This past Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Lakers played the Utah Jazz in each team’s last game of the regular season. Without context, this would not seem like a historic night, but all eyes were fixated on the Staples Center court as an NBA legend prepared to suit up for the final game of his career.
Kobe Bryant had not played well of late, and his Lakers are currently an afterthought in terms of NBA playoff relevance. Aside from internal dissent between teammates and Bryant’s farewell tour, they seem to stay out of the news. This is certainly shocking, if only for the sole reason that during Bryant’s career, the Lakers have displayed an aura of dominance that led to their winning five NBA championships in the past twenty seasons.
After declaring for the draft out of high school, Bryant was selected by the Charlotte Hornets with the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA draft and was promptly traded to the Lakers, a move the Hornets surely wish they could undo. In his rookie season, the 18 year old guard demonstrated the will and determination of an NBA superstar in the making. Sure enough, in just his sophomore year, Bryant’s play earned him the recognition of an all-star and set the stage for a monumental career.
After his first three seasons in the NBA, the league took notice of the great things this guard from Philadelphia could do. Together with legendary coach Phil Jackson and recent NBA Hall of Fame inductee Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers captured three consecutive championships from 2000 to 2002 — something that only four other teams in NBA history have been able to do. Bryant exuded an exceptional amount of confidence and consistently made clutch shots for the Lakers. His teammate would get credit for leading the team and won recognition as the Final’s MVP all three years, but Bryant solidified his reputation as a force with a knack for coming up clutch. When Shaq departed for Miami in 2004, the Lakers became solely his — a team that would still go on to accomplish a lot with Bryant as its leader.
It took Bryant a couple seasons to establish himself as the major offensive focus on a winning team, but when he did he seemed to be unstoppable. Night after night he would demoralize opposing defenders and that was no more apparent than when he put up 81 points against the Raptors, a single game outburst unseen since Wilt Chamberlain had his infamous 100-point game in the ’60s. Over the course of the next four seasons, Bryant would go on to average over 30 points per game, something only a handful of players have ever been able to do successfully.
During the 2007-08 season, the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol, forming another duo that would once again make the Los Angeles Lakers one of the most powerful teams in the NBA. They ended that season 57-25, and claimed the top seed in the Western Conference. Bryant’s play was admirable — good enough to win him the Most Valuable Player award. This time, Kobe was no sidekick. He became the leader and thrust his team back into playoff relevance. The team would go 12-3 in the first three rounds, breezing their way back to the finals for the first time since Shaq had departed. They would fall to the Boston Celtics in six games, but if there was one thing Bryant had done consistently throughout his career, it was using challenge and adversity as a means for fueling his fire.
The Lakers went on to win the title the next two seasons. They cruised their way past the Magic and got revenge on the Celtics. This gave Bryant the fifth title of his career and extended the Lakers’ total to an amazing 16 titles. They were arguably the best team in the NBA over this stretch and Bryant was surely the reason for that. When the team traded for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in 2012, the Lakers seemed poised to claim that sixth championship. Injuries and indifference plagued them however, and the team struggled even to make the playoffs. Despite all odds against them, Kobe carried this team on his back. He consistently played heavy minutes, often playing the entire game down the stretch. Just as it seemed that the team had what it took to make the playoffs, Bryant tore his achilles tendon — effectively ending his season and killing any dream of the Lakers moving forward. There are few moments in sports history that more powerfully demonstrate a player’s dedication on the court than Kobe limping to the line to shoot his free throws before exiting to receive medical attention.
Bryant never truly came back from his injury. Just as it seemed he had gotten over one bruise or fracture, he seemed to succumb to another. It was unsettling to see an NBA season where he was not dismantling opponents. Nonetheless Bryant had an amazing tenure and collected a mass of accolades that one can only try to quantify. With an average of 25 points-per-game (PPG), he has garnered more than 33,500 points, third all-time in NBA history. He had 18 All-Star appearances (4 All-Star MVPs), 15 All-NBA selections, and 12 All-Defensive team selections; he earned two scoring titles, two Olympic gold medals, and an MVP award. Continually, Bryant seemed to improve his game and became one of the most dominant two-way players of all time.
More than anything else, he was an influence over an entire generation. We have all done it: pulled out that turnaround fadeaway to launch a paper ball into a trash can, screaming “KOBE!!!” as we watch it go in (or miss by a foot). We only wish we could do what Bryant did, night after night after night. He has left a legacy unlike any other. In no time at all we will be talking about his entry into the Hall of Fame, looking back on the career of a one-of-a-kind player, a one-of-a-kind competitor, and a-one-of-kind presence. Farewell Kobe Bryant, you will be missed.