That name alone is enough to ignite pride or pain, love or hate, and nostalgia or regret; it simply depends on whose side you were on every night. Casual fans know of Kobe’s 81-point game and some of his other incredible feats on the basketball court, but numbers don’t paint the whole picture. Numbers truly are secondary.
I grew up in a Lakers’ household. My father split his head open on a glass coffee table out of frustration when the team’s 33-game win streak was snapped in ‘72. When Kareem retired, we knew it was the end of something special, and when Magic had to retire for the first time, we were absolutely devastated. Later, I would write an essay in college comparing my relationship with my dad to public enemy number one, Larry Bird. Maybe we took things a little too seriously, but we lived and died daily based on the ups and downs of our sports loyalties.
I was fourteen when the Lakers traded for Kobe Bean Bryant after the ’96 draft. Kobe himself was only seventeen. Here was a kid just a little older than me heading to the NBA. Magic was gone, the team was still just hopeful of signing free agent Shaquille O’Neal, and it seemed as though the franchise was pinning a lot on this skinny kid from the Philadelphia area. At that young age, even I knew it would take time before the Lakers were great again. It just didn’t take as long as I thought it might.
Shaq was certainly the catalyst for making the Lakers franchise relevant again, but he was also unable to win a title in Orlando with Penny Hardaway and a solid supporting cast. Two factors took the Lakers from relevant to championship caliber. Phil Jackson’s arrival in Los Angeles was the first step in that direction; his experience and demeanor were hugely significant. Secondly, and certainly helped by Phil’s arrival, was the maturation of Kobe Bryant’s game. Kobe now had the physical tools and mentality to put it all together and become a cold-blooded assassin.
If you really look at what happened during those championship seasons, Kobe was leading the team at times when Shaq was injured and out of shape. O’Neal was certainly an unstoppable force over the course of the season and come the Finals (the East had no one who could check him whatsoever), but if you re-watch some of those Western Conference series’, Kobe ripped up the Spurs and tore apart the Kings with ease it seemed. I was witnessing greatness every game.
Yes, there were some down years for the Lakers as a whole, but he continued to show up every night and make the games worth watching. From point streaks to monster totals, he was still the league’s hottest ticket when he came to town; fans wanted to see what he would do next. Eventually, his back-to-back titles that came years after Shaq’s departure certainly helped him cement his status as a player with a drive unlike anyone else in the game—all the while, his unbelievable moments in the background for milestones and moments in my own life.
Watching his final game brought back the wave of all the great Lakers’ memories I had stored up over the years. As he chucked up brick after brick early on, I still felt like the basketball-loving teenager I was when he first entered the league. And when it came down to crunch time, I wasn’t surprised to see him elevate his game in the clutch moments. The final few minutes of the game were like jumping in a time machine and re-living a moment I missed dearly. Regardless of shots, regardless of points, Kobe willed his team to a win, playing his heart out even in a meaningless game. For me. For you. For all of us.
Many will now want to argue where Bryant’s place is in the basketball pantheon. Where does he rank in the overall hierarchy of the sport he gave everything to? Is he a top ten player? Will he ever be considered a top five player of all time? It doesn’t matter.
I was lucky enough to spend the past twenty years of my life watching one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Was he Jordan? No, he didn’t need to be Jordan to leave an indelible mark on the game. Was he Magic? No, he didn’t need to be Magic to get his own rings. He simply needed to be himself. It isn’t about the numbers, however; it’s about how he made you feel.
Kobe. I’ve said enough.
Written By: Greg – Twitter – @TheFFHype & @thehype on the FL App
Kobe’s final speech to fans on April 13th, 2016