The Circle of Life: NBA stars like Kobe emerge, reign, then fade to black
As the end of the NBA season nears, we tend look ahead to things to come like free agency (i.e. Kevin Durant Sweepstakes), the draft and this latest twist in L.A.K.B. (Life After Kobe Bryant).
But instead, I’d like to reflect on the journey of how the Oklahoma City Thunder gained this basketball junkie’s allegiance as well as the ultimate experience of seeing legends in one epic setting.
My Thunder fandom began well before the inaugural season of 2008, but let me back up and set the mood and scene for you, like the gentleman that I am.
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Growing up a typical Michael Jordan fan as a kid of my generation, I shed tears and endured a state of denial after his Airness’s first retirement and found myself team-less.
I turned to the most exciting duo of the 90’s in Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton of the Seattle Supersonics, who much like the Thunder of today’s NBA against the 73-9 Warriors of 2016, came so close to dethroning an all-time great team in the 72-10 Chicago Bulls of 1996.
You may think I enjoy suffering and must be a Cubs fan as well but no; I’m a fair weather Royals fan in KC where I reside and life is good.
Seattle eventually went into full rebuild mode and drafted a young kid out of Texas you may have heard of — named Kevin Durant — while Seattle and the rest of Sonic nation is history.
The OKC Thunder were born a year later while taking a Grande Mocha-Durant to go from then barista, David Stern.
Therefore, I claim to be the first Thunder fan and recall the growing pains of their first year only witnessed on NBA League Pass.
Did you know PJ Carlesimo (remember when Latrell Sprewell choked him?) was their first coach? That’s what I thought.
Having seen GM Sam Presti build this Thunder team from the embryo stage to the second highest winning percentage NBA team in the last five years (68 percent) second only to our father figure in the San Antonio Spurs (74 percent), who much like Freddy or Jason of horror movies just won’t seem to die, has been impressive and a wild ride.
Transitioning now from the Kemp and Payton era to the Durant and Westbrook era, I had yet to see either duo in person.
Until I circled a game that I believed was so significant for my generation (having seen Jordan and Pippen in ’96, Malone and Stockton, Garnett and Marbury and Iverson all in ’98, Carmelo vs. Duncan in ’04) even though adult life had taken over.
But even adulthood couldn’t stop the kid in me wanting to see my OKC Thunder take on Kobe Bryant during his last road game in his NBA career. The stage was set.
Arriving to Bricktown in downtown Oklahoma City was fantastic! Laker fans infiltrated the scene wearing their purple and gold and even some retro Lower Marion HS Kobe jerseys.
Records didn’t matter at this point of the season, just team pride and the mutual respect of the superstars in Kobe Bryant with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook seemed to resonate amongst the fans as well.
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Outside Chesapeake Energy Arena you can’t help but see the monumental figures of the Thunder players assembled like Mount Rushmore.
While entering the arena I was reliving moments I’d only seen on television; pushing the eventual champion Lakers to six games in 2010 as an eight seed, the 2012 Finals run and so many other highlights — I couldn’t believe I was here.
I felt at home. I quickly began recognizing Thunder beat writers, reporters and players as I was two sections across the Thunder bench.
This was just the beginning though, the best was yet to come.
First came the Thunder intros and the well-known dancing ending with cheering for KD. Next, having seen all the Kobe tributes all year I knew it was going to be special.
Your standard monotone introduction of opposing players began, then the lights dimmed for the video presentation and appreciation of Kobe’s legacy followed by a roaring ovation. Well done Thunder.
Prior to tip-off, Durant shares a manly embrace with Kobe.
The game itself wasn’t exactly competitive — 112-79 after the final buzzer — but some fun facts were, Russell Westbrook had his 18th triple-double of the season by halftime.
Kevin Durant passed Kobe on the consecutive 20+ points scored streak with 34 points.
Kobe’s shoulder and pretty much his upper body were mummified for the fourth quarter, despite the crowd chanting for Kobe to return to the shellacking.
A vintage Kobe did start off scoring all of his 13 points in the first quarter battling and trash talking with Kevin Durant.
At the end, Durant and Westbrook met Kobe at the scorers table showing their appreciation for what Kobe has done for the league and their own progression in their careers.
What sums up Kobe’s farewell in OKC and the love for the game as well as each other amongst these superstars came from Durant after the game in “I wanted to destroy Kobe.”
“I remember when Michael Jordan was on his way out and Kobe didn’t take it easy on him,” Durant said.
“That’s all I was thinking. I was trying to destroy him every chance I got. Every time I got the ball, he was ‘Come on. Let’s see what you got.’ That shows what type of player, what type of competitor he is. I just wanted to play against him one last time.”
It’s a mutual respect among men, superstars and gladiators…THAT is legendary.
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