Who's got (the most) game?
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Above the NBA logo silhouette of Jerry West, bottom left corner of the backboard, someone leaves a handprint ...

Who is it? Who is the finest total-gamer in the world?

NBA logo
Besides Jerry West, who best represents the best of the NBA?
In other words, five of him would beat five of anybody else.

Who would that be?

If it was a jump-shot shooting contest, five Paul Pierces could horse it, render all zones obsolete, until five Jason Kidds D'd him up, kept him from even getting the pill into the attack zone. Yep, five J-Kidds would be awfully, awfully righteous, reading angles of the ball before it even got there, and running five of anybody else's butts off, running anybody else out of the gym, but, then, five GPs might give him more run than he bargained for. Except that five Allen Iversons might beat them both, because nobody could keep up with five Alley I.'s. Only five Kevin Garnetts wouldn't have to keep up with five Alley I.'s; five KGs would take everything off the rack and play Oop-De-Loop all day, all day, unless up against five Shaqs. Five Shaqs would just go over the top of everybody, then pound ... pound ... pound -- the problem being getting the ball into the attack zone for Him ...

It comes down to five T-Macs vs. five Kobes ... at least, that's what it seemed like the other day, when they matched up in Orlando and dropped 38 apiece, and could've dropped more; they filled up the box score and some local imaginations. T-Mac's Magic won. Kobe left a handprint above the NBA logo. He'd already left one in my dome.

It looks like it was five of one on five of the other from under the west basket at TD in Orlando, on the day before Thanksgiving. Doc starts his big dream perimeter team of 6-foot-8 Grant Hill at point, 6-8 Mike Miller and 6-8 Tracy McGrady on the wings, rendering 6-2 Derek Fisher obsolete. The Lakers come in having sleepwalked through a loss in the previous night's loss to a sad Miami Heat squad. In fact, the Lakers have yet to win a game on the road. Shaq is back, slowly rounding into form, about to have Thanksgiving dinner prepared at his O home for the crew.

Before the game, Phil Jackson had said Kobe wouldn't be on T-Mac all game. Right. This not according to Kobe, who looks at Rick Fox, and Fox knows -- "I got Miller, I guess." Kobe smiles a tight little smile. So does T-Mac. They go to work on each other.

Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant
It's a battle of A-game and egos when Kobe and T-Mac face off.
Never seen anything like it, not since Russell-Chamberlain a couple of lifetimes ago; or Clyde v. Pearl at the Garden, and that was not conducted from so high, or this close. Bird and Magic never guarded each other, straight up, and Jordan had neither peer nor foil. Jordan faced whole teams, man after man, and none of them could even challenge him; MJ scoffed at Drexler. Barkley, for all his bluster, never wanted any, wasn't quick enough to even think of staying with him out on the floor; the closest anybody came was Dumars. As good as Joe was, even he wasn't close.

He funneled Jesus toward the help. Jordan rules.

But this ... this ... Kobe is like the Jordan of a New Age and World, and is quite intentionally built by Kobe almost entirely in Jordan's image. He even walks like Jordan, like a superstar, a gunslinger, like it's his world and you're just a squirrel, trying to get a nut; as if Alien, superior to our puny planet and species, shooting power fades like Jordan, testing mental powers like an older MJ, trying them out, young Luke with the Force, pedigreed up the wazoo.

But T-Mac is even more of an original. He is inexplicable, actually, coming from no pedigree, as if someone grafted Penny Hardaway with a fire-breathing dragon, then gave him the cunning of a wolf and the remorelessness of a cobra and put it in the country, in a football-mad state like Florida, coming from, to, then through and beyond Vinsanity, with crazy hops, Shuttle-booster thighs, pencil calves, a monster first step, and the sleeve drop of a seven-footer.

They go at it. Awesome. Truly. T-Mac's first step blows him by Kobe first thing; he dishes to Kemp for a 15-footer, base. Just the thought of the old Reign Man with T-Mac, vs. Shaq and Kobe, in an NBA Finals, is enough to make David Stern not need Viagra.

Kobe settles down to business, feet spread, knees bent, he attempts to take T-Mac's dribble, T-Mac equally determined to wend the ball up the court into the attack zone without picking up his dribble against this probing octopus of a defender. So T-Mac drives, and Kobe blocks it, grabs it, then comes down and misses a floating J.

