Memories of Kobe

We sit here on the eve of Kobe Bryant’s final NBA game:the end of an era to be sure. 20 seasons, 18 All-Star Game Selections, 3rd all-time in points scored, 5 NBA Championships, 2 Scoring Championships, 1 League MVP Award. Amazing. Much will be written about Kobe’s career, his ups and downs, triumphs and failures. However, I want to take this opportunity, my last opportunity really, to talk about a few of my memories of Kobe and why I’ll miss watching him play.

I first became aware of basketball growing up in the Los Angeles area at the dawn of the Lakers ‘Three-peat’ era. I remember the powerhouse team that the Lakers had assembled in the 99–00 season. My Mother wouldn’t miss a game. We lived in a townhouse in Carson, and after a disastrous stint of being forced to play little league baseball, I ended up watching many games with her. I vividly remember iconic moments like Phil Jackson sitting on the bench, whistling at the players and holding up the symbol for the triangle offense, Shaquille O’Neal overpowering defenders and slamming the ball through the hoop, however, what stood out to me the most was Kobe Bryant.

Kobe was young and brash, his ego and his talent were readily apparent to anyone who watched him play. He was a superstar in the making, and he knew it. We all did. Kobe was a sensation. In middle school, my friends and I were all obsessed with him. We’d play basketball during lunch and in between classes, practicing our shoulder-shake fadeaways or our ball fake up-and-under moves, just like Kobe. We wanted to perfect it, just like Kobe did. We all even started growing out our hair in hopes of having an afro — just like Kobe. He was larger than life.

I didn’t watch many games during the regular season that year, a win versus the Kings here, one versus the Trailblazers there, but I became a fan during the playoffs, and more specifically during the Western Conference Finals.

The Lakers went up 3–1 in the series. It was over. Kobe and Shaq dominated. One more win and they’d be on to the NBA Finals. Then, they lost… that’s cool, still 3–2. Then, they lost again. Uh, guys? We’re supposed to win! We went 67–15 in the regular season, we were up 3–1! Game 7 was three quarters of agony. The Lakers were down 15 at one point in the fourth quarter, then they made a run. And, then, Kobe showed why he gets to go by one name.

Kobe brought the ball into the front court, dribbled slowly, and, then, in an instant, he crossed over Scottie Pippen, all five players on defense collapsed on him and he threw a perfect alley-oop to Shaq to put an exclamation point on the comeback. The play lasted all of 11 seconds, but in those 11 seconds a star become a superstar. I can’t tell you how many times I recreated that play in the driveway. We’d lower the hoop to a height that we could easily dunk on and my friends and I would practice that play over and over again. Sometimes I’d do the passing, sometimes I’d catch the pass, but every time we were recreating what was the greatest play in NBA history to us. Kobe had made the right play, he passed the ball, he had an understanding and a determination. Regardless of what it took, he wanted to win.

The Finals are a blur in my memory. I remember Kobe rolling his ankle and then returning in the next game to lead the Lakers to victory after Shaq fouled out (complete with his ‘relax’ celebration after taking over the game). I never really took the Pacers seriously (much like I didn’t take the 76ers or Nets seriously in the next two NBA Finals) and, guessing by the ease with which the Lakers dispatched them, they didn’t either.

Kobe is a true warrior. He is the kind of guy who would smile while talking trash to the league MVP, the kind of guy who would get booed in Philly, his hometown, and smile throughout it. The kind of guy who had a flair for the dramatic. His 30.3 point per game average at Madison Square Garden (including a 61 point game there in 2009) shows that he got up for the occasion every time he played in the most famous arena in the world. Kobe is the kind of guy who could break up the Shaq/Kobe duo and then go on to be the best player of a generation.

I remember the 81 point game. How could anyone forget it. We were five years removed from the first Kobe/Shaq team to win an NBA title. Kobe was the guy on the Lakers. I remember settling in that night to watch the game, now a senior in high school. I had grown dreads a few years earlier and was getting ready to enter the world as an adult. Kobe had gotten rid of the afro years before. I remember watching in awe on the floor of my Mom’s room as Kobe went for 62 in the first three quarters. He slowed down and ‘only’ scored 19 points in the 4th quarter, finishing with 81 points on the game, good enough for second best in NBA history. It was a coming out for a player that most people already knew was one of the best they had ever seen. It was eye opening for a 17 year year old living in Long Beach. I mean, if Kobe can score 81 points in a game, then I can do anything in life.

20 seasons, 18 All-Star Game Selections, 3rd all-time in points scored, 5 NBA Championships, 2 Scoring Championships, 1 League MVP Award. Amazing. More amazing is the impact that Kobe has had on all of us. We used to say ‘Jordan!’ When we took a shot at a trash can with a crumpled up piece of paper, now we yell ‘Kobe!’ We can call someone a ‘black mamba’ with no hint of irony. Kobe will be missed, but he’s given us so much. More important than the dunks, game winning shots and trophies, are the memories. Kobe has given us so many memories and so much inspiration. The ‘Kobe’ and ‘MVP’ chants will eventually fade, the videos of shots and celebrations will age and become dated, but the memories will last, the feeling of having watched greatness will never fade.

Thank you, Kobe. From one fan of the game, to one of the greatest to ever play, thank you.

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