My Memories of Kobe Bean Bryant
The Beginning (1996–1998)
The year was 1996, and I was 11 years old.
I had just started watching basketball one year prior — witnessing Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets soundly defeat Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic in the 1994–95 NBA Finals.
I was hooked! The following season, I followed Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls intently on my television screen — watching them set the record for the best single-season record in NBA history at 72–10 (which the Golden State Warriors will likely surpass in tonight’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies).
Growing up in Los Angeles, I knew the Lakers were my hometown team, but Showtime had already ended by the time I took an interest, and the Lakers just weren’t very exciting.
Then in the summer of 1996, Shaquille O’Neal joined the Lakers. Even for a kid who just started watching basketball, I understood this was a huge deal for Los Angeles. I was playing in a youth basketball league at the local YMCA that summer when one of the coaches came to practice wearing a new Los Angeles Lakers Shaq jersey. All the kids crowded around him, and I remember feeling excited for the upcoming season.
During an NBA preseason game later that fall, I watched the Lakers introduce some of our rookies into the game. The legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn spoke positively about the potential of these new young players, which included Derek Fisher and Travis Knight, but he then went on make note of a rookie who was not playing that evening — Kobe Bean Bryant.
Chick and the color commentator, Stu Lantz, both spoke highly of Kobe and his potential, calling him an exciting player to watch, but one who would need to learn to play under control. In fact, the reason he wasn’t playing that evening was because he had injured himself in a previous game due to his highlight-worthy acrobatics. Based on their description of him, however, I couldn’t wait to watch Kobe play!
I was able to catch my first glimpse of him in a game later that week, and he did not disappoint. At one point, however, he landed dangerously after a drive to the rim, and I started to understand what Chick and Stu had been cautioning about. He was still a rookie in the league, and he had a lot of learning to do.
The Lakers were defeated by the Utah Jazz in the NBA Playoffs that season, and as I’m sure many can recall, Kobe shot a string of air balls to end our playoff run. Not only do I remember feeling crushed that we lost, but I felt really bad for Kobe. Over the course of the season, I had become a die-hard Lakers fan, and because of this, I had also become a huge Kobe fan.
Kobe went on to win three championships with Shaq and then-head coach Phil Jackson from 2000–2002. The playoff battles between the Lakers and both the Portland Trailblazers and the Sacramento Kings were some of the most exciting and competitive games I’d ever seen. Kobe’s game had improved immensely by this time, and with the departure of Shaq in 2004, many would begin declaring Kobe to be the best basketball player in the world.
There were some dark times for Kobe during this period too — one of which was the rape accusation in Colorado in 2003. Both parties ultimately reached a settlement, so I don’t have anything to expound regarding the case, but I do want to make mention of his prowess on the basketball court during this time.
Kobe played in several games during this particular season on days in which he had to appear in court prior to arriving for the game. While other players may not have been able to handle the stress and anxiety of performing after a day in court, Kobe actually thrived in these evening games. I found that I greatly admired his ability to compartmentalize his emotions and be able to hone in on the task at hand, regardless of any distractions going on his life.
In the summer of 2007, after a couple seasons of the Lakers falling short, Kobe demanded a trade.
I was very upset, but I understood the reasoning behind his demand; Kobe wanted to win, and the Lakers management had not been able to build a competitive team around him. Kobe was a one-man wrecking crew at the time, having dropped his historic 81-point game a season prior. The sad truth was the Lakers needed all 81 of Kobe’s points in order to win that game.
The 2006 NBA Playoffs series against the Phoenix Suns were another huge disappointment. Due to two incredible buzzer-beating shots by Kobe Bryant in an overtime-game in Game 4, the Lakers had taken a 3–1 lead in the series. It looked like the series was ours for the taking, until Phoenix won the next three games to eliminate the Lakers. Needless to say, it was a very frustrating time (though not as frustrating as it is right now, but I digress).
Following his trade demand in the summer, I remember watching the first game of the 2007–08 season, in which all eyes were on Kobe. He was visibly angry and combative the entire game — a game in which the Lakers lost to the Houston Rockets by a basket. Fortunately, midway through the season, the Lakers made a blockbuster trade to finally acquire a player that could provide Kobe with some help — Pau Gasol.
What a wonderful day it was when we acquired Pau via a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies! I was out for lunch at Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill in Burbank, California, when I saw the breaking news on the television screen. It was a huge turning point; it felt like the dark clouds had disappeared and the sun was shining down on us again.
That is — until we faced the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
Miraculously, the Lakers somehow managed to make it to the NBA Finals in 2008. It still amazes me how we were only two wins away from winning the championship that year when just that past summer, the team was in such turmoil.
The Lakers would go on to win two championships with the new squad — one against Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic, and the other a revenge series against the Boston Celtics that was oh-so sweet!
I absolutely loved this team! Pau was great, Fisher brought stability, and our Bench Mob (including Sasha Vujacic — the Machine 😂) was so fun to watch. And while Kobe was my favorite player, Lamar Odom was my favorite person on the team.
After defeating Boston in the 2010 NBA Finals, I felt our team was built to make a few more championship runs, but unfortunately, the team imploded against Dirk Nowitzki and a Dallas Mavericks team that was hitting its stride at the right time.
The End (2013–2016)
It’s really sad for me to say this, but I think Kobe Bryant, the incredible basketball player I idolized growing up, played his final game back on April 12, 2013; it was the game in which he tore his Achilles tendon.
The Lakers acquired both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in the off-season to load up for another championship run in the 2012–13 season, but the season went horribly wrong; Nash got injured at the beginning of the season and was never the same again, and Dwight Howard was hugely overrated from the start and underperformed.
In order to make the playoffs that year, Kobe had to carry the team on his back, playing too many minutes each game for his aging body. Prior to tearing his Achilles, Kobe had fallen down twice during drives to the basket in the same game. In both cases, Kobe found a way to get back up and continue fighting, but looking back, it was clear that he was overexerting himself.
After the injury, Kobe walked himself to the free throw line to sink two free throws, and then walked back to the locker room himself — on a torn Achilles!
Could the injury have been prevented? Perhaps, but we’ll never know.
Tonight is Kobe’s absolute final game as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. With ticket prices the way they are, I will not be attending the game, but I plan to find a bar near LA Live (next to the Staples Center) to watch the game.
I can confidently say that Kobe Bryant is my favorite basketball player ever. Michael Jordan was great, but Kobe’s career perfectly coincided with my introduction to NBA basketball as a kid all the way through my adulthood. He’s become such an important influence on my life, especially from the legendary stories I’ve heard about his insane work ethic and drive.
It’s the end of an era, a mark of the end of my childhood, and I wouldn’t miss his final game for the world.