It’s funny when you look back at a career and reflect on what moments stood out and why they mean something specific to you. In the case of Kobe Bean Bryant I’ve had a love-hate relationship with him pretty much from the start.
Also of note is how I’ve always been able to marry his career in some way to the Toronto Raptors or used him as my main source of fodder for debates with my basketball buddies the BBoyz. (who it should be noted ALL love Kobe Bryant more than any other player in the NBA!)
The Lower Merion High School product began his NBA career drafted directly out of high school in the summer of 1996 at the end of the Toronto Raptors first full season.
I think back to the fights I had with the BBoyz about Bryant’s early bravado and selfishness that in hindsight seem ridiculous. Watching him put an arm around rookie Jahlil Okafor last week dispensing well intentioned advice, I wondered if people have forgotten it was barely a decade ago Bryant was embroiled in his own off court issues. To wit, in 2003 Bryant was charged with raping a Colorado hotel employee and though the charges were later dropped and the civil case settled out of court the suit itself will forever remain a part of Bryant’s epithet. In fact, after this incident Bryant built a distance between himself and his fans and chose to stop trying to fit into a mold the main stream consumer would buy into and accept. Instead he built his reputation and brand around his tough nosed, no quit demeanor.
“I started to consider the mortality of what I was doing,” he says. At the time, he was 24. “What’s important? What’s not important? What does it mean when everybody loves you, and then everybody hates your guts for something they think you did? So that’s when I decided that—if people were going to like me or not like me—it was going to be for who I actually was. To hell with all that plain vanilla shit, just to get endorsement deals. Those are superficial, anyway. I don’t enjoy doing them, anyway. I’ll just show people who I actually am…. The [loss of the] endorsements were really the least of my concerns. – Kobe Bryant (from the GQ article)
What people associated with Kobe and the Raptors is the 81 points he scored against Toronto, but my first thought is always Tracy McGrady. Why? Because 2000 through 2003 signifies the 3 consecutive years Shaq, Kobe and the Lakers 3-peated. And in 2000, TMac decided to leave Toronto and move to Orlando.
In hindsight it actually made a great deal of sense why McGrady would want to join Grant Hill and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. But, what I remember is Shaq and Kobe being on the cover of Sports Illustrated and the inside story saying “if TMac stays in Toronto with Vince Carter there is no way we keep winning those titles. I didn’t need Shaq or Kobe telling me how the Raptors got the shaft and I unfairly used Kobe as the symbol to punish for the Raptors loss of McGrady. Every time they reached another finals it served as a bitter reminder for me of what could have been. And with that I renewed my attacks of Kobe with the BBoyz finding something new to bash about him.
“I’ve shot too much from the time I was eight years old,” Bryant says. “But ’too much’ is a matter of perspective. Some people thought Mozart had too many notes in his compositions. Let me put it this way: I entertain people who say I shoot too much. I find it very interesting. Going back to Mozart, he responded to critics by saying there were neither too many notes or too few. There were as many as necessary.”
Fairly or not, the above became my measuring stick of Kobe (or at least privately it’s what I used as my argument with the BBoyz to rationalize my Kobe disdain). Of course I have other more specific memories of his 20 years in the NBA. Again, my list may not resonate with your top recollections, but these were some of my fonder memories:
- 9 straight 40-point games: February 6, 2003 – February 23, 2003 (shockingly the Raptors weren’t one of the opponents)
- 4 consecutive 50 point games
- Despite a blown Achilles Tendon, Kobe Bryant stays on the floor to shoot his free throws. This more than anything Bryant did on the court embodied just how tough he was. I had a friend tear his Achilles and he had to be carried off the field (and he was one tough SOB).
- This past week Ernie Johnson brought up a stat that was mind boggling: Kobe Bryant has more 40 point games than the entire Inside NBA TV crew 121 versus 104. Think about who is on that staff: Charles Barkley, Steve Smith, Brent Barry, Dennis Scott, Isiah Thomas, Shaq, Reggie Miller, Kenny Smith etc. When EJ asked him if he knew how many 40 point games he had he guessed 30 or 40… as an aside: I find it highly suspect Kobe doesn’t know exactly how many 40 point games he has, I mean come on this is one of the most competitive guys ever!
- In a day and age where we so rarely see toughness on the court the sheer number of physical exchanges Kobe has been in is crazy especially when you consider his stature as the teams’ star. For example, can you imagine Kevin Durant getting into these type of fights or would you expect Steven Adams or Serge Ibaka to be the guy mixing it up?
The final video for me highlights who Kobe Bryant became to me…. A fighter! Sure, he has numerous records, awards and titles but it is his competitiveness and refusal to quit which I will always recall. So, it is with some degree of melancholy I view his arrival for the final time in the Six to lace up his sneakers and attempt to break the hearts of Raptors fans one last time.
As mentioned Kobe has provided the main source of disagreement between the BBoyz and I, me expressing a dislike for his selfish cockiness and them pointing out his greatness, feistiness and singularity of will. In truth I’ve long acquiesced to Bryant’s brilliance I just never conceded publicly (until now… shhhh).
My initial disdain grew into appreciation for the plethora of qualities the Black Mamba had without an apparent rival. A look around the Association today finds partial modern day clones: Russell Westbrook epitomizes Kobe’s constant compete level, LeBron James rivals his iron man demeanor, Steph Curry showcases the Mamba’s ability to win a game without breaking a sweat and Andrew Wiggins may well be exactly what Kobe whispered to him last season “the next one”.
Kevin Durant is right in terms of how the media has treated Kobe these past few years especially considering historically they’ve tended to treat their veterans superbly. At the end of the day I’ve always believed the Association did him wrong for rewarding him just a single regular season MVP award. Each season when the inevitable claim comes out of the LeBron James camp I can’t help but think of the 2 rings on LBJ’s hand while Kobe sports 5 and yet he has just the single MVP compared to James’ 4. Sure, the playoffs are a different beast, but the Lakers don’t get those 5 rings unless Kobe leads them to the records that took them repeatedly into the post season.
To think Kobe did it all with one team is another accomplishment very few players will achieve in their careers. Even the notoriously competitive Shaq has softened on the Kobe hate, citing him for his unwavering competitive spirit.
Just as surely as Magic and Bird brought the NBA into the main stream and Michael Jordan introduced the era of sports marketing, Kobe will forever be remembered as the player who made it okay to have a favorite player separate from your home team to cheer for. Whether he was the Black Mamba, the Mamba, Vino, number 8, number 24 or just plain Kobe he became the first player I ever recall die-hard fans of a specific franchise (not called the Lakers) loving and revering in addition to their home squad.
Countless arenas who despise the Lakers will now show up en masse sporting Kobe Bryant jerseys as the Black Mamba takes to their courts for a final tip-off. His legacy is one in which every fan should be thankful to him as his indomitable competitive spirit and refusal to ever give in has resulted in the Association rearing the best talent ever in the history of the sport.
Many fans may have wanted to “Be like Mike”, but Kobe Bryant made today’s stars dream about setting their own standards to reach and what it would be like to be better than MJ or Kobe. For that alone, whether you love him or hate him we all owe him a thank you (just don’t tell the BBoyz I said that).