'Because what's beautiful is all that counts, pal. That's all that counts," Jack Nicholson told Rolling Stone back in 1986. The same magazine this week attended to Kobe Bryant's final game in the NBA after a 20-year career with the dubious if undeniably funny salute: "Kobe Bryant: Goodbye to the NBA's Greatest Asshole."
Jack hasn’t been seen much on our movie screens in recent years but it was no surprise that he donned the shades and ambled down from the Hills so he could be courtside for Bryant’s swansong as a Laker, as an NBA star and as a force of nature – an insatiable winner – in Lotus land.
Nostalgia does not sit well in Los Angeles and yet that's what Wednesday night's occasion was all about: an unabashed homage to the brightest and brashest of the 1990s generation of basketball precocity, who snapped shut the algebra books on the last day of school and jumped straight into the NBA.
Careers and lives get burned up fast in Hollywood and an entire cast of would-be and actual stars have seen the arc of their professional lives ascend and fall in the two decades that Bryant has been doing his thing. Since Bryant became the face of the Lakers – afro’d at first, sometimes smirking, more often snarling, and always, always, jawing at referees or at team-mates or at himself – entertainment has moved through several cycles.
Rosanne was still on our screens when Bryant became a regular television face and Friends was just two seasons in. Since then, his basketball life has spanned the shows that have come to symbolise eras: The West Wing, Mad Men, Will and Grace, Sex and the City, The Sopranos. Lakers coaches came and went and other superstar players made their mark, but Bryant became to the on-court aspect of the Lakers as much as Nicholson (a season ticket holder since 1972) is to the front row: a reassuring, constant fixture.
Bryant lasted in a culture where lasting is a minor miracle. No player in NBA history has ever played with a single club for 20 years. It was part accident – the Lakers wouldn’t trade Bryant when he wanted out and didn’t dare trade him in his declining years when it would have made financial sense. The Lakers haven’t won an NBA title since 2010 and this year was effectively a write-off beyond its purpose of serving as Bryant’s farewell in all the NBA cities. Their record going into Wednesday night’s curtain-closer against the Utah Jazz was pathetic: 16 wins and a whopping 64 defeats. They have been an easy win for even mediocre teams.
That didn’t matter on Wednesday evening: Bryant helped deliver five of the 16 titles in Lakers history and he played the game in a style that was at times heartless but, at its peak, brilliant and beautiful to watch. Everyone from Jack to the fans in the rafter-seats, were there to show to love.
"It's like a summer league game," said Hubie Brown as both teams rattled up and down the floor, Byrant firing at will. Brown is arguably the great television sports analyst in any code: a former coach with a sports-geek love of statistics and an acerbic take on the world. In the fourth quarter, he had this to say about the man of the moment. "Kobe's 11 for 18 in two-point range. Unfortunately he is three for 18 from three-land."
Go out shooting
It was less a criticism than an acknowledgement that Bryant was determined to go out shooting in the way that Newman and McQueen did in the closing scene of
. For any other player, three for 18 from three-point range would have constituted an immediate crisis of confidence and conscience. But then only the very elite three-point scorers would jack up that many threes in the first place. Even in his prime years, Bryant was not an out-and-out three-point shooter.
The Lakers trailed by 10 points late in the game when Bryant attempted one of his patented baseline spin and shoot moves: the crowd was willing it in but unfortunately it clipped the side of the backboard. The era looked destined to end quietly. The home team still trailed by 10 with two minutes and 30 seconds when Bryant made two quick sweet drives to send a surge of adrenaline through the arena and into the bars and homes where the game was being shown.
Then, he scored again. And all of a sudden the place was going berserk. Bryant had his narrowed, Mamba game-face on and Jack was on his feet and Shaquille wore his biggest-toddler- in-the-room dopey grin and most people, including the Jazz coach and players, were slack-jawed at the fact that Bryant had the impudence and the hunger to want even more from the evening than he had already been given. He wanted to turn what had been a fond and, by the standards of Tinseltown, heartfelt celebration, into something more substantial: to return to his favourite episode: The One Where Kobe Rips Their Hearts Out.
And with less than a minute remaining, he has the ball and everyone, everyone, is on their feet as if its Game Seven of the Finals and he doesn’t even think about passing: he shimmies to drive left and steps back and fires another three, his 20th of the night. And it drops, of course it does. And the noise is vintage, louder than for years and, to Kobe, it’s like blood to a vampire and the Jazz fumble their next attack and he takes the ball up court and drops another jump-shot to give the Lakers the lead.
And even Hubie Brown, who has seen it all a hundred times over, is stunned by this. Because say what you want about Bryant – and he has a healthy school of haters of out there – you can’t legislate for this. You can’t expect someone to steal their own thunder.
In the last possession, he has the ball and Utah fouls to stop the clock to put Bryant on the line. He has taken a flabbergasting 50 shots to make 58 points. Now he can sign off with a 60-point game, a milestone he had reached just six times in his NBA career. No other player has even scored 50 in his final game: Bryant, of course, drops the two foul shots and signs out with 60. He makes the farewell game feel like both a triumph and the last word and a reminder that, like Nicholson said: what’s beautiful is all that counts.
It’s one of the lines most associated with Nicholson and it’s natural to assume that it was another shiny token of schmooze from Hollywood’s lounge-iest lizard. In fact, it was the closing point in a magnificent rant about the decline of American cities he made in that interview.
Nicholson was just a movie star with a counter-cultural edge: he knew he didn’t have the answers. Maybe that’s why he has spent so much time at courtside, lost in basketball, watching the Lakers.
No more. As Bryant said himself in signing off : “Mamba Out”.