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Basketball was never meant to be played to the thumping, mechanical cadence of hip-hop; the NBA is best suited to the impulsive rhythms of jazz, and that is what Kobe Bryant played to last Friday night in the cradle of jazz, New Orleans. From the troubled drama of Bryant's past has emerged a blissful eloquence that, like Dixieland, is both disciplined and liberating. His jump shot is an elaborate riff that holds an audience rapt: Shoes squeak in panic around Kobe as he gathers his breath, his shoulders swaying to the ball-beat at his fingertips, a distracting glance this way as he bursts there into space, corkscrewing as he rises up and up, his right leg splayed like a clarinetist leaning back in full-blown solo.
"The key," Bryant said afterward, as if reciting a lesson of everyone from Louis Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis, "is to take your time."
In the last of six NBA games to be played in New Orleans this season before the Hornets return full time next fall, Bryant achieved something that hadn't been done in 45 years. Not since the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in Hershey, Pa., had an NBA player scored 50 points or more in four consecutive games, but that's what Bryant did over an eight-day span. What made Bryant's spree all the more exhilarating was how it elevated his team: His Los Angeles Lakers had lost seven straight when he was inspired to take an extended solo. Bryant scored 65 points against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 16, followed by 50 against the Minnesota Timberwolves, followed by 60 against the Memphis Grizzlies, followed 24 hours later by 50 against the Hornets--and his Lakers won every time. The streak ended on Sunday night when Bryant had only 43 points in a victory over the Golden State Warriors, but if the league's scoring leader (31.0 points per game at week's end) is still performing at this ethereal level come the playoffs--he claimed he wasn't tired despite averaging just 157 seconds of rest in the four games--Western Conference contenders won't want anything to do with the Lakers. "It's phenomenal," says L.A. coach Phil Jackson, who used to complain that Bryant's prolific shooting was antithetical to the Lakers' larger goals.
Yet maybe the most promising indication of Bryant's maturity was his recognition of the larger meaning of last Friday's game to the Big Easy. He was proud that he helped draw a crowd of 18,535 (a New Orleans Arena record for a regular-season game) at a time when the city and its nomadic team are starved for good news. "They have a sense of appreciation for the game of basketball because this team was almost taken away from them," Bryant said.
"I've been doing this almost 20 years, and tonight's going to be the highest gross we've had since I've owned the franchise," said Hornets owner George Shinn, whose team has played the balance of its home games in Oklahoma City. "This one game."
The record crowd raises more questions about the Hornets' return next season as well as the NBA's prospects in Louisiana. Since the Civil War no U.S. city has suffered more than New Orleans, whose population of 223,000 is half of what it was before Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. Can the Hornets survive in a city dominated by the Saints, who have a season-ticket waiting list for next year of more than 25,000? And will the NBA's decision to award the 2008 All-Star weekend to New Orleans, as a sign of commitment to the franchise and the city, backfire because of the rising crime rate?
In February, Players Association executive director Billy Hunter threatened legal action to have the All-Star Game moved if New Orleans couldn't provide a safe environment, though after a recent visit he expressed confidence that the event will be a success. But that more optimistic message must make its way to All-Stars such as the Houston Rockets' Tracy McGrady, who said he's thinking about skipping the weekend because of fears about violent crime, which is up 68% in New Orleans since Katrina.
Bryant offers a more sympathetic view. "To show the resilience that the city has, you have to reward it," he says. "I know a lot of players are concerned with safety and security and things like that, but this city will be fine by the time that comes around, I'm sure." The energy in the arena--fans loudly supporting their Hornets, booing controversial fouls that went Bryant's way and cheering his spectacular plays--helped convince him that better days are ahead. "To have the All-Star Game here, I'm telling you, it's going to be absolutely special," he said.
Concerns about All-Star weekend may be overblown. The French Quarter and other tourist destinations near the arena suffered either minimal damage or have been renovated; at Mardi Gras in February the city hosted 800,000 revelers without major incident. "Our police department has over 1,400 officers, and we will certainly have a sufficient number in the area," says Sgt. Joe Narcisse, a spokesman for the New Orleans police.
Other worries about crime smack of racism. All-Star weekend is a powerful draw for many African-Americans, who made up a majority of the estimated 85,000 visitors to Las Vegas for this year's event. Police there reported 403 arrests, which a department spokesman compared with the number of violations on a typical New Year's Eve or Super Bowl weekend. Yet repeated references by residents and tourists to the "element" that had come to Vegas struck many, including Hunter, as racist. "You would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to have reached that interpretation," he says. "The 'element,' or 'those people,' or 'your people'--everybody knows the buzzwords. Black folk are sensitive to all of that."