LOS ANGELES – Chris Rock was yapping at Kobe Bryant(notes). Over and over, and who knows what that entailed. This was the siren call of Hollywood, an A-lister shout-out, a private act from the world's funniest man. Rock was seated in prime L.A. real estate, front row of Staples Center, the end of the Lakers bench, where one chair over Bryant had a towel around his neck, grabbing a breather.
When you’re Chris Rock no one ignores you, certainly not in this town. He looked like he was in full monologue, jokes tumbling out of his mouth as he waved his hand around, that big, wry smile stretching across his face.
And there was Bryant, ignoring every single word of it. Rock was being funny. Bryant was being serious. Rock was laughing. Bryant was staring directly ahead, emotionless, even as the Los Angeles Lakers were well on their way Thursday to a 102-89 rout over the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
There’s no time for comedians or actors or anything else that the sideshow of the Finals in L.A. involves. It’s June, so the biggest star in this town is No. 24.
This opportunity is too precious for Kobe Bryant; now more than ever.
Bryant is in his 14th season, there’s a wrap around his tender right knee and just two months ago he had been eliminated from the best player in the league debate. Kobe was fading. The Lakers were vulnerable. In the first round some wondered whether Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant(notes) would best him. So went the chatter.
Now Durant is home tweeting, LeBron James(notes) is doing Larry King, and Bryant is dropping 30 on the Celtics, three victories now from his fifth NBA title. There’s no time for jokes. No time for fans. No time for anything.
“You’ve got a great opportunity here,” Bryant said of his mindset before the series, “‘Don’t [expletive] this [expletive] up.’”
The Celtics came to L.A. and stood around and watched the Lakers run offense and grab rebounds and beat them down the court. “First-game excitement,” coach Doc Rivers said.
Bryant would allow no such thing with his guys. These Lakers are California cool, a relaxed group trying to shed a “soft” label. They can’t afford to drift so their star showed up “serious,” according to Jordan Farmer. He only got more serious from there.
He had a huge night, 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He led the Lakers defensively. He was in people’s faces when they needed to focus. He hugged them when they needed to celebrate a great play.
Afterward, Bryant had little to say, offering quick, short, unrevealing answers to the large international media contingent.
Is there a reason you’re being short with the media, he was asked?
“I don’t know,” he said.
And that was pretty much it. Everything is within Kobe’s grasp now and he knows it. Forget the MVP voting or the free-agent summits or all the talk about the future of the league shifting in July. He was once part of a soap opera like that, even flirting with the Los Angeles Clippers. He almost derailed his career with an off-court scandal.
That Kobe now seems so far gone. He is about the present and only the present. He is about real accomplishments, not empty praise.
“At this point, the key is to win every game,” he said.
Bryant shared a postgame news conference with Pau Gasol(notes) because he didn’t care to wait for a solo shot. He doesn’t need the spotlight. He just wanted to get the night over with and get on with preparing for Game 2.
When Gasol was asked whether he was going to watch fellow Spaniard Rafael Nadal in the French Open on Friday morning, Bryant snickered.
“If I wake up earlier tomorrow,” Gasol said, “I’ll maybe be able to watch a little bit of it.”
Bryant cut his teammate off.
“He’s getting his rest,” Kobe said.
Gasol looked at Bryant and then nodded.
“I definitely need my rest for sure,” he said. “I’ll just see the stats.”
“Just making sure we’re all on the same page,” Bryant would say later.
This is the difference between a regular-season MVP and a Finals MVP. There’s no room for error now, no time for silly antics or warm-up dances or Chris Rock jokes.
There is only what Pat Riley called the precious present, and after all these games and all these chances, Kobe Bryant knows it better than anyone in the NBA. Across the way is a big three of aging veterans, and they couldn’t match the desperation of the 31-year-old Bryant.
A fifth NBA championship would mean so much to him. Leading the Lakers to just their third Finals triumph over the Celtics would mean even more for the franchise. Getting the Lakers their 16th title, just one behind Boston’s record 17 would mean everything to L.A.
Kobe’s never going to win the best player debate with Michael Jordan, but just forcing people to have it is a victory. And with each title he wins, the closer he gets to M.J.’s six, the more the topic gets discussed.
It’s all background noise now though. Bryant isn’t listening. Three more victories needed. The Finals won’t be easy. Boston will respond. Everything will get tougher. Everything will get meaner.
The tunnel vision says it all. Chris Rock can wait.