Let me start by saying I’m a Jordan guy. I was born in Chicago, Illinois and I was raised in San Francisco, California until I moved to the Philippines for good. Each member of my family is a die-hard Michael Jordan fan. Even with all the gambling, the greed and everything negative about MJ, he could do no wrong in my eyes. MJ is simply the best, and I don’t think there are a lot who would argue with that statement. Many would say that Kobe is the closest to Michael that we will ever get in our lifetime. However, even a die-hard MJ fan such as myself has to concede that that would simply be a disservice to the great Mr. Bryant. Despite copying Jordan’s moves and the glaring similarities, Kobe is his own man. I remember reading his stats from high school in Sports Illustrated and going “wow, this kid is good.” His stats from his senior year: 30.8 points, 12 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 4.0 steals and 3.8 blocked shots. It is simply not his fault that he became a basketball player in the era of the Greatest Ever.
Dwayne Wade, Derrick Rose and Dirk Nowitzki said this past season that Kobe Bryant is “our Michael Jordan.” There is always that player we want to emulate, that player who was the best during the time when we were practicing our moves. I remember so many of my friends trying to get that mid-range fade-away jump shot of MJ to work when we were growing up, just like kids are shooting 3’s like Stephen Curry now. Kobe clearly did the same and tried to improve on certain aspects. He had some really good post-moves thanks to Hakeem Olajuwon. He came into the league already a decent shooter from deep with a rate roughly at 38%. Personally, I believe that while he wasn’t a great 3-point shooter for his whole career, he made the 3-point shot a popular weapon that kids growing up during his time wanted to emulate. Many of the current NBA superstars have gone on record to say that Bryant greatly influenced their games. An example would be Curry, who attended a Kobe Bryant basketball camp when he was 16 years old.
The NBA has had many different eras, with certain great players passing the torch to the next superstars. Before Jordan there was Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. After Michael came Shaq, Duncan and Kobe. It seemed that Kobe passed the torch to LeBron but Kobe never really left greatness behind during LeBron’s peak. Now, Kobe is leaving the league in good hands. There are plenty of great players nowadays, players that are rewriting NBA history. Of course, the list starts with Stephen Curry and LeBron James. Then it goes on with Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, Paul George and maybe a dozen more. There are so many superstars in the NBA today: players who are freakishly good athletes (LeBron and Westbrook), players who have unlimited range (Curry and Durant), players who are great at both defense and offense (George and Butler) and players who have amazing dribbling skills (Curry and Kyrie Irving). However, we have yet to see that star that has the consistency of will and determination that sets him apart from the others. That is what Kobe had, which Michael had. This is something LeBron is chided for lacking. Maybe Curry will, but even if he has two historic seasons under his belt, the sample size is simply too small right now. In my opinion, Kobe was rank one when it came to sheer will and determination. This is what made him so special.
Another area where Kobe ranked one in my list: toughness. Whether it was physical or mental toughness, Kobe had it. After getting fouled and suffering an ACL tear, do you think Derrick Rose would’ve gotten up and shot the free throws then walk unassisted to the bench? But that’s Kobe for you.
Let me take you back to two games where Mr. Bryant truly amazed me:
First game: It’s 2004; the Lakers are down 84 – 87 to the Portland Trailblazers. Kobe is 26 years old and at that point has won three straight championships and is in the start of his prime. Gary Payton inbounds the ball to Kobe on the top of the three-point line. He crosses over to the left then shot-fakes but Ruben Patterson, nicknamed the “Kobe-Stopper”, doesn’t bite. This is excellent defending by Patterson; Kobe is now in a pickle. Then he pumps his legs and then fades a little to the right in order to get a shot off. Swish. He sends the game to overtime.
It would be pretty hard to top that, right? Same game, second overtime, the Lakers are down 102 – 104. There is ONE SECOND left in the game. Gary Payton once again inbounds the ball to Kobe, who has to let it go right away. Kobe runs to the left wing, outside the three-point line. Two defenders run at him, Travis Outlaw, 6’9” and noted shot blocker, Theo Ratliff, 6’10”. Kobe is 6’6” maybe 6’7”. Ratliff knew Kobe had to release the ball right away so he goes for the block. He almost gets him but Kobe fades away. Ratliff actually gets a piece of his arm and as a result of this and also because of the fading momentum of Kobe, Bryant lands on his butt near the half-court circle. Swish. They show the replay, the shot is good. It leaves his hand with 0.7 left. Lakers win.
