As Kobe lurched and fired, turning to balance himself slightly to the right as his defender slung leftward to meet him, the shot fell neatly behind the front of the rim despite the frantic defense of Grant Hill, and provided a 107-101 lead for a Lakers team that would eventually succeed to a chance at the Celtics, and an NBA title.
The weird part was that immediately after that shot, Kobe turned and tapped Suns coach Alvin Gentry on the leg as if to say, “So, how’d you like that!?”
The weirder part was that the coach seemed to be in on the joke.
He laughed and smiled as Kobe turned downcourt, seemingly satisfied with the shot…and the joke.
Is Coach Gentry’s reaction, which, remember, is happening in the final 30 seconds of the Western Finals, offensive, debasing, and debilitating to team moral for a group that is playing for its life?
Or is it a good-natured reaction to a player that made a terrific shot—which just happened to likely knock his team out of the playoffs?
Does Gentry’s reaction to the Kobe tap look more like a country-club golf outing between boss and lackey?
“Hey, great shot boss! And, I totally did not see you scootch the ball over with your foot to get that three-foot putt!”
Or is it more like, “Wow, that was awesome Kobe, we should definitely do lunch! Let’s discuss whether that shot is more reminiscent of West’s half-court shot or Hondo’s steal in ‘65. And I am not at all pissed off that your team has now taken a seven-point lead!”
To put it in perspective, the NBA universe can generally be divided between two hemispheres:
On one hand is what we’ll call the Russell sphere, and the other, diametrically opposed, we’ll call the Wilt sphere.
The Russell sphere cares about winning—there is nothing else.
Players are not friends when they step on the court.
Russellites will knock you down.
They will step on your face.
They are frequently rude.
Michael Jordan was a Russellite.
Then there are Wilts.
Wilts care about…well, caring.
They care that you notice they led the league in assists.
The care about stats.
They care about getting in the Hall of Fame more than they care about titles.
They care that you notice they scored 40 points even though their team lost.
They hope that you watch stats and not, well….actual games.
They care about you thinking they are great players no matter how selfish or narcissistic they are.
Which brings me to Coach Alvin Gentry.
Since we are in the 21st century, you can see for yourself how the Suns coach reacted by easily checking YouTube.
But there is no denying the easy demeanor or genial acceptance of Kobe’s trash-talk by the Suns coach in those last few seconds of his team’s playoff life—the queasy acceptance; the country-club handshake; the sleazy acquiescence that, no doubt, had its effect on the young Suns bench, who happened to be watching him betray their emotions for the thrill of a Kobe-ESPN moment.
But I wonder three things:
1) If the shots were reversed, could you see Phil Jackson joking like this?
2) Would Jordan or Russell have complimented his opponent during the last 30 seconds of a Finals?
3) Would Red Auerbach have smiled?