On November 5, 1996, a then 18-year-old kid, fresh out of Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania, recorded his first NBA point. It was during a road game against the New York Knicks, signifying the first of 33,643 points, 18 All-Star games, five championships, two Finals MVP awards, two scoring titles, a league MVP award, and unprecedented amounts of fame. It turned into a Hall-of-Fame career, one that closely resembled the one of Michael Jordan.
There’s a reason why Kobe Bean Bryant is referred to as the closest we’ve ever seen to Jordan.
He retired as the last remaining player from the notorious 1996 NBA Draft, arguably the best in league history. 20 years with the same franchise, through thick and thin, from a kid to a man.
Bryant’s career has been defined as one that featured a competitive drive that was second to none, toughness that was unparalleled, and a commitment to the game in which he has played professionally for more than half of his life. Even after his career was put in question following his devastating Achilles injury in 2013, Kobe proved his doubters wrong, fighting back pain the moment he fell and tore the tendon against the Golden State Warriors.
ESPN’s Baxter Holmes detailed the night the night Kobe as we came to know him truly ended. In the following excerpt, he recapped what occurred on that April night in the Staples Center.
“With 3:08 to play in the fourth quarter and the Warriors leading by two, Bryant, in his 45th minute of the night, drives against Barnes — and collapses. Bryant feels a sensation in the back of his left foot. “Did you kick me?” he asks Barnes. Barnes says no. “F—!” Bryant says. Teammates surround him. He can feel his Achilles roll up his leg.
And then he does the most Kobe Bryant thing ever. Using his fingers, Bryant tries to pull the tendon back down.”
The fierce, ruthless edge he played with and the determination he hid within himself led to countless stories from players and former teammates around the league, from picking the brain of Jordan to waking up at 5 a.m. to shoot and lift weights, drenched in sweat two hours before the start of morning practice.
That was Kobe. That’s what he will be remembered for.
“It’s surreal, it’s hard to describe. I mean, it’s almost like you’re in a fog. Everything is moving extremely slow, yet extremely fast. And I’m trying to look and take it all in…It’s a dream.”
That was Kobe after a vintage Kobe performance. It was the small-afro Kobe we came to know during his championship run, the Black Mamba who clinched his teeth in crunch time when a fadeaway struck the bottom of the net with seconds winding down.
But this time, it was different. It was after a sellout crowd at the Staples Center witnessed the fifth-highest scoring output of his career. 60 points at 37-years-old, playing like the 17-year-old who sprung into the league as a bright-eyed, destined Italian-born star. He’s done it for years under the lights of L.A. and its fans, the ones who have supported him since the moment the Lakers traded for his draft rights from the Charlotte Hornets.
He’s grown with the city. The city has grown with him. They stuck by when Shaquille O’Neal left town after the duo won three championships together, when he was accused of raping a Colorado woman back in 2003, and when the Lakers finished Bryant’s career with an abysmal 17-65 record, the worst in franchise history.
They were there for January 22, 2006.
So we had a birthday party at the house the day before the game where we had family and friends come over. It was a great day with face painting and all that stuff. That night, I had my therapist come over and work on my knee because my knee was giving me a lot of problems. So I had my knee worked on and ordered a pepperoni pizza with grape soda. I finished it that night.-Kobe Bryant, via Arash Markazi
81 points after a night of pizza and soda. Sore knees. A grueling grind to get his team into the postseason. The second-highest output of points in a game in league history behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100. 46 field goal attempts and 28 makes. 7 of 13 from three, 18 of 20 from the free throw line. And he played 42 minutes.
It was two years and four months after that, Kobe went from fans chanting his name at his home arena to the Celtic faithful booing him every time he touched the ball in the 2008 NBA Finals, where Boston defeated the Lakers in six games.
He was the villain in every road arena he stepped into. They hated his guts, and he hated theirs. Legend has it that he wouldn’t even greet players with a smile or handshake at center court prior to the game, striking fear and his unfriendly mentality into others before the opening tip-off.
