DAR Sports: A Final Goodbye to Kobe Bryant

By @TrueGodImmortal

Now, we've discussed Kobe Bryant in previous articles, including one last month where we discussed his all time place among the greats. I'm also sure there will be 500 other articles similar. I don't care. This is necessary. I personally hold him as the 2nd greatest player I've witnessed play in my life, and for me, I remember the 1996 draft like it was yesterday almost. I was very young, but I had a handle on the fundamentals of basketball. I would study the games, the athletes, and impending players coming into the NBA from the draft. I was a Jordan fanatic at the time and they had just went 72-10 and won a championship. With my Chicago Bulls hat and jacket firmly in place, I remember hearing about a guy from Lower Merion High School that was a big prospect. I forget which show I heard about him on, though I want to say it was Inside Stuff with the incomparable Ahmad Rashad. As the Charlotte Hornets made the pick in the draft for Kobe Bryant, I really didn't have any expectations. I was a kid, so I was hugely into the top 5 draft picks more so than the others. Iverson was such a fun watch at Georgetown that in some way I figured he would be the biggest legend of the draft class. There was Marcus Camby, Ray Allen, Stephon Marbury, all faces I would look forward to seeing take over the league next. I had seen Villanova games as well, so I was anxious to see Kerry Kittles get his shine in the NBA as well.

The 13th selection was Kobe Bryant. He was picked by the Charlotte Hornets, but traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, and the rest as they say, was history. I remember thinking to myself at the time that the Lakers would be a solid team in the West soon, but that was more so rooted in them acquiring Shaq than the force of Kobe. As the 1996-1997 season began, it didn't dawn on me that Kobe was the first guard to be taken out of high school and put into the NBA, so in retrospect, he was destined to be something great anyways. Barring injury or being traded or put with the wrong team, Kobe was due for success(Thank God the Hornets traded him). Kobe would shine brightly in the Summer Pro League, giving glimpses of his greatness early on, but his output in the regular season that rookie year was limited, as he would come off the bench for Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones. It would be the moment that he won the 1997 Slam Dunk contest that he truly came across my radar as a factor and after that moment, I decided to watch his career a little closer. Unfortunately, the first big mishap of his career would come during the 1997 Western Conference Semifinals, where he shot 4 air balls to cause the Lakers to lose the game and series essentially. He wasn't quite ready for that role yet.

His second season would be where he started to break out of his shell so to speak, and he would double his scoring output and get voted into the All Star Game as a starter, though he was more of a sixth man still. He'd finish second in the Sixth Man Of The Year voting, and he would stake his claim as a solid force for the Lakers. The next season would see Van Exel and Jones traded so Kobe officially became a starter, but the Lakers still couldn't get it right, as they lost in the Semifinals yet again. Kobe at the time was still young, learning, and growing. At the time, none of us would know what he was to become. Regardless, Kobe would increase his points, his minutes, and stats all around until we got around to the 1999-2000 season, which turned out to be the biggest mark for Kobe in his career at that point.

Phil Jackson, one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport, took over the duties of coaching the Lakers and implemented his storied triangle offense. Now, while Shaq was the bigger star, the more tested veteran, and tough as nails, Kobe was coming into his own, and whenever you have two egos and alpha males jockeying for position, it causes friction. There had been talk of a growing disconnect between Kobe and Shaq, and as history showed us, this was true. However, with that tension and friction came greatness because it was that season that Kobe and Shaq won their first of 3 straight championships to restore the Lakers glory from the Showtime Era. Shaq was easily the MVP and the most dominant big man in the league, but Kobe showed he could put up and prove his doubters wrong during the 2000 NBA Finals. He suffered an injury at the hands of Jalen Rose, who admitted that he intentionally attempted to injure Kobe in game 2 of the Finals. Kobe would miss most of game 2 and all of game 3 that series. Somehow, he felt motivation from that injury and would use that to fuel him to lead the Lakers to a game 4 victory after scoring 22 points in the 2nd half of the game and the game winning shot. What made this even better was that Shaq had fouled out of the game and Kobe was given the opportunity to lead the team again, much like he was in that game against Utah in his rookie season. This time however, he was up for the challenge and he lead his team to victory and was a big part of the Lakers winning the title. Kobe Bryant had arrived.

