I’ve been a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers for a long time. I was 9 and my dad took me to a game at the old Great Western Forum. I got to see Magic Johnson play and direct the high powered Showtime offense in person and I was hooked. I cried when Magic retired due to contracting HIV (November 7, 1991). I was elated when Shaquille O’Neal signed as a free agent. And, admittedly, I was skeptical when then Lakers GM Jerry West traded Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the rights to a high school kid out of Lower Marion, PA: Kobe Bean Bryant.
Kobe Bryant. As far as superstar athletes go, he’s the one that I most identify with. I’m a year older, so I’ve been able to really follow his career from day one. From the lost kid fresh out of high school, to the second best player on a team that won three straight NBA titles, to the petulant man-child that hastened O’Neal’s departure from LA to winning two more NBA titles to watching injuries and father time slow him down, I’ve been a huge Kobe Bryant fan. But for all of his greatness, he’s unfortunately stuck in a position of not being good enough.
Obviously, every great player, and especially every great shooting guard, is going to be compared to Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant may be the second best shooting guard ever, but even I can admit that he’s no Michael Jordan. The Lakers franchise, for whom an overwhelming amount of NBA greats have played, will always be Magic’s team. So Kobe Bryant finds himself being an all-time great, yet shut out of two of the top positions that he could lay claim to. Great, but seemingly not great enough.
Perhaps the most endearing quality of Kobe Bryant that I admire is that he’s human. To me, he’s perhaps the most human of superstars. He quarrels with his teammates. He openly questions his coaches and the front office. He’s selfish, even to the point of self-detriment and he’s petty. If you put Bryant in a regular 9-5 office, he’s that top salesman that co-workers don’t like, but management can’t get rid of. He reminds me of myself in that aspect. Most NBA superstars are like that, but Kobe doesn’t feel the need to go through the motions that he’s anything but what he is.
My favorite memory of Kobe? After scoring 50 points in game 6 of the 2006 NBA Playoffs vs. the Phoenix Suns, Kobe was criticized for not getting his teammates involved. What was in response of game 7? He took 3 second half shots and scored one point on an illegal defense free throw and a 15 point halftime lead exploded to over 30 in the 4th quarter. Petulant? Certainly. But he proved his point that the Lakers team needed him to takeover to have a chance to win.
Certainly, no run down of Kobe Bryant’s career can omit his Colorado rape case in 2004. Or his 81 points in 2006. I’ll remember him feuding with Shaq. I’ll remember Kobe staring down opponents and teammates with that unwavering glare. I’ll remember his body control, able to contort his body to get off shots that other players couldn’t even dream of taking… and making them.
The 2016-17 season will the the NBA’s first since 1995-96 without Kobe Bryant. After 20 years, The Black Mamba will hang up his sneakers and ride off into the sunset. As the saying goes, Father Time remains undefeated. Even to the all-time greats.