Sometimes, you can feel greatness advancing.
It’s like feeling the rumble of an army marching toward the battlefield. You can feel thousands of footsteps walking with purpose toward a moment that can only end in brief survival or death. The survival is but a delay of the inevitable slaying that will happen by the hands of the enemy or the biology surrounding each soldier.
You can feel that greatness marching toward you in sports too. Back in 2006, Kobe Bryant was on his own. He was flanked by Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, Chris Mihm, and a number of frustrating role players that couldn’t measure up to the title teams he helped lead. There wasn’t a set formula for them winning basketball games. Kobe needed to score an inordinate amount of points. They needed fortuitous long-range makes from Smush Parker, Brian Cook, Sasha Vujacic and Devean George. They needed Kwame Brown to rebound and defend.
They needed a lot.
After having fantastic scoring months in November (33.5 points per game) and December (32.0 PPG), Kobe Bryant began another one of his historic scoring tears. It wasn’t quite as prolific as the extended nine-game 40-point game streak he had in 2003, but it was building toward something astounding. There was the game against Dallas on December 20th in which he scored 62 points in 32 minutes. Then during five games from December 28th through January 11th, Kobe racked up 229 points (45.8 PPG), never falling below 41 in any of those games.
Considering the standard he was setting for himself, Kobe had a bit of a let down right after. He had 27 points against Cleveland on January 12th. The next game against the Warriors, he scored 38 points before following up the next game with 37 against the Heat. He dazzled Lakers fans and scoring aficionados with a 51-point effort against the Kings in a loss and 37 points in another loss to the Suns right after it.
This streak of unfathomable and relentless scoring had people wondering just how high Kobe could ever go in a single game. What if everything fell right? What if Phil Jackson had left Kobe in against Dallas when he had 62 points through three quarters of action? Could Kobe have had another ridiculous 30-point quarter like he exploded for in the third during that game? Could he have approached 90 or 100 points?
Then on January 22nd, Kobe Bryant attacked the Toronto Raptors to win his team a ball game and in the process, he poured in 81 points. It was one of those things you could feel coming but you weren’t sure if you were letting your imagination run away from you. You wanted to believe somebody could put up those high usage, video game numbers that you might try to embarrass a friend with in NBA 2K.
On that day, Kobe did it and it was something that helped shaped his already burgeoning legacy in many ways.
Like Kobe Bryant, Gregg Popovich has been successful long before his defining moment and been known as someone to be dismissive, abrupt and uninterested in the media obligations of their job most nights. Gregg Popovich is a basketball savant far beyond what any of us could ever comprehend. There is no questioning him from the common fan. There is no pundit or expert that can possibly know what he knows about the game we discuss.
Gregg Popovich is a man that really doesn’t have to answer to anybody because he’s experienced continued success at the highest level of his profession and done so in spectacular and overwhelming fashion.
During his between-quarter interviews, he’s often put on a show for us and not because he’s trying to entertain us. Throughout this season, it’s because the biggest spectacle and the most tense moments of many of the games he’s coached. The Spurs have been so good at blowing teams away that you’re often left hoping that Popovich will spare some audio gold to those watching at home and praying for a charitable donation of wisdom and entertainment.
There was the story of him being baffled by Ric Bucher saying Tony Parker was discussing their rebounding and then when Ric accidentally brought up a third question in a two-question interview, Pop called him on it and walked away. Then in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, Popovich handled Craig Sager’s two questions by answering in a combined 12 words.
It was curt. It was disinterested. It was glorious. And it left you wondering whether or not something like that could ever be topped. In Game 4, Pop talked to Craig Sager and actually gave him an elongated answer to both questions. He was discussing basketball in a way that made you think he might even want to do that interview.
Then Game 5 of the WCF happened and the Spurs were on the verge of dropping a huge game at home. They were down nine points after three quarters and we all hoped Popovich would deliver a between-quarter interview that we could tell our grandkids about someday. He didn’t disappoint.
We competed. Same way.
That was all Gregg Popovich said and that was all he needed to say. There was nothing more to offer. There were no more expletives to give. It was a perfect storm of anger at his team and the way the game was going coupled with an irritation for such a meaningless obligation forced by the league onto the coaches during nationally televised games.
You could feel something like this coming but you didn’t want to have your hopes up. Lucky for us, greatness delivered once again.
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