If there is anything lagging behind in Kobe's game, it is not his understanding of any team concept or play structure, it is his J, or rather his application of his J. Not that he isn't deadly with it, at many times, a quarter at a time. It was on for a quarter in Boston, earlier in the season. He took 47 shots and only scored 41 points. "Only" because if a player of his dimensions takes 47 shots, he should routinely score 48, 50, 52 points, and if he is on, he should score 60. As it was, Kobe only hit 41, but in the third quarter he scored 18, and from in deep and straight over, mostly power moves for celestial creative mid-range jump shots; in the words of one Boston player, Pierce was "glassy-eyed" behind the display. It should be said, Pierce can turn most players eyes to glass. Not all.

Sometimes Kobe fires his J almost from the hip, as if establishing a line; it's like he's triangulating the basket, he does not wait for a squared-up opening, nor does he need to, particularly. He is not much satisfied with open 20-footers, just as Oscar Robertson never was. "If you gave him the 20-footer, he wanted the 18-footer," said Al Attles, one of Oscar's old competitors. "If he had the 18-footer, he wanted the 15-footer. If he had that, he wanted the 10-footer. If he had that, he wanted the layup. Oscar was never satisfied with the shot he had." Kobe is like that. He will take the shot in deeper, always in deeper, to wherever it's contested, then float, amend the shot as needed, in order to get it off. Or sometimes he just tosses it up, the way an orchestra warms up. It sounds dissonant, unless you truly love the musicians, and one reason why my friend J.D. can't yet give it up to Kobe, as it pertains to comparing him to Jordan.

Kobe Bryant
If Kobe's going to throw up 47 shots, he better be dropping 60 points.
"The word that comes to my mind is 'precision,'" is what J.D. says, in assessing Kobe's game as opposed to Jordan's. "That seems to be missing. But at the same time, he's only 24 years old."

Wearing a leg sleeve from groin to ankle, Kobe has T-Mac and G. Hill on the same side of the court, and he can't resist. Goes base. Finger roll. Good. T-Mac takes him to the low block and posts him up (!). Foul. Two FTs. Kobe bellies-up on T-Mac. Back and forth they go. T-Mac, not going for first pump fake, springs to Heaven on the second. Even faked out, he controls all airspace around him. Kobe has to move five feet from him and lean away to get it off.

T-Mac has 11 in the first, Kobe four. The Magic lead 31-21.

"(Kobe) didn't really fall into a trap of going head up," says Brian Shaw, following the festivities. "Two years ago -- forget it. He felt challenged, he's coming back at you. Damn if anything's called. But that doesn't happen much anymore. Or as much. It only happened once in this game."

That comes at 3:26 in the second quarter. T-Mac has the rock, left side extended, one hand, back to. Executes buttery pivot next level of Pearl's spin move, a spin-reverse-spin pivot that leaves Kobe flat on his ass. The Sleeper seems to look down on Kobe cock-eyed as he rises up and hits the J and backpedals before it splits net pure.

In his mind, Shaw says, "Well, now Kobe's going to ..." and that was as far as his mind gets before Kobe has the ball ripping up the right side, right by T-Mac, by two other inconsequential Magic players, right to the hole. This is the Destroyer, the Finisher, the one who makes your mouth gape, has you uttering guttural noises because your soul believes what your own lying eyes don't and makes it into a near-religious experience. This is the Doctor J, the Michael Jordan moment, the moment when the game evolves; Kobe arrows in from the right side, two-hand tomahawks it, and hung there, legs wide, not pulling up on the rim, but rather balances himself alongside it; he hangs there suspended, shoulder level with the rim, and lets out a scream worthy of the death song of Cochise. Now, the NBA logo is some three feet to the left of the rim on the bottom left corner of the backboard. Kobe dunks, screams, floats three feet over, slaps the space above the logo so hard it is thunder-clap loud, even over the din. Concussive, shuddering thoom of the ripping slam dunk and loud report of the slap takes the air out of the whole building. "OOOOhhhhhh," the crowd says, and remember, this is not his crowd, but T-Mac's.

T-Mac has no reaction, other than to to come back and hit a tough, tough, contested J over Kobe, his abominable length steered by impeccable body control serving him again and again and again. It is all Kobe can do to stay with him, and even then he can't always.

In the second half, with Kobe constantly knifing at him, probing, playing punchaway on his dribble, bellying up, T-Mac calmly does what he has to do. Few times he has to pick up his dribble. Other times he dishes. Aside from the 38 points apiece, T-Mac has nine assists, while Kobe has nine boards. Those others who dare to shoot it around them simply get it blocked. One or two apiece. Everbody knows, and knows better. At the end, T-Mac's length contests Kobe's last three jumpers, which are misses.

112-102. Magic.

"They seemed to pique each other's interest," Phil Jackson will say later.

