It was the summer of 2004, and an aging sports owner was faced with a decision for the ages. It was a choice between two small words with giant ramifications. It was a hurried selection that would last forever.
Kobe or Shaq?
The debate had raged for years, and now Lakers owner Jerry Buss felt he had to end it. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, filled with blatant animosity stemming from the deepest of jealousies, could no longer play together. Even three championships couldn't bond them and, at the first possible moment that summer, they both attempted to flee.
O'Neal begged to be traded. Bryant opted out of his contract. Buss felt he couldn't keep them both. He believed he had to pick one. This Hall of Famer or that Hall of Famer? This son, or that son? In today's era of corporate ownership, it was the sort of personnel decision that is rarely made by a single person.
Yet Buss alone made the call. It was one of the boldest calls in the history of Southern California sports. It became one of the most criticized calls in the history of the NBA. Yet Buss unflinchingly made it, and stood behind it, and, nine years later, on a Wednesday night in New Orleans, his choice could be seen storming downcourt for a clinching dunk and a gritted-teeth growl as the Lakers came from a 25-point deficit to win.
Even those of us who have resisted saying it for years can say it now, because a man's legacy has been completed by it.
Jerry Buss picked Kobe Bryant, and he was right.
Jerry Buss traded O'Neal in what this columnist called a "Shaqtacular mistake," yet Buss was right, and continues to be right, today more than ever, his mortality continually honored by a guy playing at the level of the immortals.
The uniform patch is sweet, the memorial service was moving, but less than a month after Buss' death, his memory is most alive every night through a scarred veteran whose 17th season might be his most impactful yet.
Get breaking news alerts delivered to your mobile phone. Text BREAKING to 52669. You will receive up to 30 msgs/mo. Msg&data rates may apply. Text HELP for help. Text STOP to cancel.
Buss picked Bryant as if he knew that not only would he win two more championships with some of his best teams, but that he would shoulder the Lakers' most disappointing team with dignity and strength through a season of uncertainty and loss.
Bryant will not be the most valuable player. But in some ways he's never been better. He has furiously pushed the Lakers through their dysfunction and chaos while chugging his legs at a level never seen by someone burdened by so many miles.
He has led them to a win while scoring 40 points and shooting 65%. He has led them to a win while making one basket and not taking a shot in the first half.
He led them to three consecutive wins with double-digit assists in each game. There have been 18 games in which he did not miss a free throw. And, oh yeah, just for grins, Wednesday night in New Orleans, he played the entire second half and scored 13 of the team's final 16 points.
He has been the scorer, the facilitator, the scowling tough guy, the hilarious tweeting guy and, against all gravitational odds, the slamming guy. Seriously, have you ever seen Kobe Bryant dunk like this? Not in the last five years, right? He slammed on Atlanta's Josh Smith while scoring the final six points in a Lakers victory. He soared on Brooklyn's Gerald Wallace while leading the Lakers to a short-handed win there.
Bryant is leaping higher now than he did five years ago — literally and figuratively — thanks to his off-season blood treatments in Germany and his year-round work ethic. Few saw this coming from a 34-year-old who has already played 192 more games than Michael Jordan played in his career. Hardly anyone believed this was possible from a man who last spring in Oklahoma City looked old and slow and on the verge of being done.
Nobody believed in Bryant like Jerry Buss.
Think about it. Buss chose an immature Bryant over O'Neal during a summer in which Bryant was facing sexual assault charges that eventually were dropped. Buss chose Bryant even though he had pouted his way through some games, shot his way out of others, and had even undergone knee surgery without telling the team.
Buss chose Bryant over a three-time Finals MVP when Shaq was seemingly still in his prime, and this column space read, "The weathered hands that built this tradition are still powerful enough to unravel it."
It turns out, Jerry Buss didn't unravel anything. He cemented it. He gave the franchise to a kid who has grown into a man who is carrying it brilliantly in his memory, a living last will and testament, an amazing grace.