33,570 points (3rd all time).
4-time All-Star MVP.
2-time Scoring Champion.
2-time Gold Medalist.
2-time Finals MVP.
1-time NBA MVP.
5-time NBA Champion.
That’s quite a resume.
It’s impossible not to be romantic about the retirement of one of basketball’s all-time greats. A player who some would say never made a pass (except passing by other guys in the record books). A player who (despite the rumors) stayed with a single team over a storied two-decade career that cemented him as possibly the third most important Laker ever, but the second most important NBA player in the modern era. We may never see another Jordan on the court, but Kobe did his best to get there. And off the court, he may have been damn close.
Kobe Bean Bryant grew up in Italy for a chunk of his childhood, named first for high-grade beef from Japan and middle named for his father’s nickname “Jellybean”. As a youth, he idolized soccer players as well as basketball players, spending summers playing the latter in the States. When Jellybean Bryant retired, the family returned and Kobe went on to have an illustrious career at Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia, which eventually earned him a spot on the Top 35 McDonald’s All Americans list of all time. Courted by a number of colleges, he decided to forego spending time at a University and declared for the draft.
Kobe was selected by the Charlotte Hornets with the 13th pick in 1996, who then announced they had traded that pick to the Lakers and been told who to draft. By then, it wasn’t any secret in the league that Jerry West, an executive with the Lakers at the time, coveted the young phenom. In the same summer, Shaquille O’Neal was acquired, and a superstar tandem that ran the league for five years and produced three consecutive championships was born. Years later, after O’Neal left Los Angeles and won another ring in South Beach with Dwayne Wade, Pau Gasol came to town and the Lakers picked up two more championships. Kobe openly pined for a sixth trophy to match his idol, Michael Jordan, but never got it.
Between those five championships, Kobe won a league MVP in 2007-08, became the youngest player to reach 20,000 points, and dropped 81 points on a mess of a Raptors team in 2005, the closest mark to Wilt’s legendary 100 that we’re ever likely to see. It’s hard to fully encapsulate Kobe on the court without taking broad strokes. What we’re left with is an all-time great who spent his entire career with the team that drafted him (despite nearly leaving between championship runs), a prolific scorer and clutch player, and a man with such a competitive streak and killer instinct that he was nicknamed for one of the most dangerous snakes in the world: the black mamba. That’s not even mentioning his marked resilience, playing through injuries multiple times.
Kobe became a wholly different monster off the court: he sold shoes by the millions, became a brand all his own, and developed into a business entity rivaled only by Jordan. He also became a family man, marrying Vanessa Laine and fathering two daughters.
Speaking of off-court identity, Kobe’s career may have fallen in the perfect time for a high-profile athlete at the top of the league. His career began before the advent of the social media maelstrom that tries to tear LeBron apart every single day, and by the time we could tweet about him, he was three titles in with two more on the way. Could you imagine the comment strings on Reddit, Facebook, or Twitter if they’d existed at current strength back when he was airballing consecutive shots to blow playoff series? Or when he was accused of sexual assault? It would have been unbearable.
By the time the parade of a final season rolled around, Kobe was venerable by athlete standards. The rose-colored glasses obscured every view, and he was honored at every stop. Some would call it a circus, and some would call it a farewell to an all-time great. I waffled between the two opinions all year. At the end of the day, though, the legacy is undeniable. One of the most complete players of his stature averaging 25.0 PPG/4.7 APG/5.2 RPG on .447/.329/.837 for his career, he did it all, and at a high level. Kids will still shout his name shooting baskets, and adults will still mutter it tossing paper balls in the trash sitting in their offices. It’s awfully hard to find high-quality Jordan highlights. We’ll always have Kobe a click away. As much as he wanted to be, and may have been, the Jordan of my generation, I’d rather remember him as the only Kobe.
The player who built a career on eviscerating the squads loved by every other city in the country and made the Lakers into the villains we know them as (defanged as they are lately) went out in exactly the way he should have. He missed shot after shot, unwavering in the belief that they would eventually go in. And they did. He scored 60 points, dropping in a free throw to seal a Lakers win to thunderous applause as he stepped off the hardcourt for the last time as a player. His teammates, his opponents, the referees, his fans, and his haters all understood that this was a manic effort to put on a show that we’ve seen a million times over the last 20 years, and won’t see again.
This was rambling, and glossed over an illustrious career that could easily justify ten times the words written here. I was never much of a Kobe fan, but I’m a basketball fan. A legacy fan. And someone who understands that you appreciate it when you get to see a legend to the end (we’re seeing it with LeBron now).
Again, how can you not be romantic about one of the greatest NBA icons of all time hangs them up? In the end, I don’t think there’s any better way to describe Kobe Bryant than the way that Jerry West, the man who drafted him, who was so enchanted with him after a single workout, does in his biography West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life: “Kobe was a once-in-a-lifetime player who could cast his shadow on the franchise for years to come.”
He did. And he still will.