Tracy McGrady
When the smoke cleared -- T-Mac's crew got the best of the champs.
"I tried to battle him," says Kobe. "I think (T-Mac) is a terrific player, he has a bright future ahead of him ... the play when I slapped backboard? I just felt that was totally necessary. But still I kept my team concept in mind. We got the short end of the stick. This time ... we have to play harder off the bench. Can't be coming in the game and giving up offensive rebounds ..."

On the other side of the locker room, rookies Jennaro Pargo and Kareem Rush dress in silence, solitude, uncertainty. Not easy being a rook in the Association, much less under the reign of fire of Shaq and Kobe. If Shaq isn't ripping Rush a new one -- "can't be just coming in the game jacking it up like a fool, gotta know what to be doing" -- it's Kobe's lip curling in disdain at the deer-in-headlights effect of going from arrogant D-1 pistolero to tentative Laker wannabe who plays a few minutes and hopes just not to screw up. "At least, in Minnesota, I'd play," Rush grumbles.

"I'm out there playing my butt off every single night,." Kobe is saying at the same time, mildly perturbed. "Guys gotta recognize. I don't want to Mike Tyson you all, but hey ... come into the game ready ... I love it so much I play every minute like it's my last."

The Lakers have their Thanksgiving at Shaq's Orlando crib, break camp and head to Memphis, to say hello to Jerry West, in their own selfish way. They still had yet to win a road game this season, and seemed vulnerable, at least for now. My own early, desultory and possibly ignorant pick, that New Jersey could somehow get four out of seven from them, doesn't look as good from up close to the Lakers, this in spite of J-Kidd, another King of Total Game.

"Deek (Mutombo) is looking old, Dub," David Aldridge tells me as we watch Kobe's handprint on the backboard. I noticed myself that maybe Richard Jefferson, for all his ability and possibility of maybe giving Kobe a game, may not be mentally prepared, tough or disciplined enough to join forces with K-Mart and J-Kidd to give Jersey the oomph in the win-game five-on-five. In the end, the presence of Shaquille O'Neal and will of Kobe Bryant are proven.

They can't be beaten until they are.

Two nights later, the Lakers are tied with the Griz at 82. The Griz have a coffee creamer roster: half and half. Half keepers, half eminently dumpable. I'm sure West and the Griz wish they could get out from under Mike Dickerson's signed paper. Comfortably injured since he signed. Killin' 'em in a bad way. Let's delve into West's GM mind : ...Love Andrew Gooden and Earl Watson as backup point. Wes Person and Giricek are spot-uppers of just passable skills (some of them ill). Keep one, but not the other. Keep Pau Gasol, long, can score, will rebound even though he has upper body strength of a billiard player and, judging from his near-genetic aversion, to weights, it ain't gonna get no better, although I've noticed he can curse refs with the best of them now, just like them, too. Keep Wright's size until and unless we can do better. Battier, solid citizen. Needs to learn to shoot. Ah, Stromile, what to do ...? Dump the rest ... Stromile too ...

Love watching Jason Williams's game; I'm sorry, I do. West sees his skills, but may be let down by the kid in other areas. That's part of what Hube is about. It took Larry Brown for Alley I., didn't it?

I love Jason Williams' game. Must be personal memory of my boy Jerry Dover, Young Boy, Pat-Pat we called him, because that's what he was always doing, so brilliant, actually played for Hube briefly in Memphis before, back in the old ABA days; funny how things work. Young Boy intro'ed me to the game, and had a game just like Jay-Dub's. And Hube coached 'em both. Plus, maybe there's some weird short-circuited genetic code; all I know is, the Chocolate Bunny comes down on a three-on-two, I start to tingle. I get where Eminem is coming from, too. Hey, sue me.

"White Boy" tattooed on his fingers. He's not this, he's not that, Bibs is better, yad-dada-doo, all too true. Perfect world, I want both. Bibs and J-Will, I'm killin'. J-Will has history. Don't we all. Skill-wise, he's incredible. Catches my eye. Keeps it. Always did.

Jason Williams
White Chocolate know how to keep the crowds happy.
The Griz had won their first two games of the season under Hube, playing well, for them, anyway, before a sold-out house thanks to Kobe and Shaq and the holiday in town. Terry McMillan even shows up, waiting to exhale over something Kobe might do.

So Kobe comes down with it tied at 82 and hits a 25-foot 3-ball from the left wing with all the effort of a free throw. In-range stroke, pure rip. As he backpedals back down the court, Kobe keeps his arm extended, wrist broken, in the shot's follow-though. He holds that pose all the way until he backpedals to his own free throw line. Then he looks over at the Laker bench, and with his left hand, he re-cocks the broken right wrist, as if to say, "Lock and load me right back up, baby." Magnificent bastard. I read your book ... Patton ... Coppola wrote hell outta that s---. You either think this sort of thing is sweet, or you don't. I do.

