Kobe Bryant and I grew up together.
No, not in a literal sense, obviously. I mean, he’s 12 years old than me. And he never lived in the middle of nowhere, Indiana. Plus I’ve never had any sort of contact with him. And I’ve only had the opportunity to see him play once in person, and that was from the nosebleeds.
But we have absolutely grown up together.
You see, as long as I’ve known basketball, Kobe has been one of the biggest stars. You see, I grew up as a wrestling fan. Yeah, it’s not something I share often, especially on a basketball site. My Sunday and Monday nights were spent watching WWF, not the NFL or NBA. But it was Kobe who piqued my interest as I flipped through the channels one non-wrestling night.
I had stumbled across the 1999 NBA All-Star, basically Kobe’s coming out party. I didn’t know the significance of it, but what I knew was that I liked him. He grabbed my curiosity and kept me interested in the team. Little did I know at the time, but this man would become the biggest reason I watched basketball and the the constant source of my emotional roller coaster ride with the Lakers.
I felt pride as an Indiana boy watching Kobe and Shaq win their first title. Kobe had given me ultimate bragging rights with his Game 4 heroics where he scored 8 points in overtime and secured a Lakers victory.
I felt joy watching the Lakers win their second and third titles in convincing fashion over the 76ers and Nets. But even 12-year old me could tell that Kobe and Shaq had problems going forward.
I felt frustrated watching the Kobe and Shaq do their best to will the injured and battered 2004 Lakers past the Pistons, only to be repeatedly denied. I could tell as I watched the Pistons celebrate their title that I had just witnessed the last game of Kobe and Shaq in Lakers uniforms.
I felt ecstasy when it was announced that Kobe was staying with the Lakers. I had a personal battle of whether to keep my fandom with the Lakers, whom I’d grown fond of, or to follow Kobe Bryant to whichever team he’d join. Luckily, I didn’t have to make a decision as Kobe didn’t sign away his career by joining the Clippers.
I felt awe as I watched Kobe put on two of the greatest scoring seasons we’ll ever witness. From 81-point performances to 62 points in 3 quarters to unfathomable strings of 40 and 50-point games, Kobe seemed to defy logic. Throw any defense you wanted at him and he’d laugh at you while drilling another jumper and stealing your team’s soul.
I felt anger when Kobe demanded a trade. No, I wasn’t angry at Kobe, but angry with Kobe. I felt his frustration that the Lakers felt content with a Luke Walton, Smush Parker, Lamar Odom, and Kwame Brown starting five. Wasn’t this the same franchise that strung together three straight titles just five years ago?
I felt shock when I found out the Lakers dealt Kwame Brown for Pau Gasol. No one was that dumb, were they? I mean, even I knew Pau was a perfect fit for Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. But this meant Kobe has the big man he so longed for and the talks of him being traded were officially put to rest.
I felt embarrassment in watching the Lakers first blow a 24-point lead at home to the Celtics, then get throttled in Boston in Game 6 as the Celtics closed out the Finals convincingly. I often pride myself in a fan that never giving up on a team and watching a game throughout. In this instance, I barely made it past half time.
I felt relief when Kobe finally got that elusive fourth title. The sentiment all along was that Kobe couldn’t win without Shaq. Watching Kobe jump up and down in joy as the buzzer sounded after Game 5 in Orlando, I could tell the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders.
I felt jubilation watching Kobe stand on the scorers table, arms extended, confetti falling as he celebrated his greatest victory as a Laker: Game 7 over the Boston Celtics. Despite winning the title a year before, there was still a looming cloud signaling that things weren’t finished. The Lakers had to beat the Celtics to make it right again. And what better way than at home, in a Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Sure, Kobe played terrible, mainly because he wanted to win so badly. But watching him grab 15 rebounds and force his way to the basket late made me re-realize why I loved this man and his never die attitude so much.
I felt helpless as I watched the Lakers get swiped away in successive playoff trips. First, the Dallas Mavericks shot their way past the Lakers in one of the most impressive shooting performances I’ve seen. Then the Thunder beat the Lakers with speed, athleticism, and just all-around better play the following year. It looked like the Lakers, specifically Kobe Bryant, had succumbed to old age and looked to be fading into the sunset.
I felt pride once again this season as I watched Kobe Bryant prove everyone, including myself, wrong as he turned back the hands of time and played like the Kobe Bryant of earlier years as he soared to the rim for posterizing dunks and buried every big shot the Lakers needed. His greatest performance came against the Raptors, as he hit three consecutive threes, the last of which with only seconds left on the clock, to force overtime. Then, in overtime, he blew past a double team like prime-Kobe and hammered home the game winner.
I felt broken watching Kobe limp off the floor against the Warriors. I vividly remember watching the game in my bedroom, cheering along the Lakers. After watching Kobe hit back-to-back threes to pull the Lakers even like he’d done all season, I sensed Kobe was about to take over the game. Then, in one moment, everything came crashing down as he hit the floor, clutching his ankle. I’d seen Kobe battle through seemingly every other injury possible, but this time, you could tell there was no battling back on this one.
As I watched Kobe limp to the huddle, then back out to the free throw line, a sense of “this is it” started to come over me. My original thought was that he had just ruptured his Achilles and I know how crippling those injuries can be. At 34 years old and having 17 seasons on his legs, maybe Kobe was falling apart. Maybe this one was too much for Kobe Bryant. Rightfully so, I got a little emotional watching Kobe limp off the court and into the locker room, knowing this may be the last time seeing him in a Lakers jersey.
Watching a teary-eyed Kobe talk to reporters after the game only added to the grief. I was still awake when Kobe posted to his Facebook a status where he vented. Even Kobe began questioning himself. “Now I’m supposed to come back from this and be the same player or better at 35?!?”
Then I thought back. I remembered the brash youngster who first grabbed my attention in a meaningless All-Star game that he was playing with a purpose. I thought back to the tip-in against Indiana, the culmination of one of the Black Mamba’s first clutch performances. I relived the highs of those titles and the lows of those disappointing finishes. I longed for the Kobe who could put up 50 points on just about any given night. Even the Kobe who exorcised his demons with back-to-back titles just a few seasons ago seemed like a distant past.
I still don’t know what to expect from Kobe Bryant in the future. Will he be the same player he was this past season? It’s hard to say anything is impossible with Kobe, but it’s probably the best word to use for this situation. Hell, will he even play past next season? Prior to injury, the talks of retirement from Kobe himself were gaining steam.
An NBA without Kobe Bryant for me would be like Christmas with no presents; it’s still fun, but it’s not nearly as enjoyable. It won’t be as fun watching number 24 come trotting out of the locker room donning the purple and gold. Nobody will be able to replace watching Kobe back down a defender, seeing a double team come, and hit that patented turn-around, fade-away jumper that leaves defenders shaking their heads in amazement. As long as I’ve known the NBA, I’ve known Kobe to leave you in amazement once a night. He’s been a steady constant for the last 17-years of my life.
But then I remember whom I’m talking about. You can’t compare Bryant, his game, his style, or even his recovery to any player, past or present. No player has come back from an Achilles injury to be the player they once was, but none of those players were the Black Mamba.
And if I can count on anything in life, it’s the Black Mamba leaving me amazed just one more time.