Second game: By the time the NBA All-Star Game was played in February 2013, LeBron James had just won his first NBA championship the previous season and was Finals MVP and Season MVP. LeBron would repeat that season, winning the Finals and getting both MVP’s. It can be argued that LeBron was in his peak while Kobe, 35 years old had already started his decline. In the All-Star Game’s dying minutes, the West is up double digits when the East comes within 8 points. LeBron, with more than 2 minutes remaining, goes for a jumper on top of the free throw line. Kobe blocks his jump shot. The shot never even gets to go up in the air. After a few possessions, the East reduces the deficit to 6 points behind the defense of Joakim Noah and the offense of Paul George. LeBron then tries to take control of the game and drives to his left (his strong side) with 44 seconds to go. Kobe gets his hands on the ball and swats the ball out of bounds. Next possession, LeBron backs Kobe down, gets blocked again but this time manages to get a foul call. The result of that game? The West wins.
There is also this short clip that pretty much sums up Kobe Bryant. This happened when one-time teammate Matt Barnes played for the Orlando Magic. Barnes fake throws the ball in front of Kobe’s face. Kobe does not flinch. He has absolutely no reaction.
Kobe has been so many things to the game. He’s probably most remembered for being one of the greatest scorers of all time, having scored 81 points in a game. He’s gotten a lot of flak over the years because of not passing the ball. Despite this reputation, he is also known for being a 5-time NBA Champion. So, perhaps all the shooting did work for him. Many people know that he won the Slam Dunk competition. Maybe less people know that he was on the All-Defensive Team 12 times (9 times in the First Team). Do you know that he shares the NBA record for most number of 3-pointers in a game (12) with Donyell Marshall and Steph Curry? You might be thinking that chucked up so many of them to reach 12. However, he shot a very efficient 12 for 18 from beyond the arc and an amazing 9 straight 3 point makes.
I think most of us will remember Kobe as this calm, ruthless, focused, determined winning machine. However, during this farewell tour, we saw Kobe the human. We saw the smiling Kobe who hugged all his opponents. We saw the Kobe who made LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Paul George look like giddy kids by giving them autographed shoes. We saw the fierce competitor turn into someone who gives his adversaries respect, especially that time he nearly made Tony Allen cry by again giving his autographed shoes. Before his final game, Kobe made a speech and clearly showed that he was fighting off tears. For the first time in a 20-year career, Kobe has looked like he was having fun more than he was taking care of business.
His last game was against the Utah Jazz. It was the last day of the season and it was a day that history was made. The Golden State Warriors defeated the Memphis Grizzlies to become the team with the most wins in a single season in NBA history; beating out the 95-96 Chicago Bulls by 1 win with a record of 73-9. Surely, this would be the marquee game, right? Maybe it was just me, but everybody was talking about Kobe’s last game. I was in the office working and my brother in the States tells me to fire everyone and just watch the game. He was kidding, of course. But it would be hard not to watch Kobe’s last game. Based on what I saw, he wanted to show us the “machine” who had defeated countless opponents one more time. He had 60 points and essentially the game winning shot. If that’s not a fitting end to a career, I don’t know what is.
It’s funny because Kobe was criticized practically his entire career for not passing the ball enough. But on this night, his final game, whenever he got the ball, the crowd told him to shoot it… and he did. 50 times. Just to put that into perspective, Kobe shot the ball 46 times when he went for 81. The crowd wanted to see the Kobe Bryant they knew and loved (and hated) for the last time. With those 50 shots, we all understood what was happening; Kobe was determined to go out on his terms. He understood that these people wanted to see the Kobe who did not care about chucking up so many shots, for as long as he won the game. We knew who he was. Kobe was not Michael, he wasn’t Magic, he wasn’t Steph and he certainly was not LeBron. Kobe was always his own man, and people who watched him for 20 years had come to know this man. On this night, the last time we were going to see him on an NBA court, the people wanted Kobe to be Kobe… and with those 50 shots, 60 points, the go-ahead basket and the win, he was.