Phenom. Like-Mike. Superstar. Showtime. Hollywood. Wingman. Hated. Asshole. Annoying. Champion. Ball-hog. Demanding. Maligned. Overrated. Selfish. Champion again. Leader. Legend. 2nd best. Injured. Warrior. Tough. Champion. Greatness.
You’ve been called a lot over your 20-year career.
One of them stands out to me personally. Hated.
You were drafted a month after I was born, and for almost half of my life since, I spent it despising you Kobe Bryant.
You came into the league guns blazing, afro and all. Only a few years in, you were already, “The Next Michael” and with Shaq, turned the Lakers into a dynasty again. Three titles, four finals appearances in the span of five years.
It took Jordan seven seasons to get one.
Growing up, the Chicago Bulls were consistently the worst team in basketball in the early- to-mid-2000’s. I had no hometown player that was worth rooting for until the Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Ben Gordon era showed up.
So I looked outward for players to idolize. Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Jason Kidd, Dirk, Vince Carter and Shaq, to name a few.
One of the first jerseys I ever owned was a gold Lakers Shaq jersey. I was hell-bent on shattering my basketball rim, intimating Shaq as he bullied defenders around the rim.
Watching those Lakers bulldoze their way through the Western Conference year-after-year, Shaq became one of my favorite players to root for.
2004 rolls around. Shaq is traded and Phil Jackson walks away. Why? Shaq continuously feuded with Kobe, who was no longer interested in playing the sidekick role. Phil walked away, telling GM Mitch Kupchak “I won’t be here next year if [Bryant] is still here.”
Kobe had now become the villain of the NBA. He was no less than a year removed from his controversial sexual assault accusation and now had practically kicked to the curb two integral pieces of the Lakers dynasty.
And somehow, even after being the main reason one of my favorite players in the league left L.A., I became a Kobe fan.
He was no longer on top of the world come 2005. He was regarded as the best player in the league but was viewed as cocky, arrogant, selfish, uncoachable and few wanted to play with him.
The Lakers as a team were an afterthought.
From 2005–2007, Kobe Bryant could only be described as a freight train of buckets, keep in mind, with absolutely no help. With teammates such as Von Wafer, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm, Smush Parker, Ronny Turiaf and Vladimir Radmanovic, Kobe Bryant turned in some of the most ridiculous scoring explosions since Wilt was around.
In 2005, he scored 62 points in three quarters against a Mavs team that went on to win 60 games and only gave up 93.1 ppg. to opponents.
A month passes. This happens:
Inside, outside. Turn around jumpers to up-and-unders. He’d dunk on you and he could beat you at the free throw line. These performances have become some of my greatest memories watching the NBA. He was a genius with the basketball.
In a recent ESPN.com article, Kobe said this about 81:
“There’s a lot of players who come up now who don’t think 80 points is possible… I always thought 80 points was possible. I thought 90 was possible. I thought 100 was possible. Always.”
In that season alone he topped 50+ six times.
The following season (’06-’07), Kobe somehow managed to unleash more absurd scoring numbers than the season before. Along with a second scoring title, All-NBA and All-NBA Defensive honors, he scored 50+ ten times, and then in March of 2007, unloaded a six-game stretch of 65, 50,60, 60, 43, 23 and 53 points.
Look, Steph is unbelievable. But don’t go around saying he is one of the greatest scorers until he does something like that.
All of this scoring led to little playoff success as we all know. The years proved pivotal as the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol, saving Kobe’s legacy. 2008–2010 saw three trips to the Finals where in 2008 they were outclassed by the Boston Celtics and the then “Big 3.”
Yet, in Mamba fashion, Kobe came back in 2009–10 to average 27.0/ 5.4 / 5.0, win league MVP, Finals MVP and his fourth title, proving he could win one without Shaq.
The following season, he repeated, conquering #5 in a seven-game battle against the Celtics, avenging the 2008 Finals shellacking.
Sports fans know these accomplishments, and the rest of his résumé for that matter, are forever etched in the record books. We know this.
What truly turned me into a Kobe Bryant fan, was everything but the numbers. Every single time you thought he had reached his peak, he churned out another 50-point eruption. When all hope of winning in L.A. had seemed lost, he fires back with two more rings.
Through his game, through playing the simple game of basketball, Kobe was teaching you life lessons. Never stop getting better, continue to grind for your goals and aspirations.
Even the seasons following his championships, he forever proved why he is nothing short of a different breed.
During the underwhelming 2012–2013 Lakers season, the one with Dwight and Nash coming to Los Angeles, expectations were to win another championship. Instead, the Lakers were left to fight for their playoff lives in March and April.
Miraculously, the Lakers got in. Thanks to one of the most insane stretches for a man that will go down as 6th all-time in minutes played.
In seven games, Kobe Bryant arguably played the most brutal amount of minutes in NBA history. A body famously known to take remarkable amounts of pain. After all, he did play through his MVP season with a broken finger on his shooting hand.
It was in that 2013 Golden State game, only a few days before the playoffs, after willing his team this far (he poured in 47 points two nights before), that he blows out his Achilles, gets up, and sinks two free throws.
With 3:08 to play in the fourth quarter and the Warriors leading by two, Bryant, in his 45th minute of the night, drives against Barnes — and collapses. Bryant feels a sensation in the back of his left foot. “Did you kick me?” he asks Barnes. Barnes says no. “F — !” Bryant says. Teammates surround him. He can feel his Achilles roll up his leg.
And then he does the most Kobe Bryant thing ever. Using his fingers, Bryant tries to pull the tendon back down. — ESPN.com Baxter Holmes
Even in the locker room afterward, he proclaimed that it would not be the end. A year later, he fractures his knee. Once again, says he will be back. The following season, shoulder surgery, torn labrum. Yet, here he is, playing in his 20th season. His final game.
Kobe Bryant has been in the NBA every month of my life except one. For parts I loathed him, other times I was in awe of him.
Above all, I respect him.
And maybe that is the perfect word to sum up Kobe Bryant.
He came into the league wanting it all. Even as a teenager he wasn’t phased by the man who is the greatest of all time. Instead, he looked him in the eye and said, “You know I can kick your ass one-on-one.” He would go on to chase the man in every facet of the game. Rings, scoring titles, points, even mimicking his shots and moves.
The stories about him taking on opponents, even teammates, one-on-one, and taking their souls in the process, are endless.
The 5 a.m. wake-up calls in the offseason. The thousands of shots he logged during an off-day. Everyone falls in love with the game, the great ones fall in love with the process.
Time and time again he showed us that his body could take it. That mind over matter could accomplish anything. He was a vicious, unforgiving competitor.
His passion is second to none. He fell in love with something at an early age, then proceeded to never stop until he was alone at the top as the greatest. At 20-years old, I have no f — — clue what I want to do with my life. At 20, Kobe was working to be the greatest basketball player to ever live.
Normal humans aren’t like that.
There never was quit in the man. The fire inside burns as bright as it did 20-years ago. The most Kobe Bryant thing of all-time has to be having five championships but saying, “I should have seven.”
Thank you. As MJ left the game, you took it upon yourself to give my generation of fans a slice of what it was like to see him play. You followed up your talk with a near identical career.
Your heart, passion, will, competitive spirit, confidence, mentality, and talent are some of the greatest qualities an athlete has ever possessed across any sport.
Hated by some, feared by many. Respected by all.
The Hall of Fame awaits you.