As Kobe Bryant’s career comes to an end tonight, there’s no better time to look back at why he resonated with fans, or at least this one.
Tonight will mark the last regular season game for many NBA players. We may not know it yet and the players themselves might know it yet, but it’s a reality that hits plenty of NBA players every year.
We know this will be the last game Kobe Bryant ever plays and we’ll be celebrating a miraculous career that we’ve witnessed.
At it’s very core, it seems silly. A 37-year old man will stop playing basketball for millions of dollars a year. Bryant’s retirement, or anything he’s done in his career hasn’t made a tangible difference in my life and chances are, you can say the same.
For many people, myself included, this isn’t to say Bryant hasn’t made a difference in who we are.
When Kobe Bryant was drafted, I had just turned 4 years old. I have no recollection of anything in my life happening at that point in my life. Thus, I don’t remember a world where Kobe Bryant was not an NBA player.
My earliest memory of basketball came in the 1997 NBA Finals. I remember watching Michael Jordan play, but the most vivid memory of that series was seeing Utah Jazz forward Antoine Carr. Hearing his name pronounced, I went to a school spelling test and misspelled “car” as “Carr”.
But that’s not the point. The point is that while I remember watching Jordan play, I don’t really remember anything he did. I was 5 years old at the time. I knew he was great. He was the guy on my shoes, but I was too young to know what was going on.
Growing up as a fan of the sport, I became a fan of the hometown Indiana Pacers, led by fan-favorite Reggie Miller.
When the Pacers played in the 2000 NBA Finals, they were steamrolled by Shaquille O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers. For some reason, it wasn’t O’Neal that I felt drawn to.
It was a 21-year old with a small afro who wore #8.
Really, it was luck. Bryant was a rising star in the league, but it would’ve been much easier to be drawn to O’Neal, an oversized personality who was the most dominant player in the world at the time.
By luck, I had picked the best person to be a fan of. I got his jersey (and matching Lakers shorts) shortly after and had the shoes that looked like microwaves.
Why was I drawn to Shaq’s sidekick and Reggie’s nemesis with the ugly shoes? I don’t know, but it’s one of the better decisions I’ve made.
Fast forward to 2005 and no longer is Bryant sharing the spotlight with O’Neal and I am old enough to have a bit of a clue as to how basketball works.
The Lakers weren’t very good, but they were still on TV all the time and Bryant was a one-man show that I had never seen before. In a starting lineup that featured Kwame Brown, Smush Parker, and Chris Mihm were regular starters, Bryant shot the ball 27 times a game and scored 35.4 points per game.
This is the season where Bryant had TWENTY-SEVEN games of 40 or more points, including his historic 81-point game against the Raptors and 62-points in 3 quarters against the Mavericks.
I remember watching and being amazed at how Bryant would take on double and triple teams and still score with ease, play after play.
And he was making All-Defensive Teams on the other end of the floor, constantly defending the other team’s best player.
It may have been the most impressive season for a single player during my lifetime, leading that team to 48 wins.
Over the next couple seasons, Bryant made being a basketball fan so much fun.
I remember cheering so hard for the Lakers during his 2008-09 season that concluded with the Lakers winning the NBA title over the Orlando Magic. As a Bryant fan, I had heard how Bryant couldn’t win it all without Shaq to the point that I wanted Bryant to silence those critics.
On the day of the series clincher, I went to Buffalo Wild Wings with a few friends, blaring Lil Wayne’s song dedicated to Bryant.
When Bryant finally silenced his critics who said he couldn’t win it all without Shaq, his excitement was evidenced in his celebration. It wasn’t a new thing either. You knew it was important to Bryant because of his will to win he showed in previous years.
One common complaint about the NBA is that the players don’t care about winning it all. It’s hard to blame them. If you made hundreds of millions of dollars in your career, would you lose sleep over your employer not being the most successful?
For Bryant, he cared. His dedication to greatness was evident and well-documented. There was the Reddit story from an athletic trainer who claimed Bryant showed up at 4 A.M. to a gym during the Team USA practices. You heard stories about him practicing without a ball, stories of him taking tons of shots, and being a workaholic at his craft.
My parents had constantly told me to work hard because then you’ll see improvement and success. Once you see the success, you’ll work harder.
