I moved to Los Angeles late in the summer of 2001, and I chose to place my basketball fandom in the hand of the Lakers. At the time, the Clippers were perennially terrible, they were owned by a disgusting lizard man, and I felt perfectly comfortable accepting the shouts of “bandwagon!” that would inevitably come my way once I’d hitched my trailer to a team that had just won two straight championships and was marching toward its third. It was during this period that I came to love Shaq and Kobe, came to really appreciate Phil Jackson, and also won money from some moron who thought the Jason Kidd–led New Jersey Nets could win a game against the Laker juggernaut.
I’ve been a consistent Laker supporter since, and Kobe was the constant. Shaq left, Karl Malone and Gary Payton came and went, Pau Gasol came and went, Phil went and came back and went again, and I even got to experience The Immortal Smush Parker, punchline of the stars.
I was at a bar in Hollywood last night, watching Kobe Bryant’s final game, when Smush himself came in wearing a finely tailored grey suit, a tasteful wristwatch, and dark-brown alligator shoes. The only stool open at the bar was next to me. Smush sat down, set his briefcase on the bar, and motioned for the bartender.
“Martini, please. Gin.” He slid an American Express black card across the bar. “And keep ’em coming.” He sighed, and turned toward the television screen.
I took a pull off my lime and soda. I’d been on the wagon for six years, and even a celebratory occasion like Kobe Bryant’s final game wasn’t enough to force me off. But I liked the ambiance of the bar, and the food was good.
Kobe hit a weird, off-balance floater over two defenders. Smush chuckled.
“Man, that one takes me back,” he said. I don’t know that he was talking to anyone in particular. He sucked down his first martini. There was another waiting for him. “I hate that sonuva bitch, but some of the shit he makes is just fuckin’ unreal.” He looked at me. “You ever been to China?”
I told him I hadn’t.
“Well, I just got back from China, on business. Balled over there a bit, too. In China, they love Kobe Bryant. I don’t know what it is. What’s Kobe Bryant got to do with China? But they love him.” He took down half of his second martini. “Look, I made my peace with this a long time ago. Or I thought I did. But I guess… some things you never quite get over.”
“You stay in touch with any of the old NBA guys?” I asked. I wasn’t sure where to take the conversation. I chose not to out myself as a Laker fan.
“Some, yeah. Marbury’s a big star in China now. Big star. Down to earth guy. More humble than you’d expect. We play cards when I’m over there. He owes me, but I’m not lookin’ to collect. It’s all friendly.” The martini in his hand was full again, suddenly.
Kobe missed a 3-point attempt. Smush nodded, and smirked.
“You look like you’re doing pretty well. Why even worry about it?” I asked.
“I’m doing well now. There was a time I wasn’t. I mean, I was in the NBA, so yeah, I was doing all right, but it’s tough going from a place where you’re one of the best to a place where you’re… not.” He swirled his drink around the glass. “Kobe kinda kicked me while I was down. He didn’t need to do that.” He popped an olive in his mouth and took another sip. “There’s never any good reason to be rude.”
Kobe calmly nailed another shot. What I’d assumed would be a shitty game surrounded by a giant, cheesy lovefest was turning into something a lot more fun. Smush brushed some dust from his briefcase, which had clearly cost him a pretty penny. He looked great. But he also looked a little drained, and empty. We didn’t talk much after that. We just watched.
Kobe finished the game with 60 points on 50 shots. It was the perfect Kobe game—a microcosm of his career.
After the game, the bar emptied out. Smush and I stayed and watched the post-game festivities. The sound on the television remained off. As Kobe mouthed his farewell address, Smush turned to me.
“People are going to talk about this for years. There’ll be arguments. People who love Kobe, people who hate Kobe… they’ll each stake out their territory. ‘He scored 60 points!’ ‘It took 50 shots!’ ‘Yeah, but they won!’ ‘The game was meaningless!’ It’ll go back and forth, forever. It’ll give a lot of people a charge.”
Smush drained his final martini of the night. He’d had more than a few, but he looked stone cold sober to me.
“But me?” he said. “I hope I never have to hear about it again.” He took his briefcase off the bar and left.
I stuck around and read the subtitles on the screen. “Mamba out,” Kobe said. I motioned to the bartender, and almost ordered a gin martini. Instead, I just closed out my tab.