As the final buzzer sounded on Kobe Bryant’s career last night I couldn’t help but feel the goosebumps. His final masterpiece in a gallery filled with rare items was a 60-point explosion after an o-for-5 start and a comeback win over the Utah Jazz. Some pundits called it “Vintage Kobe” or “Throwback Kobe”, and they’re right. Kobe did turn back the clocks in his final performance. But to me and most who have followed his entire career, this wasn’t “vintage” or “throwback”, it was just Kobe being Kobe. It was the greatest player of my generation being the greatest player in my generation one final time.
Last night’s game, particularly Kobe’s 0-for-5 start, flashed me back to the first and only time I saw Kobe play live. It was a March game in 2009 against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center. The Lakers trailed 87-81 going into the fourth quarter and Kobe was off. As I remember it, he was 5 for 15 with an unsatisfying 13 points. I remember feeling underwhelmed at Kobe’s performance. I had waited eight years to finally see my Michael Jordan play and 13 points going into the fourth quarter wasn’t exactly what I expected out of my basketball idol. Suddenly the Lakers turned it on and roared to the finish, scoring 36 points in the fourth quarter, 15 of which by Kobe. The Lakers won 117-109 and Kobe finished with 28 points, 3 rebounds, and 7 assists. The crowd was probably 40/60 Lakers-to-Bulls fans and every time Kobe would get to the free throw line I would join in with the chorus of roughly 10,000 Laker fans and chant, “M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!” I had to remind myself several times that night I was in Chicago and not the Staples Center. The Lakers went on to capture the title that season by defeating the Magic in the Finals – Kobe’s fourth ring. They won again the following year overcoming the Celtics in seven games – Kobe’s fifth and final ring.
Kobe Bryant is my generation’s Michael Jordan. I would qualify my generation as “early millennial” – born between the late 80s and early 90s. If you were an adolescent between 1999 and 2004, too young to remember Michael Jordan and watching an NBA that hasn’t yet seen the arrival of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, or Carmelo Anthony, which player “ran” the NBA? It was Kobe. Which player was the face of the game? Kobe. Which player helped bring the Lakers back to dynasty status? You could argue, and I wouldn’t disagree, that it was a combination of Derek Fisher, coach Phil Jackson, Shaq, and Kobe. But it was mostly Kobe. Kobe was our Jordan. He wanted to emulate and be Michael Jordan so much that during the first decade of his career he walked, talked, and acted like Jordan to the point that you could watch a highlight tape of them both and not be able to tell the difference in body language.
Kobe had the style, the flash, the celebrity, and he had the moments. Oh, the moments. The snarl stare. The 81-point game. 61 points at Madison Square Garden. Single-handedly destroying the Magic in Game 1 of the 2009 Finals. His arrival in the 2000 NBA Finals. Dropping 55 points on Michael Jordan’s hapless Wizards in 2003. Tearing his achilles in 2013 and still taking two free throw shots. It was all on display in last night’s tribute and it was beautiful.
Is Kobe the greatest player in NBA history? No. It’s still Michael Jordan. Is Kobe even the best player of this generation? I’m not sure. LeBron James will surely give him a run for his money. But to me, that small sample of folks born in the late 80s/early 90s, we became NBA fans at a time when there was no superstar to watch and Kobe became that superstar.
Kobe will be remembered as one of the most polarizing players in NBA history. Just look at the Nike commercial released this week that is intended to be his “farewell” video. “I Hate You” is sung by every fan base Kobe has destroyed in his 20-year career, much to Kobe’s pleasure as he’s conducting them all with a giant smile. Kobe played the villain better than any athlete and we loved him for it. And in his final villainous plot, he took 50 shots, racked up 60 points, and stuck the final knife in every hater’s heart. Love him or hate him, you have to appreciate the man for being genuine.
Thank you and farewell #24. You will be missed.