Remembering Lakers Legend Kobe Bryant; On and Off the Court
It’s been a wild eight months. An eight months that saw a pandemic completely shut down the world, eight months where civil rights and equality are at the forefront of society’s priority, and it’s been almost eight months since Kobe Bryant passed away.
It’s still hard to believe. As the NBA playoffs move forward, we take a look at the Black Mamba’s career, after all the postseason was almost always a personal showcase for Bryant’s greatest performances.
Bryant, by all basketball accounts, was the one of the greatest ever to lace em’ up. Bryant was the living personification of hard work, a superstar, and a franchise cornerstone.
Coming into the NBA as a 17-year old, he was the first guard to be drafted straight out of high school in 1996. Bryant even had his parents co-sign his first NBA contract, as he was too young legally to sign on his own consent.
For the first couple years of his career, Bryant didn’t get much playing time. Bryant was always bitter about this reality, as he revealed on Showtime’s All The Smoke Podcast. Still, Bryant established himself in his second season making the NBA All-Star team as a bench player.
The Shaq and Kobe Era
Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers would experience major success in the new millennium. The Lakers would go on to win three championships in a row, completing the infamous and rare ‘three-peat.’
The duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant was unstoppable from 1999 to 2002, and the pair would go down as both one of the greatest duos to ever play on the same team.
All the success wouldn’t come without conflict, with O’Neal and Bryant feuding towards the end of the Lakers’ reign at the top of the NBA. That culminated in O’Neal requesting a trade out of LA. In recent years, both Bryant and O’Neal have pondered the possibility of them staying together in LA and possibly winning more titles.
That ‘what-if’ is one of the greatest questions that will never be answered in NBA history.
Off-Court Troubles and the birth of the Mamba Mentality
The peak of Bryant’s success did come with controversy off the court. Bryant was facing allegations of sexual assault and was arrested by authorities. The case was settled in civil court but remains a part of Bryant’s legacy.
The sexual assault case caused a rift in his marriage, as Ramona Shelburne reported in her 2016 article Mamba Out. As detailed in Mamba Out, Bryant recalled going to play game the day after Vanessa kicked him out of the house. He remembered having a hard time focusing on the task at hand, and he had a terrible first half. The Lakers were down after two quarters. Bryant had one point to his scoresheet, and rival Tracy McGrady had 21-points.
Bryant responded in vintage fashion, scoring 24 points in the fourth quarter and sealing a Lakers’ victory in overtime.
Bryant recalled the game, telling Shelburne that as he was sitting in the locker room and Bryant made a decision for himself. “That’s where I made the decision, fuck it. I can’t control that other stuff. But I’m going to take these motherfuckers out,” said Bryant in Mamba Out.
And that decision, to control his destiny on the basketball court, was Bryant’s modus operandi throughout his career. He took that approach further, applying his dedication to basketball into all aspects of his life.
Ramona Shelburne also reported in Mamba Out that Bryant learned how to play piano by-ear. He listened to the Moonlight Sonata in order to learn how to play piano. He played it for his wife Vanessa to show his love and devotion to her and their then six-month old child.
#8 to #24 – An 81-point game, Championships, and an Achilles
Bryant’s statistical prime was in the years after Shaquille O’Neal departed LA. Multiple 40-point performances, 60-point performances, and one legendary 81-point night against the Toronto Raptors.
Still the Lakers struggled to compete. The Lakers missed the playoffs the year after O’Neal’s departure.
The Lakers would be in and out of playoff contention in the subsequent years. They became championship contenders once again when the Lakers acquired the Spanish-sensation Pau Gasol in 2008.
That marked a renaissance in Bryant’s career. Bryant would win his first regular-season MVP award that year and lead the Lakers to 2008 NBA Finals. They eventually lost to the Boston Celtics in six games.
Bryant came for revenge the following two seasons. The Lakers would secure back-to back championships from 2008-10, with Bryant winning finals MVP in both series.’ Bryant’s fifth championship would be his last appearance in the NBA Finals.
The Lakers would never make it back to the pinnacle of basketball in the remainder of Bryant’s career due to unexpected eliminations.
The eventual champion Dallas Mavericks knocked the Lakers out in a round two sweep back in 2011. A young Oklahoma City Thunder squad featuring three future MVPs in 2012 defeated the Lakers in five games. And in 2013 the San Antonio Spurs beat the Lakers in a first-round sweep.
