said. “You learn from them. But the way I look at it is, I just missed shots. It happens to you at every level you go. Sometimes, whether you’re in the sixth or eighth grade, you’re going to make some shots to win the ballgame and miss some shots to lose the ballgame. Mine just happened to be on national TV.”
Perhaps the ignominy was eased somewhat by the notion that the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers weren’t exactly rivaling Jerry West for the title of Mr. Clutch. Bryant, at the time an 18-year whose most notable achievement on the national stage was taking pop singer Brandi to his high school prom, was the man anointed by head coach Del Harris to take those shots down the stretch. Harris received criticism for the decision, but it was Bryant who wore the horns. [Note: At least one of the plays was called for Eddie Jones. Bryant seems to have called his own number.]
As the 1998 NBA playoffs commence, Bryant’s airballs remain a topic of discussion among the league’s intelligentsia. Both floaters came in overtime in the fifth and—as it turned out—final contest against the Jazz. Bryant scored 11 points in 29 minutes, playing so much mostly because Byron Scott had a sprained wrist. But with the Lakers fighting frantically for survival, Bryant hoisted the two ill-fated offerings—one with 35 seconds left in overtime, the other with four seconds remaining as Harris screamed in vain for a timeout. Bryant finished 4-for-14 from the field and 0-for-6 from three-point range.
The Lakers were eliminated. The Jazz went onto the NBA Finals against the Chicago Bulls. Kobe Bryant went back to work.
“I think I’ve just improved as a basketball player, period,” Bryant said of his development from then until now. “I worked very hard in the offseason and learned a lot playing last year, a lot of experiences. So, for the playoffs, this year I’ll be more prepared.”
This season, Bryant is not the wild, untamed talent he appeared to be as a rookie after being chosen 13thoverall by the Charlotte Hornets on draft day 1996. He was traded to the Lakers for center Vlade Divac before the season. He still is a man who passes up a shot only in the event of absolute necessity or natural disaster. Yet, with more playing time came more responsibility, more maturity, more common sense and fewer mistakes.
Along the way, there was also praise and reward heaped upon Bryant’s young but sturdy shoulders. This year, he was voted by the fans to the Western Conference’s starting team in the NBA All-Star Game and became the youngest starter in All-Star history at 19 years and five months, a full year younger than Magic Johnson [20 years, five months] when he started in the 1980 All-Star Game.
“It was a goal of mine,” Bryant said of his All-Star achievement. “Now that it has become reality, it’s more gratifying than anything.
“it’s definitely cool, them [fans] acknowledging the hard work I did in the offseason and the work I’ve been doing in the regular season. It’s good to know they support you, that they’re out there responding to what you do.”
So complete is the fans’ fascination with Bryant that they voted him to start on the NBA’s glittering midseason stage, despite the fact he doesn’t even start on his own team—none of which has been lost on Harris. “It kind of messed up my system of bringing him along slowly, I must say,” the Lakers coach said with a smile. “Probably a conspiracy out there.”
Probably just confirmation that Bryant has indeed come a very long way in a very short time. “The biggest improvement,” said Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, “has probably been his consistency. Last year, you had to wait three or four games before he put together a game where he could help a team win a game—where he would play under control, score, rebound, pass, and make it fun to play with him.
“Then there might be three or four games where he didn’t do much, and you had to yank him out of the game for taking bad shots or turnovers. Then he’d put together two in a row, then he’d miss four or five in a row.
“This year, really, every time he’s in there, he has a chance to put together five, six games in a row where he plays really well and helps the team win. His effort always is great, but as far as turnovers and the shots he takes, he’s put together four or five in a row.”
Although veteran Eddie Jones starts at the two-guard spot alongside Nick Van Exel, Bryant has received a favorable share of crunch minutes, leading to some speculation that he may soon replace Jones the way James Worthy once replaced Jamaal Wilkes at small forward in the 1980s.
A rival veteran shooting guard, Sacramento’s Mitch Richmond, sees Bryant’s improvement and predicts the Utah airballs will have only a positive effect on the wunderkind. ”It definitely helped him,” Richmond said. “A guy can go into a shell after something like that and never come out of it. But from day one this season, he’s been very aggressive on the offensive end, still taking shots, still being aggressive. So, I think he’s better in that sense.”
