The old adage is “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” and different cultures have idioms to that effect. There’s something about the present that doesn’t allow us to appreciate it until it’s the past. Well the past is now for basketball fans who couldn’t imagine the game without one of it’s greatest players, Kobe Bryant.
I grew up a Kobe fan, it worked out well since Kobe really began ascending when I was very young and just getting into basketball. He won his first championship when I was six and, along with Shaq, won three titles in a row before I was 10. As he ascended up the ranks I continued to support him but
questions emerged both on and off the court.
Kobe’s polarization really began off the court in Colorado and followed him for years (some would argue to this day). Kobe was accused of rape by a hotel employee in Colorado in July 2003. The charges were dropped after the accuser refused to testify in court and while Kobe admitted to adultery, he said the actions were consensual.
On the court Kobe continued to dominate and improve year after year but even as the Lakers won three straight championships, Kobe was overshadowed by the Lakers other superstar Shaquille O’Neal, leading to the turmoil that turned Kobe into a more polarizing figure than ever before. As Shaq got the press, won NBA MVP, and was beloved by millions, Kobe was also there waiting for his time to shine.
The Feud that Halted a Dynasty
Who threw the first shot? That’s a bit debatable but most people would argue Kobe drove Shaq out of Los Angeles. That’s not exactly the whole story.
Both players arrived in L.A. in 1996, Kobe the kid straight out of high school who was the future, and Shaq the dominant force from the Orlando Magic who was the present. Shaq reportedly didn’t like Kobe having better jersey sales than he did and continually called Kobe a selfish player in the first few years of his career. Winning heals all in sports though, so the Lakers hired the six-time NBA Champion Phil Jackson to head the the team and hopefully mend the rift. It even worked for a while when Kobe and Shaq managed to break through and win the championship in the 1999-2000 season and it seemed like all would be well. The two even praised each other after the iconic alley-oop helped fuel a 15-point comeback against the Trailblazers in game seven.
The next season though, the rivalry continued. Shaq reportedly showed up out of shape for the season and struggled at the beginning of the season, while Kobe started the year hot even leading the league in scoring for the first few weeks. After being criticized by Kobe and Jackson, Shaq responded by saying, “When it was clear that everything went through me, the outcome of it was (a record of) 67–15, playing with enthusiasm, the city jumping up and down and a parade. And now we’re 23–11. You figure it out … I don’t know why anybody else would want to change – other than selfish reasons.” Kobe defended himself but was fed up behind closed doors by many reports. The Lakers still had enough talent to win a second championship and the duo survived for another year despite the animosity.
They managed to win a third consecutive title in 2001-2002 by sweeping the New Jersey Nets, the team’s first championship series sweep in its history. All remained relatively quiet and with three championships a
dynasty appeared to be brewing. The next season saw Shaq injure his toe and the Lakers struggled because of it. Kobe managed to carry the team for much of the season and they did finish with the fifth seed in the West, but were ousted in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs.
The 2003-2004 season is where everything fell apart. In the off-season, Bryant was charged with rape in Colorado, on the court the Lakers signed Gary Payton and Karl Malone near the ends of their respective careers to create a dream team. The team performed fairly well throughout the season, but Kobe and Shaq threw barbs at each other, with Shaq questioning Kobe’s selfishness and Kobe resenting the fact that Shaq didn’t reach out to him throughout the legal proceedings. Ultimately, the Lakers talent took them to the NBA Finals where they were dominated by the Detroit Pistons in five games.
Things boiled over into the offseason when Mitch Kupchak chose to sign Kobe to a long-term extension and Shaq demanded a trade, being moved to Miami. Phil Jackson was caught in the crossfire as the Lakers chose not to bring him back either. The Lakers made their choice: Kobe was the guy.
Life Without Shaq
The city of Los Angeles was divided once Shaq left. The Lakers made it clear that they were choosing the future over the present and it rubbed many people the wrong way. The pressure would be on Kobe immediately to perform at the highest level and he more than exceeded expectations.
The first season was difficult. Kobe averaged 27.6 points per game (PPG), but he had little help and no coaching stability. The team failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 11 years but help came at the end of the season. The Lakers resigned Phil Jackson to coach the Kobe-led Lakers and things began looking up.
Jackson was back despite having heavily criticized Kobe in his book The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul, but Bryant embraced the decision public
ly. Together they became a force as Kobe had arguably his greatest individual season ever, carrying a team that included starters such as Smush Parker, Luke Walton, and Chris Mihm at various points in the season to the playoffs with a 45-37 record. Kobe averaged a stunning 35.4 PPG that season, the eighth highest in NBA history and had some of the greatest individual performances of all time.
Two classic Kobe games come to mind from the 2005-2006 season. The first is his 62 point outburst in just three quarters against the Dallas Mavericks. He outscored the Mavericks 62-61 through three quarters, the first time any player had done that since the invention of the shot clock, but sat out the fourth quarter because the Lakers were easily winning the game. The second game came about a month later on January 22nd, 2006 against the Toronto Raptors. Kobe managed to score 81 points in that game, a game that was close into the fourth quarter, and help the Lakers get the win on a night that would be remembered forever. Kobe’s 81 point game is second only to Wilt’s 100 on the all-time single game list. He also became the first player since 1964 to score 45 or more points in four consecutive games.
Aside from Lamar Odom, that Lakers squad had no help for Kobe on board so he carried them into the playoffs. The Lakers gave the Phoenix Suns all they could handle, but fell to them in seven games. Kobe was unable to carry this team to greater heights, but help was on the way.
