Christmas Day 2004 was notable for many reasons. We didn't know it yet, but on the 26th, we would be saying goodbye to the most spiritually sound defensive lineman the NFL has ever seen (Reggie White) and Peyton Manning would break Dan Marino's long-standing record for most NFL touchdown passes in a single season. More interesting though, was the 25th, when the NBA finally managed to get people to ignore football for a little while.
For years, the NBA has attempted to make basketball a Christmas tradition. This means that every year, a marquee matchup is put together that should attract even the most disinterested of basketball fans … and every year the matchups fall short of expectations.
2004 was remarkably different, thanks to the drama that's been going on with the Los Angeles Lakers for the past few years. The Lakers were remarkably successful for years, winning three NBA championships with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant playing nice together under the tutelage of coach Phil Jackson. Trouble had been a-brewin' for quite some time, with Kobe growing increasingly intolerant of his role as Robin to Shaq's Batman; Kobe wanted to be "the man," and was willing to sacrifice winning for the privilege. Accordingly, Kobe single-handedly did his best to implode the Lakers, by running both Jackson and Shaq out of town. (The Lakers refused to renew Phil's contract; Shaq wound up getting traded to the Miami Heat.) One might think that Kobe got his fill of negative publicity via his rape trial, but this Kobe is a special kind of selfish.
There was already an undercurrent of bad blood between Shaq and Kobe, but Shaq was at least enough of a team player to put up a front. When Kobe would complain to the media that Shaq came into training camp out of shape, or that Shaq was a ballhog, Shaq, being the ideal teammate, said nothing; while you're on his squad, he'll defend you with his last breath. Kobe, on the other hand, is all about the "me." Something had to give, and it gave big time, resulting in a war of words between the two NBA superstars that kept elevating.
The powers-that-schedule-NBA-games got together and decided to put Shaq versus Kobe, Part One, on national television. On Christmas Day, Americans everywhere would push away that second helping of figgy pudding, click on the television and recapture their love of NBA basketball while watching these two millionaires duke it out on ABC. At least that was the plan. Shaq did his part by saying that if Kobe tried to take the basketball inside on him, it would be like a 'Corvette hitting a brick wall.' (Not a Ferrari, mind you, but a Corvette.) Kobe responded by saying that he would make Shaq his bitch like he was in a Colorado resort. OK, not really, but that would have been the type of WWE hype this game needed to push it over the edge.
If not the hyper-dramatics of wrestling, how about an East Coast/West Coast rap war? There are a multitude of differences between Shaq and Kobe, but a common thread is that they've both released rap albums. How great would it have been to see the two of them go at it 8 Mile-style before the opening tip?
This didn't happen, of course, but the Kobe/Shaq Christmas Day game on ABC was indeed a great contest. I used to love watching Magic Johnson and Larry Bird go at it on the court, but it was somewhat spoiled by the fact that the two of them respected and liked each other when they weren't competing. I don't know that I've ever seen such blatant acrimony as is displayed by Shaq and Kobe, and I like it. When it came time for the opening tip the audience held its breath.
ABC's cameras were all over the court preceding the game, and it looked like there would be drama for your mama. As the players took the court, a few Lakers hugged Shaq and the Los Angeles crowd gave him a huge ovation. Shaq raised his hand in acknowledgement, and gave Kobe a slight tap on the hand as if to say, "I hope you break your leg out there today, you punk." Shaq's first foul on Kobe was a hard but clean one, followed by a wink that said, "I've got that for you all game."
Maybe if the Pacers and Pistons hadn't used up all of the NBA's television penalty minutes, things would have gotten more physical. I can remember my boyhood hero Larry Bird engaging in fisticuffs on more than one occasion during his playing career, but today, players are shackled with suspensions and fines for throwing a punch. I vividly recall a Celtics/Pistons game in which Bird drove baseline and faked Dennis Rodman out of his shoes. Rather than let Bird get to the hoop, Rodman clotheslined him and brought him to the floor. Bird rolled over on top of Rodman and started punching him in the face like Rodman was a Southern wife. The greatest part? Bird didn't even get tossed from the game until he threw a basketball into Rodman's face after the fracas.
That's what the Christmas Day television audience wanted to see, but instead got a fairly and intensely played overtime thriller that saw Shaq foul out with two minutes left in regulation. The Heat rallied when their big man was forced to the bench, and Kobe's true colors started to shine through. He went 1-for-9 in the overtime period, and the game was in his hands with the Lakers down 2. With one second on the clock, Kobe rose up to take a 3-pointer to win the game despite the fact that the Heat's Dwyane (no, that's not a typo) Wade and Eddie Jones were blanketing him. Shaq rose to his feet to watch Kobe's errant jump shot clang off the side of the rim. No, Shaq didn't get to bitch-slap his former mate, but watching Kobe score 40-plus points in a losing effort showed who is the true champion and who is the great pretender.
Kobe Bean Bryant has a lot to learn about being a winner, and learning isn't exactly his strong point. Like Shaq rapped on his first album, "I gets dirty after dark. I'll treat you like Spielberg and get Jur-ass-kicked in the park." Word.