Kobe Bryant is the first basketball player I distinctly remember pretending to be while I shot hoops in my backyard as a kid. I abused imaginary defenders with cross-over dribbles and spin moves that led to uncontested layups. Fifty-point “games” came with striking regularity. Believe me when I tell you that Dave Cecil as Kobe Bryant was completely unstoppable.
Did I mention all this happened before Kobe had entered the NBA? It was 1996 and there I was — a 12-year-old white kid from the hills of Eastern Kentucky — imagining I was a 17-year-old basketball phenom who was so skilled that skipping college and heading straight to the league was actually feasible.
Don’t forget that making the jump from high school to the pros at that time wasn’t totally unprecedented but it was far from common. Sure, Kevin Garnett had made the leap in ’95 but he was the first do so in 20 years and — like the prep-to-pros that had come before him — he was a big man. Kobe would be the first guard to ever skip college so, in a way, he was unprecedented. And I wanted my game to be just like his.
Twenty years have passed since those days. Now I’m a 32-year-old man with a wife, mortgage and legal career who doesn’t do much pretending on a basketball court anymore. Kobe is a 37-year-old basketball legend who will go down as one of the all-time greats. My hoop dreams ended in 2002 on a winter’s night in a high school gym somewhere in Pike County, Kentucky when my Pikeville Panthers were routed by the Shelby Valley Wildcats. Incredibly, the curtains on Kobe’s basketball career have only now come to a close with him playing in his final NBA game.
Endings are the best excuse to look back on memories from time gone by. I figured now was as good a time as any to put together some Kobe basketball moments that represent the world’s twenty-year basketball journey with the Black Mamba.
It’s safe to say I never quite made it to Kobe Bryant’s skill level. As the son of ex-NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe was a cocky kid with tons of talent who seemed destined for basketball greatness. He ended his high school career as Pennsylvania’s all-time leading scorer (ahead of some guy named Wilt Chamberlain) with a stout 2,883 points. He led his team to the state title his senior year while racking up just about every national award available to a high school basketball player. Bryant capped off his prep career by taking Brandy to prom and declaring himself eligible for that summer’s NBA Draft. Not a bad run.
The combination of Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal in Phil Jackson’s famous triangle offense resulted in Bryant winning his first title at the ripe old age of 21. The Lakers’ championship in 2000 was the first in a three-peat that defined the first half of Kobe’s career.
Like most dynasties, this didn’t end well. The drama between Kobe and Shaq wore on the team and the Lakers didn’t add to their trophy case in 2003 or 2004. Ultimately, Shaq was traded and Jackson retired.
The Lakers were officially Kobe’s team.
Passing the Torch
The 2003 All-Star game gave us Michael Jordan on his way out of the league facing off against Kobe as the future face of the NBA. I’m still thanking the basketball gods for this one.
After the departures of Shaq and Phil, the Lakers didn’t find much team success over the next few seasons but Kobe’s game reached new heights. Ironically, it was during this time that Kobe played the game for which he will be most remembered.
On January 22, 2006, Bryant scored an unfathomable 81 points in a single game. It is the second highest single-game point total in the history of the league — only behind Wilt’s 100 point game in 1962. Kobe scored 66 percent of his teams 122 points compared to Wilt having scored 59 percent of his teams 169. Bryant averaged an eye-popping 43.4 points per game for the month of January in 2006 and finished the season as only the 5th player in NBA history to average at least 35 points per game.
Adding to the Trophy Case
Once Kobe had made it clear that he was the most unstoppable offensive weapon in the league, it was time to start going for more titles. Phil came back to the Lakers’ sidelines and key additions like Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum re-ascended Los Angeles to title contenders. The end-result was back-to-back championships for the Kobe led Lakers in 2009 and 2010. Bryant had finally proven to himself and to the basketball world that he could win a title without the help of Shaq.
The Curtain Call
And then, in his final game, just when the world thought there was nothing left in his tank, Kobe gave us the most Kobe game ever. In what would be more accurately described as an exhibition, Bryant poured in 60 points on 50 (!!!!!!) shots. That’s more shots in a single game that any human has taken in 33 years. But why not? The Lakers stink and it was Kobe’s night. For a guy who’s been criticized his entire career for not sharing the ball enough, on this night, we all wanted him to shoot it every time down the floor. And he pretty much obliged.
Wednesday night was the perfect summation of Bryant’s career. An offensive juggernaut who had the tendency to rely too much on his own ability than to create for his teammates. He wasn’t always perfect, but he always perfectly Kobe.
The basketball world said goodbye to one of its all-time greats. and I said goodbye to the first basketball icon whose career I can remember from beginning to end. Thanks for all those memories, Kobe — including those forged on a basketball goal in my backyard 20 years ago. You will be missed.
Originally published on The Cauldron at Sports Illustrated.