Basketball wasnever meant to be played to the thumping, mechanical cadence of hip-hop; theNBA is best suited to the impulsive rhythms of jazz, and that is what KobeBryant played to last Friday night in the cradle of jazz, New Orleans. From thetroubled drama of Bryant's past has emerged a blissful eloquence that, likeDixieland, is both disciplined and liberating. His jump shot is an elaborateriff that holds an audience rapt: Shoes squeak in panic around Kobe as hegathers his breath, his shoulders swaying to the ball-beat at his fingertips, adistracting glance this way as he bursts there into space, corkscrewing as herises up and up, his right leg splayed like a clarinetist leaning back infull-blown solo.
"Thekey," Bryant said afterward, as if reciting a lesson of everyone from LouisArmstrong to Wynton Marsalis, "is to take your time."
In the last ofsix NBA games to be played in New Orleans this season before the Hornets returnfull time next fall, Bryant achieved something that hadn't been done in 45years. Not since the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in Hershey, Pa.,had an NBA player scored 50 points or more in four consecutive games, butthat's what Bryant did over an eight-day span. What made Bryant's spree all themore exhilarating was how it elevated his team: His Los Angeles Lakers had lostseven straight when he was inspired to take an extended solo. Bryant scored 65points against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 16, followed by 50 againstthe Minnesota Timberwolves, followed by 60 against the Memphis Grizzlies,followed 24 hours later by 50 against the Hornets--and his Lakers won everytime. The streak ended on Sunday night when Bryant had only 43 points in avictory over the Golden State Warriors, but if the league's scoring leader(31.0 points per game at week's end) is still performing at this ethereal levelcome the playoffs--he claimed he wasn't tired despite averaging just 157seconds of rest in the four games--Western Conference contenders won't wantanything to do with the Lakers. "It's phenomenal," says L.A. coach PhilJackson, who used to complain that Bryant's prolific shooting was antitheticalto the Lakers' larger goals.
Yet maybe themost promising indication of Bryant's maturity was his recognition of thelarger meaning of last Friday's game to the Big Easy. He was proud that hehelped draw a crowd of 18,535 (a New Orleans Arena record for a regular-seasongame) at a time when the city and its nomadic team are starved for good news."They have a sense of appreciation for the game of basketball because thisteam was almost taken away from them," Bryant said.
"I've beendoing this almost 20 years, and tonight's going to be the highest gross we'vehad since I've owned the franchise," said Hornets owner George Shinn, whoseteam has played the balance of its home games in Oklahoma City. "This onegame."
The record crowdraises more questions about the Hornets' return next season as well as theNBA's prospects in Louisiana. Since the Civil War no U.S. city has sufferedmore than New Orleans, whose population of 223,000 is half of what it wasbefore Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. Can the Hornets survive in acity dominated by the Saints, who have a season-ticket waiting list for nextyear of more than 25,000? And will the NBA's decision to award the 2008All-Star weekend to New Orleans, as a sign of commitment to the franchise andthe city, backfire because of the rising crime rate?
In February,Players Association executive director Billy Hunter threatened legal action tohave the All-Star Game moved if New Orleans couldn't provide a safeenvironment, though after a recent visit he expressed confidence that the eventwill be a success. But that more optimistic message must make its way toAll-Stars such as the Houston Rockets' Tracy McGrady, who said he's thinkingabout skipping the weekend because of fears about violent crime, which is up68% in New Orleans since Katrina.
Bryant offers amore sympathetic view. "To show the resilience that the city has, you haveto reward it," he says. "I know a lot of players are concerned withsafety and security and things like that, but this city will be fine by thetime that comes around, I'm sure." The energy in the arena--fans loudlysupporting their Hornets, booing controversial fouls that went Bryant's way andcheering his spectacular plays--helped convince him that better days are ahead."To have the All-Star Game here, I'm telling you, it's going to beabsolutely special," he said.
Concerns aboutAll-Star weekend may be overblown. The French Quarter and other touristdestinations near the arena suffered either minimal damage or have beenrenovated; at Mardi Gras in February the city hosted 800,000 revelers withoutmajor incident. "Our police department has over 1,400 officers, and we willcertainly have a sufficient number in the area," says Sgt. Joe Narcisse, aspokesman for the New Orleans police.
