Both his arms were raised in the air—extended, flexed, and steady. Eleven years ago at Staples Center, this was how the late Kobe Bryant celebrated a game-winning buzzer-beater versus the Sacramento Kings.
It was one of three buzzer-beaters he delivered during an insane stretch from December 2009 to January 1, 2010. In all three of those games, this was his go-to celebratory flex: both arms raised in the air after a knockout blow, Muhammad Ali-like. He pulled the move against the Miami Heat when he miraculously banked in a running 3 over Dwyane Wade. He did it again more than a week later when he beat the Milwaukee Bucks with his patented fadeaway. It was always a fitting ending, watching stone-faced Kobe basking in the glory, on his best “I’ve been here before” face, milking a second of nirvana, before his teammates swarmed him.
Fun trivia: In his 20-year career, Kobe hit a total of eight buzzer-beaters. (Just in case you’re super curious, Michael Jordan holds the record with nine). These shots are exactly the kind of shots that Kobe was born and built to make—the in-rhythm, weight of an entire city on his shoulders, all eyes on him, with everything on the line, nothing-on-the-clock kind of shots.
The buzzer-beater versus the Kings almost didn’t happen, though. With five seconds left in the game, the Lakers were down 108-106 with the Kings’ Ime Udoka, a 79 percent career free throw shooter, staring at two free throws to seal the deal. Rewind further back to the second quarter and the Lakers were down 20 points, looking uninterested and uninvested in the game.
But the Lakers woke up in the second half. They slowly and methodically chipped away at the lead, and in the process, slowly and methodically tore down Sacramento’s soul. There was a strange play early in the third quarter, Kings still up 14, where Lamar Odom brought the ball down (what a sight to see) to the left side of the floor, used a Kobe screen, and cruised into a deserted lane for a dunk—unbothered and unscathed. There was zero communication among all five Kings on the floor, prompting the Kings’ coaching staff to get up from their seats to show their disdain over what just happened. Omri Casspi and Donte Greene—who were guarding Odom and Bryant, respectively—kind of paused and stared at each other for a bit, looking very much like the confused Nick Young meme. Or to be more accurate, they appeared paralyzed by the Lakers’ spell. (Another fun trivia: Seven years later, Greene would play in the PBA as an import for TNT KaTropa. He jacked up 28 shots in 37 minutes in his debut.)
Much like today, early 2010 was a great time to be a Laker. They had won the championship in ’09 and were well on track for a back-to-back. Their starting lineup against the Kings looked like this: Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, and Kobe Bryant. The Kings, on the other hand, were giving 40-plus minutes to guys like Omri Casspi and Spencer Hawes. It wasn’t that bad, but it certainly wasn’t the 2001-2002 Kings either. Which is why the ending to this game was so bizarre.
At the one minute-mark in the fourth quarter, Casspi drained a clutch 3 to give the Kings a two-point lead. (Hawes, meanwhile, had set a new career-high with 30 points.) The Kings had already squandered a huge lead, but at least they’ve managed to hold on to a two-point cushion up to the final five seconds. Those five seconds, as it turned out, was all the time Kobe needed.
Big basketball moments usually unfold in slow motion, as if time itself pauses to make sure we catch everything. Sasha Vujacic inbounded to Gasol, and the Kings’ defense just...evaporated. Kobe found himself open at the 3-point line right in front of the Kings’ bench and Gasol fed him the ball as nature intended. As Kobe pulled up for the 3, several players on Kings’ bench got up, either as a natural reaction or as a form of distraction or as a sign of respect for what they already knew was coming.
Happy New Year! Throwback to when Kobe did this 11 years ago today. pic.twitter.com/Ej77mF2yml— Silver Screen & Roll (@LakersSBN) January 1, 2021
There were no guarantees that Kobe made those kinds of shots (he did hold the NBA record for most missed field goals). Sometimes make, sometimes miss. But there was no doubt that when the weight of an entire city is on his shoulders, all eyes on him, with everything on the line, nothing on the clock, those were the kind of shots that Kobe took. Always.
Add this to the list of countless ways to celebrate the life of Kobe: when given the opportunity, always take the big shot. The result will be 50-50. The flex at the end is optional. The only prerequisite is that, when your number is called, you go for it.
Just like Kobe.