The torch relay in L.A.
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Torchlight. Cathode ray tube bouncing off your face. Pixels dancing across your retinas. Seeing. Believing. Torch got passed in L.A. Tuesday night. Highest Level of Hoop now named Ko-Be. Not a matter of busting people. Not scoring points. Can't always see what it is in a box score -- although a box score helps.

Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan
The Wizards wanted to make sure that Tuesday night didn't turn into a one-on-one duel between Kobe and Michael.
Highest Level of Hoop = Make those around you better.

Even the stiffs. Especially the stiffs.

The Highest Level of Hoop = Solve the problem, in whatever form, or equation, presented by the opposition. Conduct a total orchestration of humanity. Win the last game. Look good doing it.

It's what you'd call genius, if you knew hoop, if it was in you, percolating in your blood, stirring it up, like drumbeats. If you don't know, got no feel for it, then this isn't for you. Move on.

Try figure skating judging instead. That'll move you. Yeah.

Scenario: Doug Collins don't get paid to showcase Kobe Bryant.

Double-team him from Jump Street, Collins ordered Rip Hamilton and Chris Whitney. Collins gave no such orders to Michael Jordan. Without saying, he said, "Stay as far away from him as possible -- unless you see something backside and can get the strip off him."

Saying without saying, "We'll help you avoid him, we'll double-team, we'll make the rest of the clank Lakers beat us. Not Him."

Kobe Bryant, for his part, observed all this, mostly, evaluating as his man, Rip Ham, scored 13, first quarter. Jordan's Washington Wizards ran to a 48-35 halftime lead. Shaq wasn't playing, and without Shaq & Kobe, the Lakers are the Washington Wizards.

Kobe Bryant
Double-teamed all night, Kobe still found a way to make his teammates better.
Whatever happened now, it was all on Kobe Bryant. This was His Lab. This was His Thesis. This was His Thing. His World ...

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

I've met Kobe Bryant.

"You've got a problem," I said to him.

"Actually, many of them," Kobe said.

"Easier being Babe Ruth than the guy came after Babe Ruth," I said. Kobe looked quizzical. Like some prehistoric bird. With that type wingspan, too. Had to crane my neck up to look up at him. Had to shield my eyes. Saw him in those playoff games against the Kings and the Spurs. Saw him get 48 and 16 in an NBA playoff game with Shaq nicked, off the floor. Sat upright when I saw it.

"There it is," I thought. People had tried to annoint who got next. Had tried to manipulate it. Said it was Grant Hill. Panicked that God was Alley I.; if it was Alley I., then the league was doomed! Doomed! They say that now. Doomed! Me, I know better. I can't explain to you what it is, but I know it when I see it. So let me suggest this to you, pilgrims, seeing as how I've been around just a little bit longer than you, and have the skins and scars to prove it.

There will always be a highest level of hoop in the world.

I don't care how it shapeshifts, where it's conducted, or if it calls itself the NBA, or whatever. You could blow up every NBA arena and send all NBA players off to become the chattel of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, make it illegal to play in the United States, and do you know what would happen? Bootlegging. Hoop would go undercover, in small towns, under dank viaducts of cities, and people would come to watch, and marvel, and the game would rise again. We have three or four games like that. Baseball is like that. You can't kill baseball. Strikes, labor disputes, whatever. In spring, balls are going to find bats and gloves. In fall, when the air turns crisp, the drums and concussive hits and rip of a ball spinning off fingertips are coming. And in winter, the basketball is going to bounce on the wood, the nets are gonna pop. All draws, baby.

Michael Jordan
Jordan wrestled the torch away from Magic and Bird in the late 1980s.
"Kobe, you have a more difficult scenario than Mike had, because Mike is now there as the icon," I said. "So you will be resented by people whose reality was partially defined by the comforting (to them) thought that there never was and never will be another player as good as Michael Jordan. Then here you come ..."

"What do you suggest I do about it?" Kobe Bryant said.

"Don't give in. Find a way. That's all you can do. The people who resent you ... they ain't your people ... they his people. What Busta Rhymes say? Oh, that's right, you don't know. 'They hate me because they ain't me.' You'll have your own people. One day. Damn, you're long. You 6-8? That all? Damn. Remember, your problem won't come from Alley I., or from Vinsanity, or from T-Mac. It will come from KG. That'll be your problem. KG ... until later ... then one day, another one will come, like you ... but all that's the future. You gotta worry about the now ..."

"T-Mac ... good challenge for me. Grabbed my jumper once. Only once. Got my attention. Long. Longer than you think. Skilled ..."

"Well, that's for you to know, and figure out how to beat."

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

One-Four. That's what it came down to. Not the highly-publicized, overrated Triangle Offense. It's like Barry Switzer once whispered to me: "It ain't the align-ment. It's the Align-ee."

Came down to a One-Four. The other four Lakers flattened out along the baseline, out of the GD way, squaring up; Kobe brought it up, Kobe decided; run the offense through Kobe and Things Are Revealed. Kobe put the squeeze on, from up top, out high, from the wing, crashing through the lane, and slowly, inexorably, the Wiz were suffocated. There was nothing they could do about it.

From the 48-35 halftime hole, the Lakers ran off a 42-point third quarter; then outscored the Wiz 60-34 to close out the Old Way.

After starting 2-for-9, Kobe finished 7-for-11, for a silent 23. He almost never looked for his shot. If he had looked for his shot, he would've scored 40, even through the Wiz double-teamed. If he had looked for his shot and the Wiz hadn't double-teamed, he would've scored 50. If he'd been hot -- don't ask. Don't even.

Thought he might account for 60 anyway. Twenty-three points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds. Trip-dub. Equivalent of 49.

Could've had eight more assists if the squad -- Fisher, Fox, Horry, Anonymous -- were hitting. Trying to make them better, not being rushed, not at all, not looking to score. All this in the natural flow.

Kobe Bryant
Kobe's biggest problem is that he has to follow basketball's Babe Ruth.
Toward the end, Jordan allowed himself to be caught guarding Kobe, left wing. Almost imperceptibly, MJ waved off help. His wave did no good. His Wizards' teammates looked over at Him, who this season gave them a legitimacy they'd never known in the NBA, gave them new life. Michael Jordan is 38 going on 39, and almost all the way gone, and is still in the top 10 in the league.

No way were the teammates to whom he had given life going to leave Michael Jordan alone with Kobe Bryant, to be carried out on his shield. So somebody streaked over to help. Kobe saw the fool coming; before he could get there Kobe gave Jordan a couple of bounces between his legs, to Freeze Him, as if he needed to, then he rose, straight up, for a j. Jordan didn't bother to jump. And then it hit home, hard -- "why, Jordan's like a child against him!"

It was like back in the day, at old Boston Garden, years ago, back in the 80s, in a playoff game when Chicago Bull Michael Jordan hit 63 against the Celts, and Bird said he was God, disguised as MJ. Jordan had given Bi-zird a couple of whap-bounces between the legs and rose for a j while Bird reached out his hand to touch him, the way Adam reached out a hand to God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That was the last time the torch got passed.

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

"He basically ... created everything," said Jordan afterward. "We ... could not contain ... his activity."

It was Jordan's way of saying, "Kobe's world now."

Somewhere, assassins were sharpening their knives.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown ...

... best in ball ... highest level ... BAM!

And, you know, the beauty of it is, it really doesn't matter what the Russian judge or anyone else says. The truth is the torchlight.

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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