Hooray for Kobe v Spurs - the playoffs' saving grace

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 May, 2004, 12:00am

The honchos at the NBA dialled up room service in a desperate fit recently. 'Hi, this is the NBA in the penthouse suite. We'd like to order all four conference semi-finals knotted at two games apiece with a side dish of suspense, please.'

Well, this being the deep-pocketed NBA, it was little surprise when room service promptly arrived exactly as ordered. All four conference semis were knotted at two this past week, meaning more playoff games, which mean more money.

Yeah, the NBA is living right these days which is kind of ironic because only a couple of weeks ago the league was reeling. An indecipherable first-round playoff schedule was stretched out to what seemed like a week between games. It got so absurd that second-round match-ups started before some first rounds ended and by the time the league champs finish their victory parade, the limos will drop the players off at training camp for next season.

The NBA never leaves our sight, it's a 365-days-a-year league. But what this total basketball theory did was confuse viewers. Nobody knew the schedule, how could they? Fortunately, NBA commissioner David Stern promised this week that the playoffs in 2005 would be more condensed and viewer friendly.

Still, fixing the schedule was easy. The real problem was that the first-round series were absolutely painful to watch, particularly in the woeful Eastern Conference. The NBA became must-not-see TV. They needed a spark, a saviour. The spark came in the form of a second-round match-up between the Los Angeles Lakers and defending champions the San Antonio Spurs. And the saviour came in a private jet from a courtroom in Colorado.

There is still some, albeit limited, appeal in the other three series. The Detroit Pistons playing the New Jersey Nets is like watching one of the many piledrivers around town smashing a hole in the rock-hewn earth.

The Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat have become interesting because the Heat, led by rookie Dwayne Wade, have emerged as one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA. And the Minnesota Timberwolves' match-up against the Sacramento Kings not only features MVP Kevin Garnett but could actually produce this year's champs.

But while the outcome of all three of those series is still very much in doubt, nothing touches the Lakers playing the Spurs. And nothing, not in all my years of watching sports, touches Kobe Bryant.

The contrast between San Antonio and Los Angeles both on and off the court could not be greater. LA are, well, surreal on their best days. The only thing the vapid showbiz wannabes who go to Laker games like to look at more than their favourite team is a mirror. They are not basketball fans, they are Laker fans.

Jack Nicholson, who took his meagre movie earnings when he was on the periphery of fame some 35 years ago and invested them in Lakers season tickets, is a notable exception.

The Lakers are a star-studded, dysfunctional group. They get more ink than the war in Iraq and they play like a team only when they absolutely have to.

Way down in San Antonio, there is nothing hip about the crowd or the team. No budding rap stars on this squad whose starting lineup features a centre from the Virgin Islands, a point guard from France, another guard from Argentina and a small forward from Turkey.

All four even seem to get along which is in contrast to the Lakers' so called Fab Four of Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Of course, this is more Hollywood hype. Payton is old and has not been an elite player for the last four years. Malone is even older and Shaq, while largely unstoppable, often fights prolonged periods of boredom and injury.

The only thing fab about this group is Kobe. He is the most compelling athlete in the world right now. His legal travails have been well documented.

On the morning of Game Four in Los Angeles, he was in a Colorado courtroom pleading not guilty to a charge of rape. In the evening he scored 42 points in ways that Michael Jordan could only dream of. Seriously. He was, and is, that good.

At 25 he is the best basketball player in the world and already among the top five of all time. We are watching a virtuoso in his prime, enjoy it.

Some people are clearly enjoying it too much, though. One fan held up a sign during Game Four that read: 'From Court-2-Court, Kobe rocks.'

If you had to pass an IQ test to attend a Lakers game, the arena would be empty. But empty arenas are hardly the norm during these suddenly energised playoffs and after the Lakers and Spurs staged an unbelievable ending to Game Five in San Antonio, the hype machine is in overdrive. But it's true. The Spurs and Lakers are must-see TV. Kobe Bryant is must-see TV. And the NBA, for a series or two at least, is also must-see TV.