Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant, who died Jan. 26, scoring two of his many points against the Pacers. (Photo/David Dixon)

The tragic passing of Kobe Bryant made me think of when I fully realized just how special he was as a player. As an NBA junkie l remember it very well. The Indiana Pacers, by virtue of defeating the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Championship round, had finally arrived in the 2000 NBA Finals. They would now face the Los Angeles Lakers for all the marbles, and by virtue of NBC Sports, yours truly had a prime seat for all the home games of the series.

The Pacers took it on the chin in Los Angeles the first two games, but rallied for a win in Game 3 at home, setting the stage for the opportunity to tie the series and then play Game 5 at home by virtue of the 2-3-2 format the NBA was employing at the time. Pacers fans were confident and the place was rocking to say the very least. Indiana would bust out to a 10-point lead after one quarter, but the Lakers cut the lead to just three as the teams headed to the half time break. The third quarter saw L.A. flex a bit, but they led by just three heading to the final stanza. After trading big shots down the stretch, the contest headed to overtime, with the score knotted at 114, setting the stage for an epic event that Pacers fans have been trying to forget for two decades. At the 2:33 mark of the overtime session, Shaquille O’Neal fouled out after dominating up to that point with 36 points and 21 rebounds. With the self-proclaimed Big Aristotle on the bench, every Pacers fan in the house was licking their chops and looking ahead to Game 5. Kobe Bryant had other ideas and calmly drained two jumpers from better than 20 feet, and when he completed his six-point run with an epic tip-in along the baseline, the Pacers were both deflated and defeated in the pivotal Game 4 match up.

The Lakers would go on to mail it in for Game 5, getting trounced 120-87, but their eyes were on Game 6, which was played in the friendly confines of home, and they closed out the series, snuffing the Pacers’ dreams and setting the stage for three consecutive titles for Los Angeles. Game 4 remains the turning point of the 2000 NBA Finals, and Bryant established himself that day as the future force to be dealt with. His epic closeout of the pivotal game has been forgotten by many, but this old scribe will always remember how he sucked the oxygen out of the building, just when the home crowd thought O’Neal’s disqualification would provide a victory.

Notes: As tributes to Bryant continue to pour in from all over the globe, I can’t help thinking about the images of him coaching his daughter’s basketball team. With no children of my own, I obviously cannot relate to the bond between a parent and child, but it wasn’t hard to see how much joy it brought him. Clearly the vast professional accolades he earned were important to him, but they paled in comparison to the joys of parenthood, and I envy that. 

Kudos to LeBron James for scrapping the scripted comments the Lakers provided him and going with his own thoughts as he paid tribute to Bryant before the first L.A. home game since the tragedy. In arguably his finest moment, James’ comments were both personal and poignant, and reminded us all once again how he can rise to the occasion, no matter how difficult the circumstances truly are. 

Danny Bridges, who is truly grateful he was able to see Kobe Bryant play up close and personally many a time, can be reached at 317-370-8447 or at bridgeshd@aol.com.

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