I’m 29-years-old. That’s to say I don’t have too many “I remember where I was the day fill in the blank happened” moments in my life just yet. As a basketball fanatic first and foremost, hoops memories are the benchmarks to my life.
I remember getting my first gig as a high school sports reporter for a newspaper in Westchester, New York, sitting in a old, dirty, health hazard of an office, chasing down high school coaches over the phone for final scores, but really watching Tyler Hansbrough lead North Carolina to a National Title on an outdated office TV.
LeBron’s first game against the Sacramento Kings and Nike’s timely commercial where he just sort of froze in the moment feels like it happened yesterday. Michael Jordan’s follow through and “I’m MJ, so no one’s going to call it” push-off over Bryan Russell is etched into my mind from 1998 the way that eras leathers and Timbs are etched into Drake’s.
(Photo Credit: nba.com)
The most vivid memory of Kobe Bryant I have, aside from him leaping on the scorers table after beating the Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals, arms extended as if the weight raised itself from his shoulders, or the tearful post-game interview he gave after tearing his achilles, is the first time I saw him.
Bryant, wide-eyed and jubilant, introduced himself to the world on a Turner Network post-NBA game broadcast and declared he’d be entering the NBA Draft. Maybe it was the (pre) Hollywood smile or the fact that, at 10-years-old, sitting in a room already covered in posters reflective of my own hoop dreams, seeing someone closer in age gave new energy to my aspirations.
And it’s been exciting ever since.
Nothing’s been the same since Bryant was drafted as the semi-hidden gem of that famed 1996 Draft Class. Of all the moments he’s given the game — taking on Mike in his first All Star Game in 1998 at Madison Square Garden, the three rings as Robin, the two rings as Batman, the virtuoso 81-point masterpiece — and the ones he’s given me personally, it’s that iconic ’96 class photo that stands out the most.
All the players have so much promise in their eyes and scowls on their faces, but who’s the one holding the rock? Kobe. Even then, he had to be the one your eyes focused on. The one who through a minor detail, set himself apart.
It’s those details that created everything else. It’s why a guy like J.R. Smith, who scouts will tell you had athletic gifts comparable to Mr. Bryant’s as he went straight to the pros from the preps too, could never be what Bean is. He doesn’t have the same work ethic. Isn’t wired the same way.
His tumultuous pairing with Dwight Howard was over before it started because Howard wanted to make jokes. Kobe wanted to win rings. Even a clash with the titan that is the great Shaquille O’Neal came to a head because Kobe’s manic obsession with winning didn’t match Shaq’s. And while we can debate about what shoulda, woulda, coulda all day, one fact remains: Kobe has more rings than them all.
My older brother’s favorite player of all-time is Scottie Pippen. We were watching the game together when Kobe took Pip’s ankles, along with his hopes of ever winning one without Jordan, and threw the lob to Shaq. The look on my brother’s face, when my hero crushed his hero, had to be the same face Meek Mill made when he heard Back to Back for the first time.
So what do the facts say? How does he stack up against history?
Well, against his ’96 contemporaries (the ones we care about, meaning the other lottery picks, the fellow first rounders and Malik Rose who was also drafted by the Hornets) he has more points than all of them, more championships and more All Star appearances (having just wrapped up his 18th one by the time you read this).
Only Steve Nash has more league MVP’s (two), one of which you could argue really belongs to Kobe (Nash won his second straight MVP in 2006, the same year Kobe led the Lakers to the playoffs, led the league in scoring and dropped 81).
In fact , only Bryant, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson, Peja Stojakovic, Antoine Walker, Kerry Kittles and Zydrunas Ilgauskas have even played major roles on teams that made the NBA Finals, let alone won one (Derek Fisher, Samaki Walker and Travis Knight all won championships with the Lakers. That’s right, Travis Knight is an NBA champion and Charles Barkley isn’t. Life really is unfair sometimes).
How many players in that famed class go down as the top five at their respective positions, let alone arguably top 10 of all-time? Ray Allen might be a top five shooter ever, and someone COULD make a case for Iverson being a top shooting guard of all time, but it’s not that clear cut.
And even among other contemporaries like Paul Pierce, Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett, there isn’t another player from the post-Mike passing-the-torch era who transcends the sport the way Kobe does. They built the man a statue in China. Stephon Marbury had to lose his mind, find it again and win a championship for one of their teams before they built one for him.
Just listen to the way the game’s young stars talk about him. LeBron James, Paul George, Andrew Wiggins have all revered him as inspirations much like Michael Jordan was Bryant’s muse.
Since we mentioned His Airness, comparing Kobe to Mike will forever be a hot discussion. But how many players is that even the case for?
Who else in first top 50 or the next 50 can even be mentioned in the same breath as Jordan? There’s so much respect between those two, that Jordan gifted Kobe a special set of Air Jordans 1 — XXX in Laker colors as a sign of respect this weekend. How many players does that happen for?
If this sounds like some sort of love letter to Kobe, well, it partially is. I know he wasn’t perfect but the way he prepared and competed was. And that’s exactly why you, whether you love or hate Kobe Bryant, cared when he said he was retiring.
He made the game better because if he wasn’t your favorite player, he made your favorite player raise his level of play when they faced off against each other. So thank him for that.
When Kobe told the world this season would be all he had left, I was chilling with a home-girl who happens to be a bit of Bryant hater. One who will never let a moment to play me about my Mamba t-shirts, kicks or lock screens (let me live) pass if she has the opportunity to.
I really had to take a minute, as a sudden bittersweet feeling rushed through me. My childhood hero won his war with greatness, but lost the battle to father time, like all our heroes eventually will.
But I will always remember how he played and passed the torch (officially) to LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Steph Curry and Carmelo Anthony, and the even the supreme up-and-comer perimeter assassins like Wiggins, Kyrie Irving, D’Angelo Russell, John Wall and Zach LaVine this weekend in Toronto.
Kobe's first All-Star game was back in 1998, when Captain Miller went behind enemy lines to save Private Ryan, and when Big Pun was living that Glamour Life. His 18 consecutive All-Star selections are an NBA record and his 18 overall trips are only one less than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record. He has four All-Star Game MVP's (2002, ’07, ’09, ’11), which is tied with Bob Pettit for the most ever.
No player in All-Star history has scored more than Kobe's 280 points. And no other player was capable of taking the baton from Jordan and carrying it as far and as long as he did.
The future of the game is in very great and capable hands, with LeBron and KD now being the elder statesmen, and with the young lions like Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook, the back-to-back All-Star MVP after his 31-point, eight-rebound and five assist performance tonight, hunting for prey in ways that are Kobe-like.
But as he walked off the court in Toronto with 1:06 left on the clock, as the loud chants of "Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!" rained down from the rafters, we were reminded that we'll never see another quite like Kobe Bryant.
He took us on an incredible journey over the last 20 years, one that we knew would eventually end one day. But that still doesn't make it any easier to accept.
Thanks for the ride, Kobe.