As Kobe prepares for the final game of his twentieth year career, we remember the superstar at eighteen, fresh out of high school, waiting for his name to be announced by then commissioner, David Stern. Picked by the Charlotte Hornets and later traded to the Los Angeles, young Bryant would make a name for himself and earn the respect of former players and players to come. Whether it was hitting a fade away three point buzzer beater over Dwayne Wade, or throwing a lob to Shaq in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, Kobe Bryant has left us with interminable memories; etched in our minds forever.
In six months, Bryant went from being a high school phenom to an NBA rookie. It would be an adjustment for the rookie playing around twenty games in the high school regular season to playing 71 arduous games as a rookie. Bryant averaged only 7.6 points per game during the regular season but was hampered by lack of playing time. Every year after that, Kobe’s minutes went up incessantly but during the 1998-99 season “Frobe” Bryant had finally locked down the starting shooting guard position. The following year he won his first NBA title alongside Shaquille O’Neal, the most dominant big man the game has ever seen. Kobe’s impressive offensive capabilities alongside Shaq’s overpowering low post presence, the two were unstoppable, and they went on to win two more championships in 2001 and 2002.
After Shaq left for Miami there seemed to be a production lull in Los Angeles never making it passed the first round of the playoffs until 2008. During that six year span, Kobe came into his own and took on the challenge of being the team leader adopting certain techniques from Michael Jordan. At the time it seemed to be working, the Lakers were winning. In an interview with Ahmad Rashad, Bryant spoke on leadership, “If you’re going to be a leader, you’re not going to please everybody.” “You want them to be the best versions of them themselves a leader has to drive for that.”
Perhaps Kobe’s most memorable and iconic performance was Kobe’s 81 performance against the Toronto Raptors in 2006. In that game the Los Angeles Lakers won 122-104. Amazing isn’t it? Kobe scored more than half of his team’s points. The second leading scorer that game was Smush Parker, who only scored 13 points. After the impressive showing, Kobe still remains second, behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points, in single game scoring leaders. In an interview with ESPN Kobe says, “I really didn’t know what happened until I walked off the court and heard the number.”
In another interview Bryant talked to Arash Markazi of ESPN reflecting on the 81 point game, “I should have had 90 points or more. I missed two free throws after making 62 straight. I had some really open looks that I missed. I think 100 is possible. I absolutely do. If I hadn’t sat out those six minutes in the first half, maybe I would’ve had it.” Shows what a fierce competitor Kobe is.
Since Bryant’s retirement announcement, the NBA has acknowledged the moment. Kobe’s most memorable games have aired on NBAtv and after every game, he receives a standing ovation regardless of the arena. Players aren’t bashful about sharing their favorite Kobe Bryant moment, whether it was playing against them or watching as fans.
It’s another side of Kobe that we’ve never really gotten a chance to see, or softer more embracing side, similar to Michael Jordan’s final seasons. There’s no doubt that Kobe’s fiery competiveness still burns within him but, he seems more at peace, friendly even. Professional athletes, not just basketball players, have paid their respects to the Black Mamba. According to ESPN, Bryant finds himself bringing extra sneakers because players are requesting an autograph pair. Popular athletes like Paul George, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, even Arizona Cardinals wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald received a pair of autographed sneakers. When asked what the requirements were for an autograph during a postgame interview, Kobe answered, “generally guys that got the cojones to ask, I give it to them. I’ve got plenty of them back there, so I’m not going to run out, so it’s all good.”
It’s crazy to think that come next fall, after twenty seasons, the number 24 jersey for the Los Angeles Laker will not be on the floor… for good. There is no doubt that the league will miss him greatly and there is no doubt that he too will miss the game. But the star can leave in peace knowing that the game he’s leaving in good and talented hands.