I'm not going to lie. It hasn't been easy to be a Los Angeles Laker fan for the past few years. After defeating the hated Boston Celtics in seven games back in 2010, life has been difficult for the Forum Blue and Gold. The death of team owner Dr. Jerry Buss; the David Stern-vetoed trade for Chris Paul; the disastrous moves that were the trades for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard; the subsequent departures of Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and Pau Gasol, the coaches that followed Phil Jackson; all of these served to punch the collective guts of this once-proud franchise.
Yet through all of those things, for two decades, there was one constant thing in Lakerland. A 6'6 shooting guard from Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania. A cold-blooded killer who insane devotion to practice and getting the most out of his body drove some teammates crazy while earning him five NBA championships and two Olympic gold medals. As Kobe Bryant's legendary career neared its end today, I couldn't help but reminisce about what he has done for 20 years wearing a Laker jersey. He could be frustrating, tantalizingly talented, enigmatic, positively infuriating, and (as he showed with a 60 point throwback performance in his final game) must-see TV at his purest.
The kid from Lower Merion
I remember the first time I saw Kobe Bryant on TV. The internet was in its infancy and I think I was watching ESPN SportsCenter when this skinny bald kid announced that he was signing a shoe deal with adidas. This was no “Black Mamba,” he was just a kid skipping college, as Kevin Garnett had just done and LeBron James would do a few years later. Kobe was supposed to be this high school sensation whose dad was an NBA player and former teammate of Julius Erving on the 76ers team that went to the 1977 Finals, but other than that, I didn't know much about the kid.
I then heard that he was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets with the 13th pick in the 1996 but that Jerry West and the Lakers had traded away Vlade Divac to get him. I still didn't know the kid, but he was now joining MY team, the team that had not won a championship since 1988 and had not been to the Finals since 1991. Joining forces with Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones, then adding another masterful West signee in Shaquille O'Neal, the Lakers were suddenly contenders again. But I still thought that the kid would probably be a good back-up to Jones, not much more.
Showtime part two
By February of 1997, there had been buzz surrounding Kobe as “the Lake Show” began taking the league by storm. He cemented his place as someone to watch out for when he won the NBA Slam Dunk contest in purple adidas EQT Elevations while wearing a shooting shirt. That's just how skinny he was. I then saw the airballs he shot in the playoffs against the Utah Jazz. I witnessed the steely resolve in his eyes even after the Lakers were eliminated. Still, I wondered if he was good enough to start for the Lakers.
When Phil Jackson became Los Angeles head coach before the start of the 1999-2000 season, Kobe had become entrenched as the starter as Jones had been traded for Glen Rice. The master of the triangle offense was brought in to bring order (and championships) to the Lakers's new home, the Staples Center. In just his first season in charge, Jackson did exactly that, and harnessed the duo of Shaq and Kobe to become one of the most feared and most effective pairings in the history of the NBA.
Threepeat and dissolution
This tandem would win a total of three straight titles together, and they could have had a fourth if Karl Malone had not been injured before the 2004 Finals against the Detroit Pistons. By then, the in-fighting had been public knowledge and it was becoming clear that Buss would have to choose between the massive O'Neal or the sleek Bryant. The Colorado incident didn't help matters as far as their relationship went or his public image as a selfish, petulant player. The trading of O'Neal to the Miami Heat and Jackson's first departure from L.A. meant that Kobe had won the war. He would no longer be reined in by his coach or have to share the ball with his talented but overweight teammate.
What followed was Kobe on a mission: to prove that he was the best player in the league, that Buss made the right choice, and that he could will the Lakers to another title even if he had to carry the franchise on his back. The 81-point game was sensational, of course, but the years between 2004 and 2007 were difficult for someone who was nearing his athletic peak. Kobe was destroying all defenses thrown his way, but the Lakers were not winning titles anymore. He was getting frustrated with the team, with management and his teammates, and he was supposedly willing to be traded to the Bulls.
Two more trophies
However, GM Mitch Kupchak and a returning Jackson convinced him to stay. The trade for Pau Gasol meant a talented big man was once again joining Bryant, and to everyone's surprise, they got along almost instantly. His only MVP trophy in 2008 was negated by a Finals loss to the archrival Celtics, but these new Lakers (with Kobe in charge) were not going to go away any time soon. Soon enough, Kobe snagged his fourth title the following season against Orlando for his fourth championship ring. In 2010, a much-awaited rematch against Boston resulted in an epic seven-game war that was the most grueling but also most satisfying yet as Kobe won “one for the thumb.”
