Sasha Vujacic remembers the heartbreak and jubilation of Kobe Bryant. As a member of both Los Angeles Lakers teams that battled the Boston Celtics in the 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals, he shared in the disappointment when Bryant was crushed by the Game 6 loss the first time around and celebrated when the team took back the title two years later.
For all the boos and “Beat L-A” chants directed at Bryant over the years at TD Garden, Vujacic believes the Celtics fans will deliver a positive reaction when he plays his last game in Boston on Wednesday.
“For what he did for the game of basketball and for the sake of the rivalry, I’m hoping the Boston crowd will recognize that and give him the biggest standing ovation,” Vujacic told Basketball Insiders. “I think he deserves it and that would be really good to see.”
Bryant announced he is retiring after this season, his 20th in the NBA. At 37 years old, he is averaging 17.3 points off a career-low 34.3 percent from the field. He is no longer the MVP force that dominated the league, but he is still an iconic figure in the heated history between the Celtics and Lakers.
Vujacic recalls Bryant’s angst when the Celtics won the championship in 2008, the first season of the “New Big Three Era.” Fueled by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, the deep team overcame a 24-point deficit in Game 4 at the Staples Center to take a 3-1 series lead. After the Lakers won Game 5 at home, the Celtics returned to Boston, where they clinched the title with a 131-92 victory.
“We were devastated, we were crushed,” said Vujacic, now a member of the New York Knicks, inside the visitors locker room at TD Garden. “We were just hopeless at the end of the game. I remember in this locker room, it was something very black, just quiet and dark room where there was no light (figuratively) because our minds went completely somewhere else after Game 6. After we got out of here, the light came back on and we tied it, two years waiting for payback.”
Garnett suffered a knee injury the following season and the Celtics were eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Lakers reached the Finals once again, where they beat the Orlando Magic, 4-1.
The following year, the two teams met once again on the main stage. This time, it was the Lakers who came out on top. The Celtics lost Kendrick Perkins to injuries in Game 6, and the Lakers clinched the 2010 title at home with a four-point win in Game 7. Bryant was named Finals MVP.
“It was a big rivalry and we were going for something bigger than just the game or a series,” said Vujacic. “We kind of tied it 1-1 and that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
There are no remaining Celtics from either NBA Finals team on this season’s roster. Most of the players were in high school when Bryant battled in Boston. Even though the faces are different, Vujacic expects him to go just as hard against the current players.
“Kobe is one of very few players who whenever he steps out on the court, he always gives 110 percent,” he said. “He will always give whatever he has and even more. He loves the game of basketball, he loves the fans, he loves the competition so I think he will compete really hard.”
For years, Celtics fans bombarded Bryant with jeers each time he took on the floor. This time around, though – the last time around – Vujacic believes the reaction should be different.
“Honestly, whatever they do he’s going to kick some [butt],” he said. “I think for the sake of what he did for the past, present and future, I think it would be nice to see a good standing ovation.”
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