Bryant was a living testament to that. He outworked everyone and you saw the improvement and success.
Bryant cared about winning and pleasing his fans, two things not a lot of athletes truly care about and no athlete cares as much about as Bryant.
It’s worth something to see someone who just wants it more. Bryant could’ve been one of the many star athletes who compete, play well, make a ton of money, and leave it at that. Bryant lived and breathed basketball.
Peak Kobe caring probably came during that 2009 season, when he played with a dislocated finger because he knew that the elusive title without Shaq was close. It was in these playoffs that we saw the debut of Kobe Face, a menacing look that exhibited his determination to win at all costs.
If there’s one thing I remember about Bryant, it will be that work ethic.
If there’s a second thing I remember about Bryant, it will be the memories.
There are so many.
There’s the 81-point game. I recall waking up in the middle of the night, tossing and turning unable to go to sleep. I turned on ESPN News and in a little box on the side of my small TV, I read that Bryant had scored 61 points.
“Good for Kobe, but he scored 62 in 3 quarters a few weeks ago,” I thought before going back to sleep. It wasn’t until the next day that I saw that I had misread it and he had scored 81 points, not 61.
I remember thinking that the Lakers were playing well in 2007-08 and wondering if the Lakers could make some noise in the playoffs. Then, the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol and I was downright giddy that Gasol would allow the Lakers to become a legitimate title threat.
I vividly remember watching this 2008 game against the Dallas Mavericks, where Bryant scored 52 points and grabbed 11 rebounds on his way to a Lakers win, where he just refused to lose.
It’s the type of game that makes a teenager go out to the nearest basketball court and go play. Which is exactly what I did in my backyard the moment that the game was over.
I remember during the 2009-10 NBA season when Bryant hit what seemed like a game-winner every single night.
My favorite memory of Bryant’s game-winners came in the video below against the Sacramento Kings on New Year’s Day.
I was watching the game and it appeared to be over when Shannon Brown missed a jumper in the last few seconds while the Lakers were down 2. A Kings player went to the free throw line and missed them both, making the mistake of giving Bryant a chance to win the game. During the timeout before the Lakers possession, I ran upstairs to tell my little brother that Bryant was about to hit a big shot.
I probably woke him up and he probably wished I would’ve let him sleep, but I felt like it was my duty to make sure he saw Bryant with the game on the line.
Sure enough, Bryant somehow got open for a three-pointer and nailed it as time expired.
That’s my favorite memory of Bryant. I was so confident in his clutch ability and killer instinct that I just felt certain he was about to hit a game-winner. He was so important at the time that I felt like it was my duty as a big brother to wake up my little brother to watch this.
The reaction from the announcers said everything.
“He is hard to believe.”
“No he’s not.”
It was hard to believe that one player could be relied upon to hit that shot, but at the same time it wasn’t a shock to anyone that he made it.With the ball still in the air, Lamar Odom went running downcourt to celebrate.
Another favorite memory came in 2008, when the Lakers were playing the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
Midway through the third quarter, the Lakers were down 20 points. It was at this point that my dad, a Spurs fan, left the room and on his way to bed gave me the old “maybe next year” trash talk.
I remember telling him that as long as Bryant was in the game, the Lakers had a chance to win.
Bryant got hot and led the Lakers with 25 points in the second half on the way to a Lakers comeback victory.
Bryant gave hope. He represented that nothing was impossible, to never accept defeat, and that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything.
He was basically a superhero to me and I know I’m just one of thousands of people across the world to feel this way.
Without Bryant, I probably never develop the passion that I have for basketball. I probably wouldn’t be writing on this blog right now, which I started because I wanted to pursue my passion for the game as a writer.
A part of me is sad that tonight is it for Bryant as a player. It means I’m growing older. He gave me a joy as a fan that only a kid can have. Once you get older, you can’t enjoy a player or game in the same way that you did as a kid. I will never have another athlete as an idol or role model. I’m too old and too smart for that now.
With that said, I’m extremely grateful that I had the luxury of enjoying Bryant’s career through a child’s eyes.
There’s no other player other than perhaps Michael Jordan who delivered the ultimate fan experience for spectators.
I feel sad that my time of enjoying that experience is over, but lucky to have ever experienced it in the first place.
Thank you Kobe for making it all happen.