If you are an NBA fan, or any sort of entity that engages with news media in some fashion, you will be cognizant of the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and the other victims of a terrible helicopter crash that took their lives.
There’s no doubt that Bryant was the face of the NBA for most of his career, for good and bad. There’s no doubt he was one of the most brilliant players of all time, if at times, a controversial one.
The period of his career that made Kobe Bryant, hoops prodigy (who initially chose his jersey number in honor of his Italian league boyhood hero, Mike D’Antoni), into KOBE, the icon, the marketing machine, the sneering conqueror, and ultimately, the man who felt called to wrestle with his conscience in full view of the public, was early Kobe. The high-flyer, the joyous trickster, the studious game-breaking scorer who grew up in the glaring light of Peak Lakers.
You may not have enjoyed his later career, his histrionics and his history, or the damned Lakers, but I defy anyone to dislike early Kobe, #8, as a player.
Why all this Kobe stuff when the subject is ostensibly Dallas versus Houston?
I’d intended to write a (hopefully funny) poem about Luka Doncic, perhaps in a difficult form, but then Kobe died. I reflected that I’d seen him play live perhaps eight times in Houston, across his career. I’m glad I did. I think he’d understand why I cheered against him as hard as I did. I’m fortunate to have had the chance to see these games. That opportunity won’t come again.
This Friday, January 31, offers you an opportunity to see greatness live in Houston. James Harden, the controversial master craftsman of the NBA, will play against Luka Doncic, the prodigy. Understand this about Luka, beyond all the jokes I make about him, and Dallas; he’s fantastic. No one has started their career like he has. Not Lebron, not Kobe, not Kareem, neither Jordan nor Hakeem. No one.
Luka is in the early, universally beloved, phase of his career. Like young Kobe’s “Player #8” stage, it’s all a giddy rush of first love, hearts and flowers. No one is tired of him. No one has seen his moves a thousand times already. Nobody’s watched him fall down the same way two thousand times, so he can shoot still more free throws.
In fact, few people seem to have noticed that darling Luka’s game is almost exactly like that of the (villainous) James Harden. That’s what the freshness of youth can do, cause people to see the same thing with new eyes. So, as a Rockets fan, I have to conclude that love for Luka is in some real way, clandestine love for James Harden.
And then there is James Harden. No one since Wilt Chamberlain, has anyone scored at James Harden’s rate for so much of a season. No one has combined that scoring, that efficiency, with such passing skills, ever.
James Harden has broken the mold of what a player can do, and how he might go about doing it. He has effectively added two or three moves to the NBA player arsenal. Most great players are known for one. The Skyhook. The Dreamshake. So far Harden’s moves lack the colorful nickname they need to catch fire in the public imagination, but they’re real.
There’s also another singular player on display in this contest (all injuries hopefully aside). Russell Westbrook is unique. There simply isn’t another NBA player like him. (I would have said the same about James Harden, but he seems to have acquired a baby right-handed Euro Clone.)
Westbrook is playing brilliantly. It seems, for now, that The Rockets Way is Russell’s Way. If this season was less strange, the West less loaded, other teams should have been trembling in fear. He’s not taking many threes, he’s going to the rim at will, he’s fast and disruptive. He’s rebounding in a way that guards just don’t. It would be delicious if all the Westbrook complaints went to Houston and evaporated there. (But where is the old Westbrook love?)
This game offers you the chance to see three of the NBA’s current greats live. Luka comes to town as the young All-Star on the rise, James Harden, the mature player, at the peak of his powers. Their games are (very) similar, right now - low speed destruction. If Luka can evolve his game like James Harden (a big “if”), what will he be in 10 years? It’s a fascinating prospect, except for the “Dallas” part.
Russell Westbrook, singular individual that he is, is perhaps in the midst of a redemption drama. The Westbrook of the past few games has been an MVP level player, with no caveats. The irony is rich, smoky and full-bodied.
Sometimes people talk about playoff games, with their stakes and pressure, as the signature moments of the league. Certainly they are, in their way. Just as important, if you love the game, are the moments that occur in the regular season. In those moments, a player, without the pressure of the playoffs, might transcend what we think is possible, in a sport where many think they’ve seen everything.
Perhaps James Harden, Luka Doncic and Russell Westbrook will provide such moments on Friday. Perhaps they won’t. It would be a shame to miss it, if they did. There won’t be unlimited chances to see James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Luka Doncic play in person. If something amazing happens when you’re at a live game, you feel it in a different way, because the whole arena is feeling with you.
So take the chance, be there if you can. Tempus fugit.
Who’s the greatest here?
This poll is closed
James Harden, obviously.
Luka, for truly he is The Chosen One.
Russell Westbrook, for sheer novelty.
PJ Tucker, for always being there.
Kristaps Porzingis, for breaking NYC’s heart.
Rick Carlisle, for never letting a timeout go to waste. Ever. Really. Ever.
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