Bryant would also experience the most injury-riddled portion of his career. Like watching a hero’s journey, Bryant was willing his team to another playoff appearance while playing the best basketball of his career.
Bryant tore his Achilles tendon late in the fourth quarter of a must win-game against the Golden State Warriors.
Most human beings would wince at the pain, even cry. Most people would call for a stretcher to help them off the court. Not Kobe. Kobe willed himself to the free-throw line, nailing two clutch free-throws to tie the game.
Bryant’s eyes were watery, suggesting the frustration the Lakers guard must have felt. He calmly dribbled the ball three times, brought the ball up with his two arms, and nailed the first free-throw. Completing the same routine once again, the game was tied. The Lakers went on to win the game and secure a playoff berth.
After giving maximum effort to the game he loved, his body began to break down. As Bryant limped off the floor, it would be the last time the NBA saw a prime Kobe Bryant.
The Ultimate Basketball Finale and Kobe’s Impact
While Bryant had trouble staying healthy in the twilight years of his career, he punctuated his NBA career with a historic performance. Bryant’s last game was poetically at Staples Centre Arena in Los Angeles.
In a game against the Utah Jazz, Bryant scorched the opposition for 60 points. The game was a close one. Bryant, one last time, gave everything he had for the sport that gave him so much. The crowd roared emphatically after all of Bryant’s 22-made baskets. The Lakers ended up winning the game, 101-96.
And that was it. The final game of a historic career. Recognized as the consensus second-best shooting guard of all-time, only behind Bryant’s idol Michael Jordan. Bryant left an impact on the league that hasn’t been felt since His Airness dominated the 90s.
For the generation that grew up in the 2000s, Bryant was in many ways the Michael Jordan of his era. Children in classrooms across the world would yell “Kobe!” any time they had a piece of trash to throw away. It would be more accurate to say kids were ‘fading away’ their trash while attempting to emulate the basketball icon, myself included.
The generation that grew up in the 2000s also grew up emulating Bryant on the court. The likes of DeMar DeRozan, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard are stout disciples of Kobe’s game.
The generation of basketball players that grew up with Kobe Bryant were also profoundly impacted by him. Tracy McGrady came into the league a year after Kobe, drafted by the Toronto Raptors in 1997. He was the second guard to be drafted straight out of high school. The first was Kobe.
McGrady and Bryant had a close friendship. In a 2019 interview, McGrady revealed how he often sought out Bryant for advice, during the years they rode the bench on different teams. They would often spend time watching martial arts films and Michael Jordan tapes at Bryant’s house.
LeBron James certainly looked up to Kobe, being another high school phenom. James received a pair of white, red, and blue Adidas shoes from Bryant while James was in high school. Even though James wore size 15 shoes, he still wore the shoes Bryant had gifted him as they were size 14.
Kobe Bryant also influenced rising stars in the current NBA. The likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić, and Joel Embiid all point to Bryant as big influences in their love for the sport.
Bryant’s legacy as a man is both admirable and complicated. Even so, Kobe’s legacy he left in basketball will never be touched. The accolades are endless spanning a 20-year career, but above all, Kobe taught everyone how to work hard.
Kobe’s journey showed the world how to reach greatness on the court, with a mentality that’s applicable off the court.
Raptors Radio Commentator Paul Jones put it best on the latest episode of Open Gym.
“He did all he could in basketball, he stepped away, and now he was ready for the next chapter. The guy already won an academy award; he was writing children’s books. He was throwing himself into being a father, and look, I’ll say this. Nobody’s perfect, you just have to try to be perfect, and I think that’s what this guy did more than anything else.”
At Kobe Bryant’s jersey retirement, he left the basketball world with this.
“You guys know that if you do the work, you work hard enough, dreams come true. We all know that. But hopefully what you get from tonight is the understanding that, those times when you get up early and work hard, those times when you stay up late and you work hard, those times when you don’t feel like working, you’re too tired, you don’t want to push yourself but you do it anyway, that is actually the dream. That is the dream. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. And if you guys can understand that, then what you’ll see happen is you won’t accomplish your dreams, your dreams won’t come true. Something greater will.”
Rest in Peace Gianna and Kobe Bryant.