What is it about great players that enables them to surmount such blows to the ego? The Michael Jordan analogy in this case is moot, since Jordan never really committed the near-devastating gaffe in the global spotlight. He never failed. It just took him a while to succeed grandly.
Not so with Johnson, who came out of Michigan State and helped the 1979-80 Lakers win the NBA crown. Then, he hurt his knee the following year and threw up his own embarrassing miss against the Houston Rockets in a first-round ouster in the 1981 playoffs. The Lakers won the title again in 1982, but were banged up and overwhelmed by the powerful Moses Malone-led Philadelphia 76ers in the 1983 Finals.
Then came 1984 and Larry Bird’s Celtics in Game 2 of those Finals. With a chance to go up against the Celtics, 2-0, at old Boston Garden, Johnson mismanaged the final seconds and failed to get off a potential game-winning shot. The affair went into overtime, the Celtics won, and that sequence, tipped the series in Boston’s favor. “I let the clock run out against Boston,” said Johnson, who was referred to for a year afterward as Tragic Johnson by Laker detractors. “You only benefit from that.
“After that series, I was a better playoff player, a better clutch player, a better all-around player. He [Bryant] is going to benefit from that even more so because I was [older], and he is only 19. He’s got plenty of great years ahead of him. He’ll be one of the best clutch players in NBA history.
“He wants it. He has no fear about whether he’s the goat or not. That’s what a clutch player has got to do. You take all that weight on and say, ‘Well, if I miss it, I can deal with that.’ Most of the time, in your head, you think you can make every shot. You can see by his play now, he thinks he can make every shot. He just has to mature and realize what’s a good shot and what’s not a good shot. But I would love to have him in a year or two because watch out.”
Already, the difference between the freshman Bryant and the sophomore Bryant is as staggering as a Jordan dunk. His game is more polished, more refined. His defense is better. His confidence—gulp—is higher than ever.
“He improved leaps and bounds,” said 76ers coach Larry Brown. “A lot was expected of him, and he’s answered everybody’s doubts.”
Yet, the playoffs are a different time. Great players are not measured in November and December, but in April, May, and June. And when Bryant enters this postseason, he will no doubt be reminded of his past experience in Utah.
“It was probably the most challenging and the most fun I’ve ever had playing,” Bryant said of the series against the Jazz, “because you knew Utah was coming ready to play. I knew about the skills that Jeff Hornacek had and how Bryon Russell had stepped up. So, I really looked forward to going out there and accepting that challenge.”
He said he gave little thought over the summer to last season’s disappointing ending. Not until November 18, 1997, the Lakers’ first trip back to Utah since their playoff demise, did Bryant find himself haunted by the memories. “I just put it in the back of my memory all that time, blanked it out,” he admitted. “Then you walk out on that court for the shootaround and everything comes back.”
After last year’s Game 5, Bryant was consoled by Shaquille O’Neal and some of the other veterans on the team. As a club, the Lakers did not ask Bryant to seek counseling. They did not suggest he avoid the newspapers or television. In fact, Lakers’ brass did little to pump up their deflated young star.
“A bunch of us said something to him,” Kupchak said, “but as far as a ‘sit-down, close the door, let’s talk about this,’ it wasn’t needed. Certain kids, you might worry about that. We don’t worry about that with him.
“From the moment we traded for him, he’s had a special confidence about him. It’s not arrogance; I think some people may interpret it at times as arrogance, particularly last year. But there’s a degree of confidence about him that, you know, we were never really concerned about him.”
This year, the Lakers are expected to vie for the conference title and maybe the whole enchilada. Whichever way they get there will be acceptable to the team, but Bryant wouldn’t mind a rematch with an old nemesis.
“Of course,’ he said of the Utah Jazz. “It would be nice. It would be a great challenge. You’re talking about the Western Conference champions. Playing them in a playoff environment, in a seven-game series, you know they’re going to be ready to play because of the experience they’ve had.”
The same can now be said for Kobe Bryant.