DAR Sports: An Ode To Kobe Bryant

By Vaughn Resper

January 26, 2020 will forever be a day that you will remember where you were when you received the painful news. This is the day that we lost not only a basketball icon, but a cultural icon. I had just gotten out of church and took a nap when I got the call about his death. When my sister told me about it, I thought it was one of those terrible internet hoaxes where people make up news about someone's death. I thought the Internet made up a sick joke about Kobe being dead so that he could come back and say "I'm still here!". Sadly, that never happened as I checked Google to confirm the truth. Come to find out, this was the sad reality as multiple reports from TMZ, ABC News and others showed up as my results. Then, I went to Social Media (Instagram, Twitter, etc) to find my world crashing down. The most painful words that I could read were true (Kobe Bean Bryant, dead at the age of 41. 1978-2020). There have been deaths that hit very hard before (Michael Jackson, Prince, Macho Man Randy Savage, Nipsey Hussle to name a few) but NONE like this. This was a death that hit me harder than a hit from Thor's Hammer, Mjolnir. Kobe's career has spanned 20 years. TWENTY YEARS!! That has been the span of most of my life. His career spans different stages of my life. From elementary school, middle school, high school and adulthood. When talking about someone who is a generational hero, Kobe definitely fits that mold. Kobe was drafted in 1996, when I was 7 years old. I had just moved from Washington, DC to Lanham, MD and started going to Catherine T. Reed Elementary. His debut ran parallel with my debut at a new school in a new county. Kobe's beginnings did not get off to a rocket start, but rather a rocky start. He was not the brightest star coming out of that legendary 1996 draft, instead it was Allen Iverson. However, Kobe worked through his rookie learning curve and showed flashes of what would make him great later on. Even though his numbers did not immediately show it, Kobe drew early comparisons to his predecessor, His Airness Michael Jordan. The parallels were so strong that Kobe was voted as a starter for the West in the 1998 All-Star Game, only his SECOND season. This was a testament of the great potential that Kobe would soon fulfill as he held his own against Jordan to show how hungry he was to reach that level of greatness. Obviously, Jordan himself as well as the world were all highly impressed. The impact of this would be felt the following year as Bryant was officially inserted into the Lakers starting lineup. 

After the bitter humiliation of a sweep at the hands of the Spurs, the Lakers needed a much needed change in leadership and scenery. The 1999-2000 season was the breaking of a new day in Los Angeles. The Lakers fired Del Harris and hired legendary coach Phil Jackson as the Lakers moved into the Staples Center to start a new journey. The change was evident as the Lakers dominant presence was felt throughout the season. With Shaq as the MVP and Kobe as a rising star in the sidekick role, the Lakers marched through the season with a 67-15 record on their way to their first NBA Championship in 12 seasons. Kobe had his greatest impact in the WCF Game 7 when he delivered the game-winning alley-oop to Shaq to secure the win over the Blazers to make it to the Finals. In the Finals, Kobe's 26 points and 10 rebounds were another sign of his evident breakout into being a bigger star. That impact would lead into the following 2000-2001 season as Bryant would play a much larger role. That season, he averaged at that time, a career-high 28.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg and 5.0 apg, which placed him even closer to Shaq as O'Neal averaged 28.7 ppg. Even though the Lakers finished the season 56-26, they rose their level of play higher than ever in the playoffs with an incredible 15-1 record. At this point, not only was Kobe closing the gap with Shaq, but he was also closing the gap with rival and league MVP Allen Iverson. Their history goes back to the '96 Draft as Iverson was drafted as 1st overall while Bryant was the 13th overall pick. This and the MVP award would be the much needed fuel that Kobe needed for his unquenchable competitive fire as he locked his eyes on Iverson as his next target. To add even more fuel, AI became a star in Kobe's hometown which escalated things. Fast forward to the 2001 Finals and the Lakers would destroy the 76ers in a "Gentlemen's sweep", winning their 2nd straight title 4-1. Shaq was Finals MVP once again, but Kobe zeroed in on Iverson as his defensive assignment. Bryant would continue to have the last laugh as he dominated Iverson and the East in the 2002 All-Star Game with 31 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. Allen had no answer for the Black Mamba on that night.

