For those that know me long, know that my NBA fanhood has been somewhat of a tumultuous and bumpy ride. While I have always had much love for my hometown Knicks— my initial attachment for the game came about with one man…Chris Webber. The way Webber saw the floor for a 6'10 big was absolutely incredible. He and Vlade Divac led by Jason “White Chocolate” Williams, at the point, were an absolute pleasure and though they were on well passed my bedtime, their highlight reels were an early morning staple.
As much homage as I’d like to pay to C-Webb and my favorite team growing up — the Sacramento Kings, this love generated my disdain for their in-state rivals — The Los Angeles Lakers and specifically one man, Kobe “Bean” Bryant. However, little did I know this dire hatred would soon become constant infatuation.
A brief backtrack — at the age of 11, I was an easy kid to please. For my birthday, my parents would ship anything-Sacramento Kings to my Jewish Summer Camp and I would proudly rock my recently acquired Kings gear: Kings shorts, a Webber jersey, Kings socks and even a goddamn Kings watch. While C-Webb was my GOAT, Stojakovic was my dude. I would incessantly practice 3s trying to emulate the effortless flick-of-the-wrist of the sweet-shooting Serbian. After several years of disappointment highlighted by the Samaki Walker half-court shot and Horry’s buzzer beating 3 in the 2002 WCF, I knew that my Kings were doomed.
In an effort to resist succumbing to my surroundings and ultimately donning the blue and orange like my friends, I developed a basketball crush for my most hated athlete — Kobe Bean. I’m not quite sure what initially drew me to KB but I was hooked. FAST. The way Kobe carried himself and played with such love for the game 24/7/365 was clear every time he stepped onto the hardwood. From playing 1-on-1 with myself pretending to be C-Webb and Co., I was now playing as Kobe who had a knack for silky mid-range jumpers and took great pleasure in embarrassing his opponents. While the guy’s talent was undeniable, I was most drawn to his desire to win. Never before did I see a guy play with such intensity and passion regardless of it being the regular season or a Game 7. Of course, what made Kobe so great was that this dedication resulted in rings.
Kobe is not only unique in his rigorous work ethic and constant desire to win, but he embraces the role as the villain. Dwight Howard couldn’t stand playing with Kobe because he realized Kobe’s unrelenting expectation to compete for a Championship year in and year out, was just too demanding. Can you blame him? Not everyone is born with ice in their veins. Not everyone wants the ball in their hands with the clock winding down with everything on the line. Not everyone wants to devote months of their offseason to work on their game and conditioning to hopefully contend the following next year. But Kobe does…it is so deeply-rooted in him that it can be traced back far before he first raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2000. His drive to be the best was obvious as a gangly teen hoisting thousands of jumpers in the barren Lower Merion High School gym where Kobe also achieved greatness — winning the State Championship in his Senior year and surpassing Wilt Chamberlain as Southeastern Pennsylvania’s all-time scorer.
When the rape suit was filed against Kobe in 2003, his popularity and image took a substantial beating. It so happened that the lawsuit was brought around the same time that the Kobe and Shaq feud had heated up and ultimately drove the Diesel out of the City of Angels. But just like Kobe’s game, he refused to give up. Since 2003, Kobe’s brand has seen a rejuvenation — on the court, Kupchak paired the Mamba with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom and the Lakers went to three straight Finals, winning 2. Kobe has fought hard to escape the dark shadow that will forever linger from the rape claim and in 2008 the guy was so good that the panel had to finally award him with the MVP.
January 22, 2006 will forever be ingrained in every NBA fanatics’ mind as the night Kobe defied the game by scoring 81 points against the Raptors. I remember being woken up by my Dad before he started his day at about 5:30 am: “Jack, Kobe had 81 last night.” He turned on the TV in my room and exited as I relished in the unthinkable. The best way to describe Kobe’s performance is simply a man among boys. The best part about the game, however, is that even when Kobe was in the 50s in the middle of the 3rd quarter, the Lakers were still behind. Kobe had to score 81 points to carry this team of misfits starting Smush Park and Chris Mihm to defeat the lowly Toronto Raptors. Not only did Kobe shoot a ridiculous 28–46 and will his team to a win, he only had 7 three-pointers and scored a ridiculous 55 points in the second half! Let it be noted that only one other player from that team remains in the league (sorta)— Sasha “The Machine” Vujacic.
Kobe went on to finish the season averaging a mind-boggling 35.4 points on 45% shooting with nearly 5 assists a game…MVP? Nah, committee still bitter. Instead, Kobe carried the Lakers to a 7 seed and a 3–1 lead over the “7 seconds or less” high-powered Phoenix Suns offense led by Nash and Stoudemire. Most of us remember it as the time Kobe did this…
As Kobe’s final game nears, it’s only right that we put aside the Kobe-AI, Kobe-TMac, Kobe-Lebron, Kobe-MJ talks and admire the last of a dying breed. The last time we will likely see a competitor who calls losing in the Conference Finals an utter disappointment. The last player who would call out Shaq for not trying hard enough. The last time a guy will embrace the hate more than the love. A player that didn’t care how many of the fans or his own peers disliked him so long as he was the last one standing in June. Kobe is more than just a 5-time world-champion — he is a student of the game. A player who takes incredible pride in learning from others and adding his own little twist. Kobe would probably insist that he takes more joy in defending than scoring. He not only wants to beat you — he wants to outwork you and make you wish you never stepped foot on the floor. Kobe exemplifies an unbeatable work ethic and a drive to be the best that often comes with high stakes and great backlash, but heck…it beats losing.
Farewell to one of the greats…thank you Mamba.