It’s quite a relief. So, we don’t have to go through the whole season with people asking, ‘Well, when is the deal? What’s happening?’ It’s a class organization, so you know there’s no backstabbing, nothing going on. You don’t have to worry about anything like that. You know Jerry’s going to take care of you. He’s going to give you what’s fair. You don’t have to worry about anything too much. I’m very fortunate to be in that situation, really.
No, these weren’t the words of Klay Thompson, who just signed a 4-year extension worth upwards of $70 million on Friday. Instead, these were the words of Kobe Bryant, who like Thompson back in 1999, was looking for a new deal after his rookie contract was coming to a close.
Like Bryant, one of Thompson’s biggest fans – if not the biggest – is Jerry West, a man whose NBA legacy is so great he’s merely known as a logo. It helps having the backing of such a respected NBA mind, but Bryant proved throughout his career that he deserved every ounce of praise bestowed on him from West.
It’s Thompson’s time to prove himself of such high praise, and three seasons into his infant NBA career he’s following in Bryant’s footsteps. It was clear as day on Saturday night, when every level-minded NBA mind in the building saw the changing of the guard that was taking place.
Everyone knew that Thompson was fresh off his extension, and everyone also knew that Bryant is wrapping up what will certainly end up being one of the greatest careers this league will ever see. Oracle Arena is always doused with a band of Lakers fans when they come into town, but with the Black Mamba back they were as rowdy as ever.
Finding a levelheaded Lakers fan is about as easy as finding an A’s fan walking down the Embarcadero nowadays, but they do indeed exist. And what they’ll tell you is that Bryant hasn’t seen a positive season since hoisting up the Larry O’Brien trophy. He’s playing, but only in the very shadow that once was.
The last regular season game Bryant played against the Warriors was April 13, 2013, the same night he tore his Achilles and was seen shedding tears after the contest. His return was doubted only for days, as many forgot who the subject was. Kobe Bryant doesn’t miss games, especially when many think he will. That’s part of the attraction of Bryant: the misconstrued concept of invincibility.
As seen against the Warriors on Saturday night, Bryant, even when turning in his best stretch of basketball since returning from injury: sometimes your best simply isn’t enough. This is rare for the future Hall of Famer, who’s only seen a losing record just once in his career. When has his best not been enough?
A franchise and player so synonymous with winning are now drowning in the puddles of ineptitude. The Golden State Warriors, once seen as a hapless organization with a wretched owner, are the standard for rising success. This is new ground not just for these two organizations, but also for the league as a whole.
This leads to Thompson, who not too long ago couldn’t make a layup, was unwilling to pass to an open teammate and carried an absolutely embarrassing body language. With the help of his father, Mychal, and his own work ethic, he’s improved each season on both ends of the floor. Marked as an elite shooter coming out of college, he’s exceeded all expectations and is now seen as one of the best two-way guards in the league.
To compare Bryant to Thompson at this stage of their careers is foolish, but that’s not to say them battling it out wasn’t fun. In the third quarter, both exchanged basket after basket in a furious run that only two sharpshooters could provide. Both playing every second of the stanza, Bryant ended up with 19 points in the quarter (9/14 shooting) as Thompson finished with 15 points (6/8 shooting) of his own.
It doesn’t take much for Bryant to show emotion on the court, but rarely is he seen as downtrodden as he was with 2:48 left in the quarter. After heaving a contested three with an active Thompson in his face, Bryant trotted back on defense only to have Thompson drill a three in his face. After seeing the ball hit nothing but nylon, Bryant stood beyond the three-point line for a few seconds.
Kobe looked confused, enlightened yet strangely content with what he had seen. Bryant hasn’t been shy about speaking about his playing days or his age, and it showed with the emotion (or lack thereof) after Thompson’s basket with 2:48 left in the third. The Black Mamba suddenly turned mundane, a shell of his once young, up-and-coming self.
The play was much more than another splash.
While Bryant himself turned in an impressive quarter, the days of him being the best player on the court in every city at any given arena is long gone. “Two-guards are easy to find,” some say. Well, tell that to Jerry West, who is now the mastermind behind one of the great two-guards in league history and nearly two decades later, the game’s most promising one.
14/18 shooting, five threes, five rebounds and a career-high 41 points later, Thompson outdueled his childhood idol. From living in his father’s shadow, the shadow of Los Angeles, the Lakers and living with constant criticism, the other Splash Brother is now his own entity.
“It’s tough to stay on top,” Thompson said after the game. “They’ve had their great runs. I think it’s the Warriors’ turn, man.”
It’s his turn now too.