Last two. Jason Williams hits two threes to keep it a game, then to tie it up, and Hube puts him on Kobe for the Lakers' last two trips down in regulation. It is a damned good switch. The Lakers were in a 1-4 spread, Kobe out high, taking whomever off the dribble, which will work against just about anybody else. With Chocolate Bunny on Kobe, ideally the offense should invert, and Kobe should post the White Boy up, but by then there'd be a switch, or rotation, but the 24-second clock is the Grim Reaper for all hesitation, so Kobe goes from up top. Jason strips him twice, not off the bounce, but off the shot, before Kobe can get it up above Jason's range.

Griz have a chance to end it in regulation. Hube runs something for Gooden, only not for now, for this game, necessarily, but to let him begin to get the feel of what the air pressure is like in that situation.

Gooden winds up facing Shaq, 20 feet away extended, left wing. Should immediately dive to the hole, even though Shaq is so incredible that even at his size he can probably keep up. Gotta go anyway. Or, when in doubt, pump-fake; Gooden does, he pump-fakes. Like Shaq's going for that. Stuck, Drew floats up an air ball.

Overtime. Kobe helicopters a breakaway 360 over Bunny, a totally necessary 360, counter-clocking away from Jason's attempted strip down low. BOOM! Fox moves, cuts, makes wide-open shots. Fun playing with two guys who require the double-team. Ball game.

Later, I speak to Kobe about the application of will, the difference between one Best Player and another. There are several Best now. Jordan had no peer. Kobe does. That's the beauty, the new of it.

Kobe is practicing his mental powers and his ability to wield them. In five years, when he is at the height of his mental, physical and intimidating powers, at 29, 30, 31, 32, what will he be like then?

Shaquille O'Neal
Next to Shaq, everyone's a punk.
Something like what Shaquille O'Neal is like right now.

We've come a long way, yet not far from when Shaq was rapping foul about Kobe at backyard barbeques, calling him a punk. Thing is, compared to Shaquille O'Neal, everybody's a punk. If Shaq was sitting alone in a room, nothing else around for scale, you'd think he was a football linebacker, maybe 6-3 and 250, pack of walking C-4, everything about him in proportion. He does not give you the impression he is 7-2. He does not seem long like that, because he's so wide and well-proportioned for combat. It is only when some puny human like Shawn Kemp stands next to him at the free throw line do you begin to grasp the enormity of the situation.

Shaq is ungodly quick. It comes through close up. That much size and muscle moving that fast ... you must surround it with a double team, and take your chances with the others.

Charles Barkley had a much smaller version of a body like this, where width was as important or more important than height, and Barkley outrebound the world, and Barkley was only 6-4.

Kobe is Maud'dib. T-Mac is his latest nemesis, the Inexplicable Phenomena of an Inverted Black Hole, or a Good Harkkonnen.

But at the end of the day, Shaq is still the Kobayashi Maru.

The Unwinnable Scenario.

I ask Shaq if there's something he wants me to tell a mutual friend of ours (whose initials are R-o-a-d D-o-g), and, thus, the world.

"Yeah. Tell him I wanna bust him in his face."

Kevin Garnett
For a while, people thought KG could be "the one".
Despite the fact he delivers the line in his signature Shaq deadpan monotone, it's laugh-out-loud funny. I laugh out loud. What else can you do? I laugh out loud because somehow, coming from Shaq, it's truly that hilarious, and not at all frightening. To the rest of us, those not balling, somehow Shaq renders himself unintimidating, harmless. In fact, he's magnetic. He draws you in. He seems to have this wonderful gift for being himself and having that not be threatening to people. It's probably one reason why he speaks so softly. If he yelled at us, we'd all pee our pants. Just to be able to share a court with and placate this Force of Nature has done things for Kobe's game that never occurred within Jordan's.

I also laugh helplessly, because for now, there's nothing else to do.

Two nights on, the Lakers lose at the Stapler to KG's T-Wolves to fall to a record of 6-12, and into the basement of the NBA Pacific.

And it doesn't matter anyway. Well. A good eight should beat a good five. And whomever This Best Player is (if by best we mean five of Him beats five of everybody else), He doesn't play for the Kings.

Although, I do love Bobby Jackson's game. How can you not? ...

("Handprints On The Game" is an 8-part series on the 2002-'03 NBA season, viewpoints from inside and outside the Association, assembled once a month, often by Your Correspondent, R-Dub)

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."



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