It would be the next season however, where the hate of Kobe really began. He would see even bigger talk of his issues with Shaq come to light and he would be accused of being selfish. The Lakers as a result suffered as a team and though they made the playoffs with a 56-26 record, it paled in comparison to the 67-15 they had the year before. This was the beginning of prime Kobe, as he would put up 28.5 points per game and continue staking his claim as the best player in the game. As the playoffs rolled around, cooler heads seemingly prevailed between himself and Shaq and Shaq would call Kobe the best player in the league. Kobe and Shaq would work together to win their second straight title and then the next year they did the same thing. 3 straight titles. A dynamic duo. However, Kobe didn't want to be known as the secondary star on a team, he wanted to be THE GUY. He had all the tools. His mirroring of Michael Jordan in style, poise, shooting, and attacking was driving his need to be the best. He felt in his mind that he was the best and he wanted to showcase that. When Shaq left the Lakers, this was the dawning of Kobe Bryant as the MAN in the NBA.

The draft class of 1996 had faltered some by the time Kobe took the reigns as the man in Laker world. Iverson was truly still competing on that high level, while Steve Nash was right there as well, but none of them seemed to possess what Kobe had within him. Iverson is one of my personal favorites, but he seemed to lack the work ethic and the killer instinct that Kobe had. Nash was a great point guard and a deadly shooter, but he lacked what Kobe had. Kobe had staked his claim as the strongest player in the draft class and began etching a legacy as one of the greatest. That killer instinct and drive of his led to a big showing of poetic justice when he would put up 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, while being guarded mostly by Jalen Rose. Jalen Rose, the same man who intentionally caused Kobe to take a small injury during the 2000 Finals. Kobe put up the highest scoring game in the history of modern basketball and the 2nd highest scoring game of all time, and at that point, he became a true legend. This was 2006. Kobe had slowly but surely erased the stigma that he was given after his battles with Shaq and after his Colorado incident which completely wiped away his attempt at a clean image. Now, most of us with common sense are aware that Kobe didn't rape rape any woman in Colorado, but he did make a big mistake in what he actually went through with. This almost ruined the career of one of the most amazing players we have ever witnessed in the game. However, one of the biggest things I know I will miss about Kobe is his will to win and succeed and his drive. That drive allowed him to embrace his role as a "villain" and take all the whispers and gossip about him like a champion.

When the world turned their back on Kobe Bryant, he just kept playing. He just kept fighting. He just kept doing amazing things. I've been talking this whole article as more so of a career retrospective than a goodbye and that's because I don't really want to believe it's over. It can't be over. The greatest player we've witnessed after Jordan and one of the most controversial players in NBA history, Kobe Bryant is one of the all time legends in this game. He gave us 20 years of basketball and put his body on the line to win. He wasn't in the business to make friends or make a super team to win championships, Kobe felt like if he could do it on his own, he would. Kobe had that necessary animal within him that breeds champions and winners. After watching him put on a string of 50 and 60 point games, the 81 point performance and winning scoring titles, I couldn't help but wonder what was left for Kobe. This was 2007. I remember thinking that Kobe must not have too much longer. I envisioned him retiring in the next few seasons, though he was still capable of playing. He hadn't been down with any massive injuries yet and I figured he would walk away before he would see one. I was wrong. On both accounts.

Kobe didn't retire anytime soon after 2007. Instead, he proved that he had only gotten better. He won his first regular season MVP in his 12th season, he made three more appearances in the NBA Finals and walked away with two more championships and he played at the highest level possible. Kobe had been in the debate of who was the best player in the league during his prime with Iverson and some of the other big names during that era. In the prime of the Lebron, Melo, and Wade era, Kobe was right there as well, still in the conversation for the best player in the league. Kobe was always in the conversation. After winning his fifth championship, the Kobe obsession with Jordan kicked in yet again, as he desired a 6th championship. I believe that he could have earned a 6th title, but father time seemed to have other plans. Kobe began experiencing more and more injuries, like the result of such high energy and fast paced play over the years. And this is where I begin my goodbye.

Kobe Bryant is the 2nd greatest shooting guard of all time behind the man he emulated and wanted to follow behind, Michael Jordan. The final years of his career showed us that he was still able to do it, but his body was beginning to tell him otherwise. His 2011-2012 season was an exhibition in how he can still outplay the rest of the league and he opted to not play in the final game of that season, finishing 2nd in the scoring title race. It's almost as if he decided that being ready for the playoffs for his team was more important than winning a solo scoring title. Kobe was becoming more of a leader and knowing he was nearing the end of his career, he pushed himself more and more. However, his need and drive pushed him too far and his Achilles injury in 2013 was the beginning of the end. Kobe was still capable of being a top 5 player in the league up until that point. He was still averaging over 27 points a game and in 2013, he led the Lakers back into playoff contention. It was his 17th year as a Laker. Kobe would push his body too much, as he would play over 40 minutes in many of the final games to push the Lakers to the playoffs.

