The kid has us in his clutches now, an entire city locked in his long arms, tucked below that sheepish grin, soaring toward that shiny basket at the far reaches of the imagination.
Kobe Bryant is flying, and Los Angeles is flying with him, our best ride in more than a decade, one final thrust before an NBA title and Los Angeles’ first professional championship since 1988.
Kobe floats, but we’re the ones who are breathless. Kobe spins, but we’re the ones who can’t look.
Kobe winced atop a badly sprained ankle Wednesday to carry the Lakers to a 120-118 overtime victory Wednesday over the Indiana Pacers in Game 4 of the NBA finals.
He gnashed for 22 points in the second half and overtime to help the Lakers overcome what had once been a 10-point Pacer lead.
He clenched for six points and a blocked shot in the final 2:33, which becomes a slightly bigger deal when one realizes that Shaquille O’Neal had fouled out and Kobe was the Lakers’ last and only hope.
But today it is the Pacers who are sore. It is the Pacers who are limping.
It is the Pacers, trailing three games to one with Game 5 on Friday here, who are now playing doctor.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with that man’s ankle,” Sam Perkins said. “I’ve been trying to tell you that.”
Or is that, there ain’t nothing wrong with what’s underneath Kobe shirt?
Because that’s what 18,345 at Conseco Fieldhouse saw when it mattered most Wednesday. Not Kobe’s ankle, but his heart, barely beating through the first half, then pounding loud enough to drown out the deafening cheers of desperation.
“This is the game I’ve been dreaming about, to be honest with you,” he said, his 21-year-old grin unchanged from when he was out there knocking down memory-makers. “I dream about it every day.”
Now those dreams will be forever part of our dreams.
Dreams about how, at the start of the third quarter, he fouled Reggie Miller because he tried to defend with his body to protect his ankle.
Dreams about how you could see him frown, shake his head, rub his hands.
Dreams about how he then took over.
He blocked Mark Jackson’s shot. He hit a fallaway jumper. Then a double-pumping jumper. Then grabbed a rebound and hit a fallaway hook.
Six consecutive points put the Lakers back in the game, and suddenly, everyone knew.
“He was taking his game to a different level, taking us to a different level,” Derek Fisher said.
“He was taking us to the brink.”
Not to mention, taking it in stride.
“I paced myself,” he said, shrugging.
Wasn’t that a Michael Jordan shrug?
“You just wait for key moments of the game to attack,” he added. “First half? This game wasn’t going to be won in the first half. But the third quarter, it needed a little push, so I pushed.”
Didn’t Michael Jordan used to talk about little pushes?
It has been the goal of many in our town to avoid using the MJ-word in relation to Kobe until he has come a little closer to earning it. Like, maybe, two or three championships closer.
But with each step toward his first title, that task becomes increasingly difficult.
Not just in this space, but even in the spaces occupied by those around him.
“I think about Kobe and his progress from the time I can remember in Utah when he shot them out of the game,” Perkins said. “Now he’s a different individual. He’s a competitor just like Michael.
And this from a nearby locker:
“I was watching what he did tonight and I was thinking about those old NBA classic films, Magic and Kareem and others just taking over games in the finals,” Fisher said. “Tonight, he took a chapter right out of their book.”
Not to mention, put a lump in throats from Camarillo to San Clemente.
So he put them back in the game in the third quarter, right? We described that, right?
It’s hard to write this stuff with eyes still wide and mouth still open.
Anyway, so the Lakers hang on until the final two minutes, and trail by one and. . . .
Of course. Kobe hit a running jump to give them a 102-101 lead.
Then the Pacers’ Travis Best acted like the Kobe Bryant of four years ago and threw up an airball and the game went into overtime.
And after Robert Horry connected on a jumper and dunk to give the Lakers an overtime lead, and after Rik Smits hit a hook shot to close the gap, and back and forth it went, then Shaq fouled out with the Lakers leading by one with 2:33 left. . . .
Well, then, everybody else essentially also left.
Squatters, all of them.
This game, at that point, belonged to Kobe. And everyone knew it.
“It was like, do not give the ball to anyone else,” John Salley said. “It was like, if anybody else shoots, call timeout and send them to the locker room.”
In Kobe’s mind, it was the same way. It is those thoughts, and what a man is able to do with them, that raises him from good to great.
“When things get thick, you look up at the fans, and everybody is waving towels, and it’s like a crescendo, you lose yourself in the moment,” he said.
“You don’t feel pressure. You are consumed by the game. It doesn’t matter what the score is, it’s just buried in the moment.”
One moment, maybe, but memories that will last for years.
Kobe hit a jumper over Miller. Kobe hit a jumper over Mark Jackson.
Then, with 28.1 seconds remaining and the the Lakers leading by one, Kobe took us for the final breathtaking spin.
Grabbed a missed shot by Brian Shaw and banked it in over his head.
“Kobe smelled it, and he lifted us,” Coach Phil Jackson said.
Smells to us like a championship.
Smells to him like, what, bubble gum?
“This was fun,” Kobe said, and there was that smile again.
“Thank God I’m 21,” he said.
Took the words right out of a city’s mouth.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.