My favorite moment from Kobe Bryant isn’t what most of you are probably thinking. Some fans may be quick to point out the 81 point game, 61 points in 3 quarters, or his final game where he scored 60. Mine might be slightly lesser known by the younger fans but still pretty iconic in my eyes. For me it was the buildup to it.
The shocking news of Kobe Bryant’s death from this past weekend has left many of us flabbergasted and at a loss for words, including myself. I think all of us are still reeling from the news. I know I’m still overwhelmed with a feeling of surrealism as I’m writing this. I have a slew of memories of Kobe going all the way back to his rookie year. I also share some pretty incredible memories with my friends from when we played NBA 2K against each other on what seemed like a constant nightly competition of trash talking, drinking, and a ton of laughs. Good times. I always wound up playing against the Lakers. It felt like every single time my friends would choose that team. We actually played a game so memorable that we call it the Steve Nash game because we won it on a 3 pointer at the buzzer. (Angelo,Tone and B.Y. if you’re reading this, I know you remember) As the year after year release of NBA 2K, all of my friends would continuously choose the Lakers. At one point it felt like I couldn’t ever escape Kobe Bryant.
I grew up a die hard Chicago Bulls fan. I was born in 83 which means my basketball fandom began with the Bulls/Pistons rivalry. I can still remember hating Bill Laimbeer with every fiber of my being. I can still remember the utter disgust and hatred I had for Isiah Thomas. Michael Jordan was my hero. I wanted to be like Mike just like the Gatorade song said. The rest is pretty much well known history. Jordan won 3 titles, retired to play baseball, came back, and won another 3 titles. We all know that story. When the Bulls dynasty fell apart, the NBA was in a sort of weird place. The best and ultimately, most popular player of all time had just left. Pippen went to Houston on a sign and trade to complete a super team that included Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley. Barkley and Pippen had a comically awful falling out shortly after that season. Pippen eventually went to Portland after one season. Naturally I became fans of those respective franchises given how awful the Bulls were. Also, my love for Scottie Pippen failed to ever really dissipate. I loved Scottie so much that I actually tried to mold my overall game to his. When Pippen went to Portland, I think that was when my dislike for Kobe and the Lakers really began to take hold.
I had just spent the greater part of my childhood, roughly 10 years, watching the best basketball team of all time. It came to an abrupt, sad, and very quick ending. I still can picture vividly in my head Phil Jackson literally riding off in the sunset on his motorcycle as reporters tried to ask him questions. After the 98 championship the league and the players union couldn’t agree to a new CBA which led to a lockout and shortened season. The Spurs led by Tim Duncan, David Robinson, and Greg Poppovich won the title that year. It was the following year where I really started disliking Kobe and the Lakers. That was the year that the ex-greatest of all time-Bulls coach was hired to right the ship of a Lakers team that featured an in-his-prime Shaquille O’neal and a young, up and coming Kobe Bryant.
I remember being in junior high school during Kobe Bryant’s rookie year. He was the 13th pick overall by the Charlotte Hornets who traded him to L.A. Looking back at this draft, it was overloaded with talent. This draft included Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbary, Ray Allen, Antoine Walker, Steve Nash, Peja Stojakovic, and Jermain O’neal. That year all the excitement was mostly for Allen Iverson but I remember one thing that happened in the 96 season from Kobe Bryant. The slam dunk championship. During this event Kobe wowed us with a between the leg dunk that rocked the league and essentially put everyone on notice. I can remember talking about that dunk at lunch the next day. Everyone was comparing it to Isaiah Rider’s similar winning dunk in the same competition from a previous year and arguing who did it better. We all were fans instantly.
In the 99-00 season, Phil Jackson was at the helm of what I viewed as a team that could supplant my beloved Chicago Bulls as the greatest dynasty of all time. It also stung like hell to see Phil, the “Zen Master”, coaching this team. That Laker team felt like watching my ex-girlfriend finding happiness while I was only left with the memories of what was. I did not like that team. With Scottie Pippen on a loaded Portland team that featured Jermain O’neal, Jim Jackson, Greg Anthony, Brian Grant, Rasheed Wallace, and Steve Smith. Naturally, I was drawn to them. That team almost felt like the anti-hero. They wore black, everyone thought they were the second best team, and almost everyone I knew seemed to love the Lakers. I think this was during my “heel” phase which I think a lot of fans were going through too. I was also big into wrestling at this time and my favorite wrestler was Stone Cold Steve Austin. For you non-wrestling fans, lets just say he was not your quintessential fan favorite when it came to wrestlers. That era was also known as the attitude era which featured Degenerate X or DX who would routinely mime a vulgar, sexual gesture. I loved it as did a whole lot of others. I think this sort of fed into my alignment with Portland. During the season there were some memorable moments that included Scottie Pippen saying Kobe was trying to be like Michael Jordan and famously claimed Kobe was faking a rib injury. Pippen actually went for his ribs in one game while trying to foul him.
That year ended with the Lakers finishing with the best record in the entire league and Portland with the second best record. Both teams ultimately wound up in the conference finals and played an epic 7 game series capped off by one iconic Kobe Bryant play. With the Lakers finally rolling in the 4th quarter in game 7 and up 83-79 with 50 seconds left. Kobe had the ball at the top of the key and drove to the basket which forced the Portland defense to collapse. He tossed a perfect alley oop pass to Shaquille O’neal who slammed it home with one hand. Immediately afterwards, Shaq ran down the court, eyes wide and mouth open pointing to Kobe Bryant. It was such an amazing play to see. This was one of those moments where I remembered exactly where I was. I was working at a truck stop in Monee, IL called the Iron Skillet as a busboy. I kept walking back and forth to the TV in the gas station to watch as much as I could. I remember just standing there knowing it was over at that point. Portland was done. After that slam, I knew it was over. I knew the Lakers would go on to win the championship versus whoever came out of the east which is exactly what happened. At that time, almost everyone believed that series was the true NBA finals.
As the years went on. I got older and matured into a grown up or so I like to think. I learned to really enjoy Kobe’s game. Mostly it was respect. I never really caught myself rooting for the Lakers as far as I can remember. Just watching him do the amazing things he could do on the court was such a joy to watch. Scoring 81 points against the Raptors was another incredible moment. His last game with 60 points was another. It’s just in that moment of that game 7, I personally had so many feelings tied to it. The build up to it was unlike anything I ever experienced. So many narratives for that season come to mind. For it all to essentially come to an end in such a fantastic fashion, I can’t do anything but admire that play from Kobe Bryant. For me, I will never forget it or him.