The next two seasons were hard to watch. Kobe would show more flashes of greatness and despite injury, his desire to win still pushed him to go hard, probably too hard. More injuries. More soreness. His body was beginning to break down. As this season started, we all knew this was the end. We felt it. We knew Kobe was nearing the final hour. However, when he announced it, it was still somewhat of a shock. It's like some of us expected him to still be able to pull it together and maybe go another year or two. Kobe Bryant is basketball. There are only a select few names that truly earn that distinction and Kobe is one of them. When Jordan retired, it was still in his prime, at least the first two times. However, we always hold onto the legends and their legacy. For Kobe, after all the hate he's taken over the years, it seemed as if even his haters had to give him the respect he deserves when he decided it was time. Kobe was a far cry from the arrogant and selfish player that took all the flack or the man who was plagued by a bad incident in Colorado. He was a true veteran. A legend. He took all the hatred and the disrespect and used it as fuel to outperform everyone else. To amaze the world. To stake his claim as the greatest.

This season was really about two things: Kobe Bryant and The Golden State Warriors. Kobe announced his retirement and fittingly his final game was going to be against the Utah Jazz. During the season, we watched Kobe give us flashes of brilliance and showcased the old Kobe at times during the early part of the season as he got into a mode of consistency for a period. It was a highlight reel after he started off the season so poorly with a ton of air balls and badly timed shots. Kobe would find a rhythm later on in the season, and while he wasn't the scoring machine he once was, he would still put on respectable performances. The Lakers as a whole were horrible, and Byron Scott is a terrible coach, but Kobe is Kobe. No matter what, you want to see him play. He would put on a few 30 point performances this season and as his final approached, I sat wondering what type of game he would have. Would he score 20 at least? Would he take 40 shots? Would he have a huge final game and go out the right way? I had no idea what to expect.

I had two screens in front of me last night. One watching the Warriors making history with 73 wins. The other watching the historic final game of Kobe Bryant. As the tipoff occurred, I had goosebumps going across my arm. There's moments like this that you don't forget. I didn't get to witness the game 6 of the 1998 Finals as an adult who understands the game more. I was still a kid then. Jordan winning no. 6 was one of my favorite younger memories, but watching Kobe in his final game might be my greatest sports memory as an adult. Kobe took the court and after the first few shots, I no longer had to wonder what type of night I would witness. I was in for a treat. Kobe was going to go out shooting. He had nothing to lose. Nothing really to gain, but he would stamp his final performance with a reminder of just who he was.

When the game went to halftime,  I remember thinking to myself that if Kobe can just get 40 points tonight, win or lose, this game is one of the best things I'll ever see. It wasn't about winning: the Lakers season was done for. The Jazz were out of contention for the playoffs. This game was simply about Kobe and his last moment in the sun. As the 3rd quarter closed, I felt like I was going to watch Kobe go out in a losing effort. I didn't want to see that occur, but going off of the type of season that the Lakers have had, it was seeming more and more that way.

Kobe Bryant had other plans.

The 4th quarter saw Kobe score 23 points to outscore the entire Jazz team(they only scored 21 points total in the fourth) and the Lakers won Kobe's final game 101-96. The biggest stat on the night? Kobe scored 60 points. 60 points. Let that set in. Kobe hadn't done such in years, and here he was on the final game of his career, putting on one last show for us and leading his team to victory one last time. Kobe's final game was one of the greatest things I've watched from him trying to find his rhythm to the comeback he led to win the game to the amazing 60 points he put up. He went out the right way and that's what makes this goodbye bittersweet. There will never ever be another Kobe Bryant. For 20 years, every season, he's entertained us and amazed us with his talent, his ability, his determination and his drive to win. The final game of his career stands as one of greatest highlights of his entire career and it made me laugh just a bit. There was a list of the games against each team in the NBA and how much Kobe scored against them all. Kobe's highest scoring game against the Jazz was around 51 points before. He gave himself another feat in his final game by having his highest scoring game against the Jazz on the way out. Kobe's last game was a film. It was cinematic. The villain, the veteran, the champion, the hero, the player, the fighter, the athlete.... we saw all of those in each one of those 42 minutes Kobe played in his final battle.

There will never be another Kobe Bryant. The game of basketball, the fans, and people everywhere will miss one of the best players we've ever witnessed. From no. 8 to 24, from the three peat to the back-to-back titles, from 81 points to one last 60 point performance, from the best of times to the worst of times, we salute you Kobe. Thank you.

Mamba out.



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