Less than 48 hours and one unrelated storybook ending separated the two scenes involving Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson. One was warm and fuzzy, perhaps only because the aging warrior was no longer a threat. The second was sad and unpromising, with the evidence suggesting the aging warrior is no longer a threat.
On Saturday night, the Spurs celebrated the career of Bryant, who was visiting San Antonio for the final time as a player. It was touching tribute to an opponent who inflicted his share of misery on the home team.
During the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich era, the Spurs have won five titles … and so have the Lakers. With no Kobe on the Lakers, the Spurs likely could have won more.
But all was forgotten Saturday. The Spurs created a video that included Kobe highlights and testimonials from Popovich, Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
Not lost in the moment, however, was the reality that the Lakers entered the night 31 games under .500, and 37-year-old Kobe has completely worn himself out. He’s missed games this year with a sore left leg, a sore lower back, a sore right shoulder and a sore right Achilles tendon. More than 56,000 regular season and playoff minutes have taken their toll.
The Spurs are the type of organization that would have honored him, anyway, but it sure was a lot easier with the Lakers 11-42 rather than 42-11.
Bryant had his moments on Saturday, scoring 25 points although he needed 28 shots to do it. But he kept the Lakers close until late in the game when Parker scored six points in the final two minutes for a 106-102 Spurs victory, the 28th consecutive home win for San Antonio.
For Bryant, it was the fourth straight game he had more than 20 points. He averaged 28.3 points – including a season-high 38 in a victory over Minnesota – in that stretch. But before that, he had an eight-game stretch in which he scored 10 or fewer points seven times. He is shooting only 35 percent from the field, the worst of his 20-year career. He and the Lakers are limping toward the finish – the team with the worst record in the Western Conference.
The other scene took place in New York on Monday afternoon when Phil Jackson, who was head coach for Kobe’s five titles, admitted the first decision he made as the Knicks’ general manager was a disaster. After a mere 136 games, Derek Fisher was fired by Jackson, thus proving that being a great head coach does not mean you are good at hiring them.
The Knicks are 40-96 since Jackson took over. They have lost six straight and 10 of 11 to fall to 12th place in the East with a 23-32 record. Not the sort of state that you would think the Zen Master would be creating.
It was striking that in the middle of those two scenes was the triumph of another aging warrior, Peyton Manning. Despite a Hall of Fame career, the 39-year-old Manning has been panned for winning only one Super Bowl compared to four for Tom Brady and even two for Eli Manning, his less gifted brother. Two years ago, Manning was 34-of-49 passing for 280 yards and one TD, but he also threw two interceptions as the Broncos were battered by Seattle, 43-8, in the Super Bowl.
After the Broncos defeated the Panthers on Sunday, giving Manning that elusive second Super Bowl victory, he did not say he was finished playing. But it seems likely he will retire, and isn’t it the perfect way to ride off into the sunset – the classic storybook ending to a brilliant, but not always perfect career?
From the perspective of a pure sports fan, wouldn’t it have been nice to see Kobe go out the same way? Wouldn’t it have been great theater to see Jackson become a first-time general manager at age 69 and provide the same sort of Zen/common sense leadership he did in winning 11 titles as a head coach?
The Knicks do have hope, particularly if Jackson follows the sage advice that has been generously provided on this site. It does appear that he made an excellent decision when he selected Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft, so that should give Knicks fans some hope.
It is difficult to imagine, however, Jackson elevating the Knicks to contender status anytime soon. The talent gap between the Knicks and the top teams in the East is enormous. At this point, even competing for a low level playoff berth is a stretch.
Six years ago, Bryant and Jackson won their last championship together. Obviously they could have never imagined being in their current predicaments in the twilight of their brilliant careers. Neither could we.
The world of sports gave us a stark contrast over the weekend. Football’s premier aging warrior was celebrated as a champion with a chance to leave sports at the top of his career. Two basketball legends had to settle for so much less – one venerated primarily because of the memories he has provided, and the other doubted because his first important decision he made was a major rookie mistake.
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WHILE EXCELLING QUIETLY, SPURS MAY BE FINDING GEMS
TRUE FANTASY SPORTS STORY: WHEN LARRY BIRD GOT TRADED IN THE LARRY BIRD LEAGUE
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.