Once they were almost Kings
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

How basic is basketball?

Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber
Chris Webber, right, and the Kings won the respect of Shaquille O'Neal and many others.
Real basic. Like life. Sometimes in basketball, the best team loses. Sometimes in basketball, the most deserving effort fails. It happened that way one night in Sacramento, when the Kings lost, yet won somehow.

How basic? As basic as the Ten Commandments, handed down not by Moses, but by John Wooden ...

Basic No. 1: "It's not winning that matters so much as trying your best to win"
Best thing that happened to the Sac-town Kings was Vlade Divac fouling out in regulation time of Game 7. That was when Chris Webber stepped up and guarded Shaquille O'Neal.

C-Webb found he could still breathe, and oh, the fierce light in his teammates' eyes when he did that! The Kings tied it in regulation, Webber on O'Neal; then Webb took O'Neal outside, hit the J that gave Sac-town a 102-100 lead in OT. Webber proved out. He grew. He gave his all, his last full measure. Hedo threw a bad pass at the end. In the end, it was that simple. God has a plan, and it included Hedo missing Webber's hands in the lane. But Webber wrote his name on the stone tablets with his effort in Game 7.

Mike Bibby? Bibs? Bibster? We don't even want to talk about Bibby, do we? Wasn't just the 29 points -- it was the way he got them, drawing fouls from Shaq, taking Kobe Bryant off the bounce, putting the fear of God into Dr. Buss, Phil Jackson and all Los Ange-e-les.

Did you see all the Lakers coming up to Bibby as he was being interviewed on-court right after the game, not caring or even knowing Jim Gray was there, coming up to Bibby just to touch him, just to say to him, "Hey man, you're a bad man ... you nearly killed us man ... call me, man"? Did you see Kobe weaving wearily over to Bibby, his body drained of all resistance and electrolytes from 52 minutes worth of trying to beat the Kings off, grabbing Bibby, hugging him, not letting go, filling up his ear with respect, even gratitude. "Thank you for showing me what I'm capable of ... thank you, dog ... damn ..."

It's good to win. Only one team can win. Everybody can compete, give up his all. Everybody can grow from the experience, no matter the final score.

Everybody can be recognized. And respected.

It hurts to lose, but it hurts worse to be disrespected.

Mike Bibby
Mike Bibby gave the Lakers the fright of their playoff lives.
The Kings and Bibby don't have to worry about that anymore. The Lakers will remember their names. Does anybody actually believe deep down that Chris Webber and Bibby lost to the Lakers in Game 7? No ... they ran out of time. They could've played all night -- nobody in Arco would've moved. Anytime a team shoots nearly zilch from the arc -- Doug Christie and Peja Stojakovic were a combined oh-for-forever -- and still takes the game to overtime -- they didn't actually lose. In Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference finals, the Sac-town Kings did something better than win. They moved hoop world past the era of Michael Jordan.

The Kings didn't get their W, but they may have gotten something better. They got their respect, and not just for themselves, or their ballclub, but for their entire league, their brotherhood -- for basketball itself.

There's winning, and then there's winning.

That's what Coach John Wooden meant.

Basic No. 2: Be quick, but don't hurry
Bobby Jackson, third-guard incarnate. Midrange, it's down. Money. Fearless drives. Never a shot out of context.

Basic No. 3: Don't Reach
Bibby, tantalizing Shaq and Kobe into senseless fouls, Shaq's coming at 73-73, reaching down below his knees to swipe at a driving Bibby, Kobe's fifth coming late fourth quarter, trying, senselessly, to deny Bibby the ball. Like trying to deny the tide from coming in.

Basic No. 4: Swing it
Offensively, defensively; swing-ball-beat-double; or, swing-double-stop-ball.

Basic No. 5. Recognize
Webber. Did you see him, taking the Shaq-Bull by the Ma-horns, taking charge, making passes, hooping the way Sugar Ray Robinson boxed; a distance fighter, a half-distance fighter, an in-fighter. C-Webb could've had 18 assists, if Peja or Christie could make a shot. C-Webb finally flexed. He only had one wobble. One lousy technical foul, for complaining during play. Other than that ... 10.

Basic No. 6: Visualize: What you do if the ball comes to you
Bibby, masterful. Can draw a legit foul better than anybody working. Shooter -- pure. Totally. Purer that Peja. Press him on the ball, he wins. You'll foul. He'll see to it. Not seen somebody go from good but no All-Star to best in the West that fast. The Glove's cool, but Mike Bibby has ball skills, shooting range and game understanding of biblical proportions. He's only 6-1, but he's huge. His old man, Henry, once started for Coach John Wooden as a sophomore at UCLA, with Red Walton, but that doesn't explain all of Mike Bibby's raging genius. For whatever reason that we need to be bottling, he wants it, he believes it. Put that kind of skill and attitude up against the Lakers' irresistible force, and you get what we got Sunday night. History.

Basic No. 7: Stop the ball
Christie, raking the skin off Kobe, he was guarding him so close; had nothing left to give on the offensive end, so much did he give trying to stop Kobe from flushing the world through the hoop. Kobe never did get leverage on the rim for one of his gravity-defying, highlight-reeling, sucking-the-air-out-of-the-Arco-crowd-demoralizing, Jamaican-beef-patty toe-downs. No monster dunks.

Basic No. 8: Jump the high screen & roll
Doug Christie
Doug Christie played great D, but he'll be wondering about those nine missed field goals in Game 7.
Never saw it run or D'ed-up any better. Bib and Webb running it, Shaq or Horry and Kobe defensing it, in overtime, all in, tail out; you often hear people say of this or that, "It doesn't get any better than this." Most often, when you hear people say that, you think, "Oh yeah it does." But in this pretty much immortal Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference finals, nobody had to say it, not when Bib & Webb faced Shaq & Kobe working the high pick-and-roll, the basic offensive tenet of basketball, the universal language of hoop, with Bibby knocking down sweet lifting J's so all-bottom the net hardly moved, with Webb taking the roll-pass and reading the help-side D and dropping dimes at low-considered angles underneath Shaq's (a k a Strategic Air Commander's) wingspan ...

Nobody had to say it. It was just there.

"It doesn't get any better ..."

Basic No. 9: Let the game come to you ...

Basic No. 10: Keep your poise ...

***** ***** *****

If you can learn and do these basics, these Elements of Hoop, at the highest level in the world, the way the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers did them on Sunday night June 2, 2002; if you can keep your head when all around you are losing theirs, clanging cowbells, bodies and 3-point attempts off the rim; if you can face down two players in their primes with the skills of the Dipper and Air on one team, or of Russ and Cooz on the other, if you can make the other team look lucky to win, play so well you seem unfortunate to lose -- then you're a squad. You're the real hook-up. Part of history. Word.

You've represented the best of what human nature and healthy competition are about; you mature as human beings, become capable of teaching, capable of great drama, capable of depth, and no one with any sense can blow you off as meaningless ever again.

So if you must die, in a competitive sense, die trying. Like men. Like heroes. Like the Sacramento Kings did June 2, 2002, when hoop was like life once again.

How Basic Is Basketball?

Put it this way. A good man and great teacher named Coach John Wooden must've slept well last night.

Basic No. 11: It's not the destination, but the journey

Now ... let's see what the Nets have got.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."



Ralph Wiley Archive

Sportoon: In their heads

Wiley: C-Webb disappear

Wiley: Attack of the Eastern beasties

Wiley: Tiger's many stripes

Wiley: The seven voyages of Kobe

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