Cracks began to show in the Lakers' armor after that even as Kupchak tried to once again rebuild around Bryant. An attempted trade for Chris Paul was mysteriously voted down by then-NBA Commissioner David Stern for the ridiculous answer of “basketball reasons,” effectively sabotaging the Lakers' immediate future. Nash and Howard were eventually brought to Staples, but Nash was a shadow of his former self while Howard proved to be an overrated, lazy, unmotivated waste of height who chafed under Bryant.
Injured mamba and rock bottom
In spite of all these, Kobe was still pushing himself to his physical limit. With Mike D'Antoni as head coach, there were games when he would hardly spend time on the bench because Bryant felt that he needed to drag this squad to the playoffs. It all came to a head when his right Achilles tendon finally gave out in April 2013, the first major injury of his stellar career. Even though he tried to will himself back into competitive shape for the next few seasons, his body had begun to break down as it never had before. Meanwhile, the Lakers began to miss the playoffs on a regular basis, something unthinkable to scores of basketball fans.
It was November of 2015 when Bryant told current Lakers coach Byron Scott that this current NBA season would indeed be his final one. News soon spread, and in a move not seen since Michael Jordan himself retired, every NBA city that the Lakers played in began to show Bryant something that he had never been given in 20 years: love.
The unofficial Kobe Bryant farewell tour had been mostly a forgettable exercise for the Lakers. Even though they drafted D'Angelo Russell with the number two overall pick in last year's draft, no prized free agent came to LA and Byron Scott seemed overwhelmed with a largely untalented and young roster. There were few highlights to speak of and just when we thought things couldn't get worse, Russell was embroiled in controversy for filming teammate Nick Young who was admitting cheating on fiancee Iggy Azalea.
One final magical moment
What this final Kobe game against the Utah Jazz meant to the Lakers and the city of Los Angeles was more than a chance to say goodbye to its franchise player for 20 years. While it meant bidding a fond farewell to one of the most transcendent, popular, polarizing, and gifted players in league history, it also served as a reminder that when this franchise is great and the world is watching, it is something special to behold.
Kobe delivered a one-of-a-kind 60 point performance with over 500 media people in attendance, a jampacked Staples Center, and a plethora of former Lakers and celebrities paying him tribute both in the venue and on video. By the end of the 101-96 Los Angeles win, he looked like he could barely walk, let alone run or jump anymore. He had, as he had done so many times in the past, willed himself and his team to victory.
Bryant relished the role of the villain whenever he and his team would enter opposing NBA buildings. He would glare at fans, gnash his teeth, flash five fingers, or simply throw daggers into their collective hearts. He was loathed by critics who said he was selfish, never going to be “the next Jordan,” or just plain bad for the game. Yet for us who began to watch the kid in 1996 and see him evolve and grow up over the course of two decades, we loved him, warts and all. It was all those qualities that made us love him, it made us defend him in social media and in arguments with our peers. We rallied around Kobe because, unlike Jordan, he was hated so much by so many for being so driven to be the best in his craft.
I bought and played in iterations of Kobe's signature shoes than I did of any other player before him. I have more of his jerseys than any other, even more than Jordan's jerseys. So when the curtain finally fell on his career yesterday, with a pass to Jordan Clarkson of all things, it tugged at my heartstrings. After Clarkson converted on the dunk and Julius Randle, Russell, and Clarkson all hugged Kobe collectively, it was like a father embracing his kids. The kid was indeed “The Man” now, and the next generation of Lakers would have to carry the torch as he did for so long.
Amid the many tributes from competitors, teammates, people who he battled, and celebrities who were enthralled by his talents since he landed in Los Angeles, that performance was really the only way that Kobe should have gone out. He left the game gunning, and nobody, NOBODY, can argue that the Lakers didn't need every single point to win over the Jazz. This was not as great as the five championship celebrations, this team did not even come close to the playoffs, but Kobe gave the city of Los Angeles and Laker fans worldwide one final gift to remember him by. Mamba out, indeed.
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