We started with what could only be described as an audacious idea; a crazy idea that only whackos disconnected from reality, out of touch with the space-time continuum, stuck in a world of imaginary fantasy where Rick Barry can exist in the prime of his basketball heyday not just with a singular existence, but a dual existence right alongside his sons: Two prime Rick Barrys, one prime Jon Barry and one prime Brent Barry. But we somehow pulled it off with dynamic storylines mixing 80 years of combined NBA wisdom with caffeine-fueled fantasies to arrive here, at the Final Four of the NBA Fathers & Sons 2-on-2 tournament. If you’ve been following along since the beginning, we hope you’ve enjoyed the ride. If this is your first exposure to greatest 2-on-2 tournament in Naismith history, I’d suggest reading the initial post which laid out the concept that I was never sure we’d see through to the end.
And I’d be doing my cohorts and myself a disservice if I didn’t thank them for their more-than-generous contributions to this project. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know I usually fly solo, a one man parade as James Taylor would say. But with 31 games to cover, it would’ve been like hiking to Mordor by myself with nothing but a staff, a cloak and some corn nuts to get me through. So I solicited the assistance of my trusted friends and colleagues and thoroughly enjoyed the collaborative process of working with Jacob Greenberg from www.TheDissNBA.com (for those who were wondering, Jacob describes his hooping style as an Eric Snow-type of guard who sets sturdy screens and rebounds well for his position) and my old mates Bug and Hamilton (we go all the way back to Monroe-Rice Elementary so if you sense any chemistry, now you know why). But my co-conspirators have lives and careers and child and spouses and pets and partners and Golden State Warriors and seeing how they’d already donated so much of their time, I decided to relinquish them of their vows and finish the tournament on my own. (Logistically speaking, it was also easier to divide three matchups across one writer instead of four.)
I’ve babbled on long enough this Sunday morning. It’s time to stop waxing nostalgic and deliver what I set out to do:
In a matchup of highly-skilled perimeter players, the contrast is one of balance. The Bryants are top-heavy with Kobe being his usual dominant, fearless self and dad Joe acting in various capacities as a catalyst, instigator, button pusher, but most of all: a positive influence. Both Walker and Rose had seasons where they averaged over 20ppg and are the only father/son combination in league history to each score over 10,000 points. Their strength is in their balance, in the capability of each player to score from anywhere on the court or act as a facilitator if the situation demands.
Floating through the Cosmos
Despite the success of both of these #1 seeds, all is not copacetic on the courts of fathers and sons. Walker and Rose have been able to ignore the massive elephant in the room of their relationship: the fact that there is no relationship. Walker was absent during Jalen’s childhood and as much as the younger Rose wants to believe the relationship can come together through chemistry and cohesion on the basketball court, there’s too much that needs to be healed and as the game warms up, so too does Rose’s resentment of the man who failed to be present so many years ago. As for Joe and Kobe, while Joe’s always been a present and supportive father to Kobe, there’s a low level of resentment building here as well. The lack of symmetry between Joe’s career stats and his actual ability has always been a sore spot for the elder Bryant and playing second fiddle to his own son (regardless of Kobe’s worldly talents) has reopened some of the disappointments from Bryant’s lackluster NBA career.
And so the game begins with both father/son duos existing within friction. Jalen retreats into himself, passing up open shots and firing bullet passes to Jimmy who picks up on what his son is really saying with his passive play: You didn’t need me all those years ago, so now when you really need my help, forget it. On the other side of the ball, Joe’s forcing shots, attacking, not necessarily playing outside of himself, but focusing on proving to everyone, and especially himself, that he’s more than capable of carrying the Bryants when it matters.
The game opens with fits and starts. The crowd surrounding the court in bleacher seating is fidgety, picking up on the tension that’s led to a just a couple buckets in the game’s first several possessions. It’s almost as if there are two separate games going on in within the actual contest that everyone showed up for. Icy stares shoot across the court with more purpose than the shots that keep clanking off the rim. Jimmy’s stung by Jalen’s clear discontent, Jalen’s passive aggressiveness is giving him the attention he never received as a kid, Joe’s trying so hard he’s fumbling passes and missing everything. For once it’s not all about Kobe. He’s the only player on the court who’s focused on winning the game and his awareness of the on-court dynamics at play gives him an opportunity to start dictating and feeding Jellybean Joe the ball in places where he can be most successful. Kobe finds Joe on post-ups and pick-and-rolls; his one-on-one game is so great that even in this two-on-two scenario he draws the off-defender’s help and exploits the help to find Joe again and again. The Bryants are up 13-4 when Jimmy walks off the court.