Kobe switched to number 24 in the 2006 offseason, a number he wanted since he was a rookie and while it didn’t change a game it seemed to change his fortune. Shaquille O’Neal’s Miami Heat won the 2006 NBA Championship, giving Shaq a title without Kobe and raising doubts about Kobe’s ability to win without Shaq. The next season, Kobe again averaged over 30 PPG, but his team again fell to the Suns in the playoffs.
Near the end of the 2006-2007 season Kobe demanded a trade, but backed off of those comments almost immediately. It was clear he was frustrated with his lack of help and the Lakers were given a silent message: Make a move to get Kobe help.
They did just that late in the 2007-2008 season, making a trade for star power forward Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies. With Gasol the Lakers finished 57-25 and Kobe won his first and only MVP award. The Lakers got out of the first round by sweeping the high-scoring Nuggets and things were looking up. The Lakers faced the Jazz in the second round and, while they hit a snag in games three and four, they still managed to win the series in six games and put themselves in the Western Conference Finals. There they beat the Spurs fairly easily in five games sending Kobe to his first Finals since Shaq’s departure.
The Lakers had home court advantage in the finals but lost it in six games to the Celtics star-studded team, and Kobe’s coronation was put on hold.
Getting Over the Hump
The next season Kobe played his first full season with Gasol and things couldn’t have gone better. The Lakers finished a staggering 65-17 and first in the Western Conference. They beat the Jazz in five games and managed to hold on against the Rockets in seven games before facing the Nuggets in the Western Conference Championship. There the Lakers won in six games and went to their second consecutive Finals appearance.
They faced the surprising Orlando Magic, with their star center Dwight Howard leading a lot of three point shooters on the outside. But Kobe put his doubters to rest in the series, averaging 32.4 PPG, 7.4 assists per game (APG), and 5.6 rebounds per game (RPG), becoming the first player since Michael Jordan to average 30, five, and five.
Kobe got the proverbial monkey off his back with the championship by putting to rest the idea that he couldn’t win against Shaq but he still had the finals loss against the Celtics lingering in his mind.
The Celtics-Lakers rivalry was certainly not what it used to be, when Bird and Magic traversed the court and rose the definition of rivalry to mythic proportions but it did gain traction again when the Celtics, led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen beat the Lakers in 2008. So when Kobe led the Lakers back to the finals in 2010 for the third consecutive year, he was happy to be able to have a chance to defeat the team who beat him two years prior. The series went to seven games as many expected it to, and in game seven Kobe may not have had a classic Kobe game, but he did manage to perform well in the fourth quarter and grab 15 rebounds in the game, to win his fifth championship.
After the fifth championship Kobe didn’t get back to the championship again despite his best efforts to tie Michael Jordan’s six titles. The next two seasons saw the Lakers knocked out in the second round, once by the Mavericks and then by the Thunder. Kobe had some minor injury problems but was known for his toughness and played through much of it. In 2012 L.A. managed to make a splash by trading for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Projected by many to be a great team the Lakers became a disappointment.
Nash hardly saw the court as age and injuries caught up with him in his time with the Lakers and Dwight Howard was reportedly not happy with the Lakers or Kobe. Howard’s back caused him problems and he wasn’t the same player he was in Orlando. Kobe began playing 40 or more minutes every game down the stretch of the season as they fought for a playoff spot and it caught up to him.
In the fourth quarter of the Lakers game against the Warriors, Kobe tore his achilles, ending his season. But before he left the court he hit two big free throws that tied the game at 109 and helping them secure the number eight seed. The moment was a testament to Kobe’s toughness but also represented the beginning of the end.
Father Time is Undefeated
Early next season Kobe signed a two-year extension for over $48 million, one that he was criticized for taking. Some critics argued Kobe should have taken less money to help the team sign help for him, but Kobe took what was offered to him. In 2013-2014, Bryant was hampered by his knee injury, which he tried to fix with various methods. His season was cut short in hopes he could get healthy for next season. In that next season Bryant tore his rotator cuff again ending his season early and proving the end was near.
Kobe announced early next season, on November 29, 2015 that he would be retiring in an open letter in The Players’ Tribune. Bryant rested throughout the season to stay healthy down the stretch and was celebrated throughout the season, culminating in his final game.
In his final game the Lakers played at Staples Center against the Utah Jazz. In that game Kobe pulled off an incredible 60-point performance including a nine point comeback late in the fourth quarter and hitting the game winner. Kobe outscored the Jazz in the fourth quarter 23-21 and went out with a classic “Kobe” performance.
Reflection: The NBA without Kobe
Kobe retired and went out with his great performance but the last few seasons tainted some of the memories Lakers’ fans like myself have of Kobe. I choose to remember the five championships Bryant helped bring Los Angeles. I choose to remember Kobe single-handedly carrying atrocious teams to the playoffs in the mid-2000’s. I choose to remember Kobe and Pau Gasol revitalizing Lakers basketball. The reason this is what I remember about Kobe is because he gave me these memories through his determination and love of the game. We still have superstars and the NBA will survive without him, but the memory of Kobe walking on a torn achilles and crying because he couldn’t play in the playoffs will always resonate in my mind. When will we get a player with that kind of emotion again? When will we get a player who plays 20 years for one team and becomes synonymous with that city? When will we see 81 points again? I don’t know but I’ll never forget that I saw it. For that Kobe, I thank you.