Before this game ever tipped off, this was a truly dark day for basketball. Kobe Bryant, his eldest daughter, and seven others passed away in a helicopter crash. In a lot of ways, the last place I wanted to be today was a basketball arena. After the game, I still feel that way.
I don’t have the energy to take a deep dive into what went wrong for Stanford. I’m sure many fans will once again point at the officiating, or the turnover total, or their inability to hit an outside shot. One way or another, they lost another game in which they led by double figures in the second half. But I don’t want to spend time picking the performance apart.
Like most guys who grew up when I did, I idolized Kobe. One time I tried to shout ‘Redick!’ when throwing a ball of paper into the trash, but it felt so wrong. As a Trail Blazers fan, I should’ve hated him. After all, he played for the evil empire. No matter what Nate McMillan or Mo Cheeks or Dunleavy Sr threw at him, he hit increasingly impossible game winners against us. But I couldn’t hate him; he was Kobe! I even bought his jersey, though I kept that on the down-low.
During the moment of silence before the game, I thought to myself how great it would be to write about Daejon Davis or Oscar da Silva or maybe Tyrell Terry finding their Mamba Mentality. After all, players their age have all been influenced by 24, even the international ones. They surged to a 39-28 advantage and Davis, Bryce Wills, and others supplied highlight fodder. But it just didn’t work out. The clutch gene was nowhere to be found today.
Kobe was 41 years old. When he was drafted, Jerod Haase was still lacing them up in Lawrence, KS. He was an NBA Champion, an MVP, a slam dunk champion, and an Olympic gold medalist. I was in Italy in 2016 on the day he played his last game. I don’t normally pull all-nighters to watch basketball, but this was Kobe! He went out in the way that only the Mamba could, scoring 60 and pulling out a game they had no business winning. My friend and I fought back tears, but we both knew he had so much ahead of him after basketball.
It was difficult watching the sport at all today. The hardest thing you can do is care about something, and I care probably more than I should. I wanted a sterling Stanford performance to hang my hat on. I knew that their 2 point halftime advantage was nothing to worry about, because that came from just 1 assist. I knew that the team was too good, too focused, too fun, to let this one slip away. But Cal went on a furious 17-2 run to take a 45-41 lead, and none of that mattered. Sometimes you simply don’t have what it takes to get over the hump.
It was fitting that Cal’s winning points came at the foul line. They shot just 32% from the field today, didn’t get the ball inside with any regularity, and frankly didn’t get many high quality looks from anywhere. But Paris Austin made a pair from the stripe to break the tie with 3.2 seconds to go, and Bryce Wills’ tying layup left his hand moments after the horn sounded. The effects of this game could have season-long ripples for Stanford.
Caring was downright burdensome today. I felt devoid of all energy as the stands cleared around me. I’d witnessed a poor Stanford showing against an inferior foe, and on this day of all days. I felt inconsolable. But when it comes down to it, I’m glad I care so much.
Kobe Bryant is a man I never had the chance to meet, but he gave me countless treasured memories. I can remember exactly where I was during many of his most iconic shots and victories. I recall asking my parents to buy Nutella so I could look at his picture on the jar while I ate breakfast. I remember the many bricks my friends and I threw up on the playground trying to reenact his signature moves. His career ended not even four years ago, but he had already won an Oscar, started a VC firm, and learned Slovenian merely to trash talk Luka Dončić.
This loss wouldn’t hurt so much if Jerod Haase and his players this year hadn’t given us all reasons to believe. I don’t want to hand-wave this loss away, because it was bad. But on a bleak day such as this, we should all be thankful that we care so much. Because maybe as soon as next week, they’ll win a game or hit a shot that will leave an indelible mark on me and you. There’s still plenty of Mamba in this team, just you wait.