It’s a painful moment for everyone. The refs don’t bother intervening in family business and stand around talking about Joe Bryant’s gold chain and wondering what the correct call would be if the chain somehow affected play. They come up with no conclusions. Kobe and Joe are nodding at each other with the younger Bryant kidding his old man about the forced start. Joe responds with an embarrassed smile, “Your old man can play. Sometimes I gotta remind folks.” “You ain’t gotta remind me. I saw you put up 50 in Italy. I heard em singing those songs about you. I know!” “That’s right…”
Jalen’s drinking Gatorade with a towel draped around his shoulders. He’s not thinking about the game. He’s not thinking about the Bryants. He’s caught somewhere between hanging onto his anger and/or sadness (he’s not sure) and walking across the court to extend a hand out to Jimmy who’s in in the middle of an impassioned conversation with his friend Dave Bing. Bing is directly honest, “You’re his father, Jimmy. His father. It’s on you man. You brought that boy into this world and never even met him before this tournament and now you the one who gets to be pissed off ‘cause he’s upset? You got some nerve, Jimmy.” Jimmy tries in vain to plead his case, to recite the laundry list of excuses for why it never worked with Jalen, but he doesn’t even believe it himself.
By the time Jimmy makes his olive branch-bearing way across the court, Kobe and Joe are chilling on the bench wrapped up in towels and Dri-Fit shirts provided by Kobe’s generous/capitalist sponsor. Kobe made a move to bitch about the delay, but was quickly hushed by his pops who recognizes “there are more than a few things in this world bigger than a damn basketball game, kid. I thought I raised you better than that.” In moments, Rose and Walker are moist-eyed, the pain of a lifetime of knowing a father through second and third hand accounts streaming down Jalen’s cheeks and a half-a-lifetime of guilt slowly lifting off Jimmy’s shoulders. They’re done, they don’t want or need to play in this 2-on-2 tournament anymore, but Bing and Joe Bryant encourage them to finish up even if it’s just for fun. After a few minutes of pushing, Rose and Walker agree.
The game resumes with the crowd and the refs and even the Bryants (to a very, very, very low degree) rooting for Jalen and Jimmy who seem like a couple that was committed to a painful split, but finally agreed on reconciliation and rejoice in the love they share for each other. The feel good story is good enough for a couple buckets and growing senses of hope to roll through the crowd like gentle waves of euphoria, but the Bryants are comfortable being the big bad favorites. They block out the boos, they block out the emotions and play a clean two-man game with Joe owning the inside and Kobe owning everything else. As much as we love to love and see love, love doesn’t conquer all tonight. The Bryants win an easy, if not emotionally taxing, game 21-13.
If there’s anything that this 2-on-2 tournament has revealed, it’s been the uniquely disagreeable disposition of Rick Barry. This arrogant basketball savant with his pro-basketball playing sons rolling out one-by-one like the Barry family was some sort of pro-basketball-player-producing factory with a trash talking patriarch. The Thompsons aren’t much different with Mychal acting as a strong guiding hand in the life of Klay and the Thompsons producing three basketball-playing sons with two going pro. Between the fathers in this matchup, five of their sons played in the NBA.
Mychal Thompson possesses the size and skill to harass Rick into tough, challenging shots, but Rick doesn’t give a damn about any Bahamian big man. Like any hunter, he knows to attack the weakest link in the Thompson family and physically and psychologically, that’s Klay. He tells Brent before the game: “You’re guarding Mike. He’s bigger, he’s strong and he’s gonna kick your ass, but you won’t feel a thing when we’re in the finals. I’m taking that soft ass Klay. He’s weak. Trust me on this and if you end up on him, beat him up.”
The other pre-game speech is also fatherly dominated with Mychal dictating to Klay exactly how the game’s going to go: “It’s the inside-outside, Klay. They can’t guard me and if they try to go one-on-one, I’m scoring buckets all day. If they even they turn their head on you, I’m kicking it out and you know what happens then: Splash!” Klay nods like he’s been doing since he was a little kid and to some outside observers, it seems like he still is a little kid.
The Thompsons start the game the way they’ve done all tournament long: They put their hands together and chant: “1, 2, 3, Thompsons!” Rick snickers and mumbles something about “fucking pussies.” The game is underway.