Other worriesabout crime smack of racism. All-Star weekend is a powerful draw for manyAfrican-Americans, who made up a majority of the estimated 85,000 visitors toLas Vegas for this year's event. Police there reported 403 arrests, which adepartment spokesman compared with the number of violations on a typical NewYear's Eve or Super Bowl weekend. Yet repeated references by residents andtourists to the "element" that had come to Vegas struck many, includingHunter, as racist. "You would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to havereached that interpretation," he says. "The 'element,' or 'thosepeople,' or 'your people'--everybody knows the buzzwords. Black folk aresensitive to all of that."
All-Star weekendin New Orleans could also serve as a rallying cry for the African-Americansdisplaced by Katrina. They represent a large portion of the more than 200,000who haven't returned because, according to local officials, the federalgovernment has yet to release billions of dollars in funds targeted forreconstruction. Many neighborhoods have dilapidated houses in no bettercondition than when they were ravaged 19 months ago. NBA teams and players havedonated more than $15 million to the relief efforts; last week Shinn announcedthat the Hornets, the NBA and Toyota are funding a program to build 20 homes."We'd like to see something that takes care of the displaced people,because it really is not going to be that much fun to be there if progresshasn't been made," NBA commissioner David Stern said recently. "Youtake your guests on tours of areas that have been devastated and where it seemslike very, very little has been done. We don't understand it."
Still, Shinn hasmade it clear that he would have preferred to play all of the team's home gamesthis season in Oklahoma City, which has greeted him with 27 sellouts over thepast two years. "If we were looking at relocating, with the population basethe way it is, we may not give New Orleans a second chance," says Shinn,who controversially moved the Hornets from Charlotte to New Orleans in 2002."But the situation is, we have a lease [through 2012] here. We'reobligated, and the league approved us to play here, so this is technically ourhome."
And what of hischaritable efforts? "From a selfish standpoint, the things we're doing inthe community come back to me, it helps me," he says. "Because peoplesay, 'This guy's helping out, let's help him out. Let's buy tickets to come tohis game.' I'm no dummy: I'm selling. And the more I do to help this community,the more it helps me."
The franchise'sprospects in New Orleans are not as dire as they might appear. After averagingjust 14,735 during their three pre-Katrina years, the Hornets sold out two oftheir six games in their old building this season. Not only will they returnwith a promising young team, but Shinn and other club officials quote financialdata suggesting that poor people left the city after Katrina while those withdisposable income have remained. Stern doesn't want to leave the impressionthat he is abandoning New Orleans, so he has dispatched his top marketers tohelp what had been one of the league's most poorly managed franchises findnational sponsors, making up for an absence of local corporate support."Where we've had success is with national companies that are looking toshow that the rebuilding of New Orleans is something they're engaged in,"says Hornets COO Hugh Weber, who has already signed Capital One and CadburySchweppes to multiyear sponsorships.
Ultimately,however, the Hornets will succeed in New Orleans only if the city recovers.Though it hasn't seemed to be a problem for the Saints, Hornets coach ByronScott worries about how his players will adapt. "The crime rate went up andwe're talking about bringing a bunch of millionaires back here, a bunch of guyswho have never been here," he says. "We've got to know that we're goingto take care of each other, that we're going to watch each other's back. Theyhave to make sure they keep eyes in the back of their head, and that you alwaysknow your environment wherever you're going."
As symbolic anduplifting as it may be for New Orleans to celebrate the homecoming of one ofits most visible businesses, a basketball team can do only so much. "Youhave to hope the powers that be understand that they're playing with people'slives," says forward David West, the only Hornet who was with the teambefore Katrina. "Just because you bring a basketball team back, a footballteam back to the area, that doesn't mean people are all of a sudden going toforget what the real focus has to be, and that's getting people back to thecity and improving the city, and making it a safer and a better place. What weare is just cosmetic."
Then again it'shard to underestimate the healing power of the sweetest music, like KobeBryant's on a night when the Big Easy felt vibrant again.
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Despite being doubled by the Hornets, Bryant dazzled in leading the Lakers totheir fourth straight victory.
Bryant got up close with the Hornets crowd while facing a team that will beback in New Orleans next season.
With the fan base depleted in the aftermath of Katrina, will the 2008 All-Starweekend help the Big Easy's revival?