Posted Oct 20 2010 9:47AM - Updated Oct 25 2010 2:07PM
Robert Horry and the moment, referees and the accusations, Vlade Divac and the loose ball, Kobe Bryant and the cheeseburger, fans and the cowbells, Shaquille O'Neal and his mouth, Phil Jackson and his arrogance -- that was merely the buildup.
Lakers-Kings on June 2, 2002 was a game that surpasses all others because, simply, it was everything. A Game 7, in a cauldron of a gym, the defending champions teetering, with not only the Western Conference title on the line but the entire NBA crown at risk because the survivor would be heavy favorites the next round against the Nets. The city of Sacramento was foolishly staking too much of its identity on the outcome. It was everything.
Game 4 was the flashpoint of the series, with Divac batting a potential defensive rebound out to Horry near the top of the arc for the jumper that ripped out the Kings' dripping hearts. Game 6 was The Great Referee Conspiracy that would not reach full trajectory until years later -- Look, there's Tim Donaghy opening an umbrella on the grassy knoll! Either would have been perfect for the time capsule. O'Neal was dropping Sacramento Queens references. Really, someone should have tossed three rings onto the ground, stuffed a bunch of guys with makeup and floppy shoes into a little car and pitched a tent over the whole series.
But Game 7 was the drop-dead moment. Whatever last tidal wave of mania was to come, that would be it. So much hostility had boiled over by then that bragging rights would have been worth more than a parade.
Arco Arena had grown weary and outdated, the exact opposite of the Lakers' new cavernous Staples Center, but intimacy is what made Arco the greatest home-court advantage of the time. The cowbells and the vocal chords and the stomping feet were the perfect accompaniment.
(All the senses were represented in the series, even taste. Bryant had a bacon cheeseburger from room service the night before Game 2 and got sick. He finally called trainer Gary Vitti at about 4 a.m. Said Vitti, in one of the great medical explanations in league history: "He was doubled over like a shrimp.")
The actual game? Overtime. Of course overtime.
The Lakers had already forged a champion's reputation of playing through pressure -- it was almost two years to the day of the incredicomeback against the Trail Blazers in Game 7 of that conference final -- and the Kings still had everything to prove about playing with an internal toughness. So it was in the fourth quarter of the Arco bounce house, with Chris Webber getting a technical for arguing a non-call (a fitting moment for a team that whined like few others in at least the last 25 years) and Peja Stojakovic flinging up some distant resemblance of a shot. It was an air ball, from somewhere deep in his throat, with about 13 seconds remaining in regulation.
Sitting in the press section that had been assembled in the second deck to accommodate a spiking national interest in the series felt like the best place in the world to be heading into overtime, better than courtside. The scene around the stands, the energy that any second would surely blow the hinges off the building, is part of the forever of the day.
Webber hit the first shot of the extra period, a 20-footer, but the Kings went limp from there. Mike Bibby kept them alive with 29 points, only to get little support, and the moment began to slip away from the hosts. Bad shots, bad decisions, brutal trips to the line that by the end had resulted in 14 misses in 30 tries, the difference between a championship and being cemented as little brother.
Lakers 112, Kings 106.
"I thought they tensed up down the stretch when Bibby was taking all the shots and the others were hesitating," Horry said.
"We kept our composure," Bryant noted. "That's why championship experience shows through."
Divac later said the Kings locker room was silent for five minutes, after players somehow managed to drag themselves there.
"They accomplished what they wanted to do, that's all I'll say about them," Webber allowed.
It had been a draining series for both sides, but devastating for only one. The Lakers went on to sweep the Nets and the Kings never recovered. One way or another, though, the day would unavoidably last forever for everyone there.
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