The Barrys get the ball first and Rick isn’t surprised to see Mychal guarding him. Brent occupies the high post, catches the first pass and hears his dad’s words ringing through his head: “Beat him up.” It’s not in his nature, but he makes a hard turn to face the hoop and his intentionally extended elbow catches Klay square on the jaw. The refs call the foul, but Rick is pleased. The tone is set, but Brent’s already feeling guilty and extends a hand to help Klay up only to find that hand swatted away by Mychal. “Sorry, Klay,” he says.
The first Thompson possession goes pretty similar to how Mychal described it before the game: Klay checks the ball, dumps it inside to Mychal, but the double team never comes. A pissed off and embarrassed Klay calls for the ball and Mychal kicks it back out to him a couple feet behind the line and where he pulls up in Rick’s smug, doubting face. Splash. Thompsons 3, Barrys 0.
The Barrys answer back with Rick easily beating Mychal for the bucket and telling the big man, “Get used to it.”
And so it goes back and forth with elbows flying, hip shots catching cutters, pushing, shoving, illegal screens, trash talk and hurt feelings. Numerous times the players have to be separated and Jon Barry’s incessant heckling of Klay leads to the refs having him removed from the court. As he’s being carried off by security, he’s yelling at Klay: “Make sure daddy gives you a fair cut of the winnings!”
Rick’s plan to attack the weaker Thompson has fueled the younger man who’s scored 11 of the Thompson’s 15 points and has been the best player on the court. With things all even at 15-apiece, Klay dumps the ball into Mychal who has perfect position on the much smaller Brent. A drop-step dunk later and the Thompsons are up 17-15 with the Barrys on the ropes for the first time all tournament. The Barrys run a pick-and-roll and on Rick’s roll, he sets a clear moving screen on both Thompsons, but the refs ignore the foul and Brent sinks an uncontested go-ahead three: 18-17, Barrys. Another Mychal post-up and Rick a jumper put the score at 20-19, Barrys.
Klay checks the ball and works his ass off to get free of Rick who’s deep in his chest and seems to be a step ahead of every Klay cut or attempt to get free. And this is one of the most frustrating aspects of Rick Barry. For all the trash talk and bullying, he plays hard on both sides of the ball and has consistently been one of the best players in this tournament; his play demanding the respect of his opponents. This Final Four match has been no exception and the defense he’s playing on Klay has the kid pushed out to near half court before he can finally catch his dad’s pass. Klay puts the ball on the floor in an effort to create space, but Rick’s long arms are able to reach in and tap the ball away. Klay recovers, but his confidence in his handle is gone. The last thing he wants to do is turn the ball over to lose the game. Instead he passes off to Mychal who’s at the three point line. And the world stops.
Brent’s mind shoots back to research he had done a few weeks before when he saw the bracket and thought: “Hm, I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up playing the Thompsons.” And he went to Mychal’s basketball-reference.com page and saw the elder Thompson shot 1-12 from three for his career. Brent, in a rare show of the gambler’s mentality steps back, arms wide open, staring Mychal directly in the eye: “You ain’t got shit.” Rick laughs, Klay says nothing as he fears Brent is right: Mychal ain’t got shit from out there.
Mychal can’t resist a chance to be the hero and lets it fly despite having not taken a single three all tournament long. It’s a brick that Brent chases down. The Barrys now have the ball and any bucket will seal the deal. They toss a few passes back and forth, feeling the rhythm of the game. Brent takes the ball at the high post and Rick runs off the screen created by Brent’s position. Klay tries to go over Brent, knowing an open Rick jumper will end it all. Mychal, unable to see if Brent’s handing the ball off or keeping it himself, cheats to help Klay, but little does he know Brent’s keeping it. Both Thompsons are chasing the decoy Rick and Brent turns, takes a single step and elevates for the game-winning dunk: 22-19, Barrys. A few halfhearted “fuck yous” are exchanged, but no one’s really too upset about this game. The Thompsons shake their heads and go get some ice cream.
After that, I could use some ice cream as well. Or maybe a beer. I can’t stress how unplanned these outcomes have been. While it’s not surprising that the two best players in the entire father/son tournament (Rick Barry and Kobe) have made it to the finals, the routes these teams have taken and the unexpected twists, turns and modes of attack have been completely improvised and arrived at organically.
The finals will be covered in the next few days and it’ll be a fun battle between a pair of highly-skilled, versatile father/son combos. In a universe where Kobe’s Achilles is still fully intact, we’ll find out if he can do enough to will the Bryants to father/son glory or if the brash Rick Barry can overcome one of the greatest all-around scorers in league history and what roles will Brent and Jellybean Joe play in the game? Check back in a couple days to find out.