The Lakers would continue their reign of dominance into the playoffs. After defeating the Kings in a gruesome and controversial 7 game series, the Lakers would obliterate the New Jersey Nets in a 4-game sweep. By this point, Bryant established himself even more as Michael Jordan's heir apparent as he cemented himself as the premiere shooting guard in the NBA. For years, Shaq and Kobe were called the Batman and Robin of the NBA. After the three-peat, Bryant transitioned from Robin to Nightwing as he made his first of 11 All-NBA 1st Team selections. This was also the season where Kobe got rid of the fro and went with the short cut that he had for the rest of his career. I even got my haircut just like his, to the point where my Mom said for years that I favored him. To hear your Mom tell you that you resemble your favorite basketball star can be a huge boost. In 2002-2003, the Lakers would notice a shift in leadership as Kobe became the focal point of the Lakers offense. That season, he led the league in total points for the first time out of four different seasons with a total of 2,461. Bryant also led the league in field goals made with 868 on the way to averaging 30 PPG for the first time in his career. However, the Lakers fell short of winning their fourth straight championship at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. The Summer of 2003 would begin a LONG offseason for Kobe and would change his image in ways never seen before. Kobe was dealing with a sexual assault allegation that would cause him to miss some of the 2003-2004 season as the Lakers added future Hall of Famers, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. The turmoil between Kobe and Shaq would reach its breaking point this season. Even though the Lakers made it to the Finals, the Pistons would conquer this Superteam 4-1. Shaq's time in Los Angeles would come to an end as he was traded to the Miami Heat. As a Lakers fan, this was the end of an era but I knew that it was inevitable. 

In a post-Shaq era, Kobe would undergo a transformation with his image and his game. He even got a tattoo as a sign that he would take on more of an edge as a player. This would also be a time where Bryant would go through a maturation phase as a man as well. During this phase, he also changed his number (more on that later). This coincided with my time in high school as I was making my own adjustments physically and socially. Just like Kobe, I was going through my own growing pains in an uncertain time. Kobe had the platform that he had been waiting for his whole career and he carried that team the best that he knew how to with what little that he had. However, life after Shaq was not very easy in that stage of his career. However, the highlights would be when Bryant led the league in scoring (points, ppg) for the first time in his career with an average of 35.4 ppg in 2006. The signature game of that season was when Kobe scored 81 points as the Lakers defeated the Raptors. Bryant also had a game against the Mavericks where he scored 62 points in 3 quarters. Kobe's brilliance was on full display as he became the centerpiece of the team. After that 2006 season, Kobe would continue his identity change as he changed his number from 8 to 24. This symbolized not only that he wanted to win more than Jordan, but 8x3= 24. That means that Kobe wanted to be 3 times the player that he was before, as it also meant to me that he was paying tribute to winning three straight rings with number 8. Kobe was turning over a new leaf. The biggest takeaway from this was also how determined Kobe was to surpass Shaq on the rings list after he saw Diesel win a ring in Miami with his new Tag-Team partner, Dwyane Wade. For me, it was like watching Andy exchange Woody for Buzz Lightyear. We also saw the return of the Zen Master Phil Jackson back on the Lakers sidelines. Kobe wanted to prove to Shaq and the rest of the world that they should NEVER count him out. This is what fed the Black Mamba even more. Knowing that Shaq's best years were behind him, I knew that Kobe would surpass him when all was said and done because he had much more in the tank. The Black Mamba's first season with number 24 was 2006-2007, when he averaged 31.6 ppg to secure his second and last scoring title. New number, same beast. Unfortunately, that did not translate into team success as there were talks of a possible trade. Little did we know that the only trade that would happen would be Kwame Brown going to Memphis in exchange for Pau Gasol. The Lakers would also draft Andrew Bynum while picking up some other key pieces to build a championship contender. In 2007-2008, we would witness Kobe's first and only MVP season as he averaged 28.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG and 5.4 APG en route to winning this much deserved award while the Lakers were on the mission for another trophy. However, the Boston Celtics were finally resurrected after free agent Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce to form a three-headed green monster.