It’s almost ironic that during the week leading up to his retirement, Nike aired a commercial in which Bryant orchestrated a crowd filled with hateful fans and rival players in admiration over their lack of support for him.
But for the past year, everyone has grown to love Kobe. LeBron James and other stars have asked him to autograph shoes after games. Chris Webber advised his teammates to steal things from his locker and cherish them as items of memorabilia. Even opposing venues held special tributes for him, highlighting the career of one of the NBA’s all-time greats before he played his last road game there.
“And now, at 6-6, 212 pounds from Lower Merion High School. Making his final appearance at the Palace of Auburn Hills in his 20th NBA season, 17 NBA All-Stars, 4-time NBA All-Star MVP, 15-time member of the All-NBA team, 2-time NBA Finals MVP, 2007-08 MVP of the league, 5-time NBA champion, 2-time Olympic gold-medalist, and the third all-time leading scorer, ever, in the history of the NBA… How ’bout a big round of applause for right now on the floor, No. 24, the Black Mamba, Koooobe Bryant.”
That’s the introduction Pistons PA announces John Mason delivered during Bryant’s last game in Detroit, in the same arena that despised him during the 2004 Finals.
For once in his career, he was loved. He embraced everything.
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.
And that’s OK.
I’m ready to let you go.
I want you to know now
So we both can savor every moment we have left together.
The good and the bad.
We have given each other
All that we have.-Excerpt from “Dear Basketball,” written by Kobe Bryant
When trainers revealed to Kobe that his Achilles tendon was indeed torn, he was, as Lakers Physical Therapist Judy Seto said, “definitive,” as if he knew that was the end. Sure, that may have been the end of the Kobe that we all grew accustomed to, but it wasn’t the end of the grit and hard work he put into the game.
He shuffled his way to the bench and back onto the floor to shoot two free throws. After he made both, he shuffled back into the locker room, refusing help from his teammates and carrying his own weight, which he had done for so many seasons prior to that one.
When longtime trainer Gary Vitti revealed to him that the tendon was gone, Bryant threw two Gatorade bottles at the wall and sat in anger, tears flowing through the contrasts of his red eyes.
That was the beginning of the end.
But for old times’ sake, he brought showtime back to Los Angeles one last time before he walked away from basketball. Shaq challenged him to go for 50, but he scored ten more than that. The clutch gene kicked back in during his final quarter, where he scored 23 points in route to a career-ending 101-96 victory over the Utah Jazz.
Kobe dropping 60 in his final game? Nobody saw that one coming.
Showtime was back for the first time in a long time. When the moniker’s original player, Magic Johnson, introduced Kobe to the crowd before the game, he referred to him as the greatest Laker of all-time. From one to another, the men who are responsible for ten of the team’s 16 titles.
Throughout the night, there were tributes, smiles, tears, embraces, celebrity sightings, money spent on everything Kobe, and lots of cheering every time No. 24 touched the ball.
And then greatness happened. The last of his generation showed us why we came to know him as one of the best players of all-time in any sport. When he walked of the court for the final time, there were no regrets, no tears, no second-guessing. There wasn’t a doubt left in his mind that he had given every last ounce of energy in his body to basketball. There was nothing left to prove, nothing left to give to the game. Nothing but his best effort each and every night.
He stood at center court, towel draped over his depleted body as he address the crowd with a wide smile on his face. He thanked everybody, from the fans to former and current coaches and players. He looked at his wife and kids and thanked them. That was his final moment, his last steps on the court in a Laker uniform to come after a few more waves and handshakes.
And we both know, no matter what I do next
I’ll always be that kid
With the rolled up socks
Garbage can in the corner
:05 seconds on the clock
Ball in my hands.
5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1
Love you always,
“What more can I say?” asked Bryant to the crowd. “Mamba out.”
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