Ultimately, this rivalry was destined to be reborn as the Lakers and Celtics collided in another Finals battle for the first time in 21 years (Lakers won in 1987). However, as a Lakers fan I knew that Boston had too much firepower and momentum to let this slide through their fingers. The Celtics would defeat the Lakers 4-2 in the Finals with Paul Pierce winning Finals MVP. After that painful loss, Kobe and the Lakers went back to the drawing board to regroup. This proved to be a very interesting and pivotal time. As Shaq was rapidly declining, Kobe was shaping his legacy to cement himself among basketball Immortals while also racing to move past his former teammate in the rings department. Kobe would win back to back championships in 2009 & 2010 as the Alpha Dog leader that he worked so hard to become. Ironically, Kobe won his fourth ring in '09 by destroying Shaq's original squad, the Orlando Magic 4-1. The Black Mamba would get the last laugh on Shaq Diesel as well as the Celtics by winning his fifth and final ring by defeating Boston in 2010. Bryant would also win back to back Finals MVPs in those series. From that point, there would be no question that Kobe became the 2nd Greatest Shooting Guard in NBA History right behind his predecessor, Michael Jordan. That fifth championship unquestionably placed Kobe in the Pantheon of Greatness, making him one of the illustrious Top 10 Players to ever play the sport. Shaq even joined the Celtics to ring chase, but fell short. After winning his fifth ring and the Lakers 16th Championship, Kobe never made it back to that stage. However, he still played at the highest level possible even through injuries while still making All-Star Games (winning his last ASG MVP in 2011). Along the way, Kobe finally surpassed his hero MJ in career total points in 2013.

Bryant enjoyed the greatest final regular season game that anybody could ever have when he scored 60 points to defeat the Utah Jazz in 2016. Kobe enjoyed the honor of having both number 8 and 24 retired by the Lakers. Now, whenever someone turns 24 they say that they are entering their "Kobe year". Dave Chappelle even had a skit where he was shooting something in the trash and said "Kobe". Even Undertaker did the same thing in his "Last Ride" documentary. These are signs that you have transcended into popular culture and have grown beyond the sport. Life outside of basketball was just heating up for Kobe as he won an Oscar for his Movie "Dear Basketball". It was his love letter to a sport that he loved and gave so much to as it gave so much back to him. He even made the cover of NBA 2K17 for the Legend Edition. Now, here is where we tragically come full circle to the year that rocked my world as a Basketball fan. The tributes for Kobe were flooding left and right in many ways, from t-shirts, signs, etc. The Hall of Fame Class of 2020 has become the strongest collectively that I have ever seen with Kobe, KG and Tim Duncan as the headliners. Now, NBA 2K21 has paid tribute with an exclusive Mamba Edition in honor of basketball's National Treasure. Kobe's legacy is unparalleled because of his decorated career and impact. Mamba Mentality has become part of our lexicon because it represents the idea of working hard and diligently to become the very best version of ourselves. Kobe worked in ways behind the scenes to give back to the community of Los Angeles after being their champion and superhero on the court for 20 years. He was also an advocate for Women's Basketball while supporting the WNBA. His foundation even donated $1 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This made me even MORE of his fan. Kobe's imprint is too large to be overlooked or replaced. I think LA Sparks Power Forward/ESPN Analyst Chiney Ogwumike said it best when she said, "Kobe was the biggest ally that we ever had for us 80's and 90's babies who grew up watching and idolizing his game, he was everything. That perfect combination of loyal to his city, winning multiple championships, fierce competitor and most important, human." I couldn't have said it any better. Mamba Out!



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