“Man…what can I say?” Kobe Bryant said after he scored 60 points on Wednesday, April 13, 2016 in a 101-96 win over the Utah Jazz.
I ask myself the same question. What can I say about Kobe Bryant that probably hasn’t already been said? He’s one of the legendary athletes who you don’t have to say his last name to know who you’re talking about. When you say Kobe, you’re not thinking of a Japanese restaurant.*
*There actually is a Japanese restaurant called Kobe’s in South Ogden and no, I have not had the food. Kobe is a type of beef and the name of the sixth largest city in Japan.
Maybe I should go with a personal narrative because I was never a Kobe fan until last night.
Last night in Ogden, Utah on the legendary 25th street at Brewski’s bar, I sat at my blue plastic covered bar stool with a Redd’s strawberry ale in my hand, peanut shells on the floor below my feet, a few Jazz fans sitting next to me, a few Kobe fans at tables behind me and a big screen TV mounted above us tuned to the final game of Kobe’s career.
It was the fourth period and the game was in the Jazz’s hands. The fan next to me wanted the Jazz to win, but Kobe to get as many points as possible. Right then, he was at 37. It was then I became a Kobe Bryant fan and I watched Black Mamba put on the finale of his show. Over the next half-hour I realized Bryant’s greatness and infectious likability from his way of play.
With 9:31 remaining, Marcelo Huertas passes the ball outside to Kobe Bryant behind the three-point line. No one close to even challenge him. He makes a 3-point jump shot from 26 feet out. The net swishes as the ball slices in. The Jazz fan who had been chanting “GO JAZZ! LAKERS SUCK!” for several minutes to the annoyance of everyone finally SHUTS UP! Kobe has 40 points.
Score: Jazz 82 Lakers 73
You know it’s the style of play that makes him appealing because there really isn’t a lot of reasons to like Kobe Bryant if we’re being honest. We won’t go into them for the sake of brevity, but Kobe has always managed to have a rabid fanbase of not just Laker fans but “Kobe fans” and their devotion to him is at Clarence Darrow/William Kunstler levels.
Case in point, I’m part of an online Facebook group TSDN (The Sports Debate Network) where most of the group members are in the California region. The non-Laker regime of our members decided to “disrespect” the Black Mamba on his last day as an NBA player. The admins (most of whom are part of the Laker fanbase) decided such egregious and malicious behavior was intolerable and kicked the violators out of the group. By my count, at least a half a dozen people are now former members; probably more knowing the admins like I do.
With 8:58 remaining, the bartender turns on the volume to the game. This never happens. After Lakers take it out and pass to Kobe, he’s goes to the edge of three-point arc, dribbling twice, then pulls up in an instant. The defender has no chance. The ball circles around in the rim, but it’s no question. Another three; this time from 24 feet out. Kobe has 43 points and Brewski’s is enjoying it.
Score: Jazz 85 Lakers 76
I was spared by the admins (for now anyway; they could kick me just to do so) because I wanted to give Kobe a day of respect since it was his last day. Granted, my respect is nearly universal with players, but that’s just one example of how powerful Kobe’s reach is. He has ironclad supporters who will not hesitate to strike in any way they can.
The incredible thing is Kobe gets these supporters to follow him with his play alone. He has never tried to endear fans to him. He has never kissed babies or paid for anyone’s college tuition. He’s not a lovable German with a goofy smile down in Texas. He’s not saying his mom is the real MVP. He’s not the guy whose daughter became a media sensation with her insane cuteness. Kobe became an international star because of what he did on the court and because of what he did to do that.
With 5:41 remaining and two assists later, Kobe takes it out. He cuts, weaves, and bobs his way to the free-throw line, pulls up, and fires an 11-foot jumper. The ball makes a thump sound when it goes through the net. Kobe has 45 points and the Jazz crowd of Brewski’s is now worried that their team may lose to a 10-71 team.
Score: Jazz 87 Lakers 84
There has never been a player who worked harder than Kobe. There’s some who might match him, but none can eclipse him. I wrote last year about his toughness and his work ethic. Kobe gives it 1000% in the gym and on the court. It’s how he’s been able to overcome multiple injuries over the last few years. It’s how he was able to play as many games as he did this season so that he was able to finish and say goodbye to the fans.
But what made Kobe the brand name, the superstar, the guy who has magnetized all these fans to his polarizing figure is what has always escaped me. Until the one night, his final night, where I decided to root for him.
With 3:05 remaining and a Jazz run later, the Lakers are running out of time. Bryant has the ball. He’s at the perimeter and is trying to penetrate. He backs in, his dribble steady. Bryant’s catlike quickness allows his to pivot around, move underneath the basket, ducks a block attempt, and tosses up a reverse layup which swirls in. Kobe has 47 points.
Score: Jazz 94 Lakers 86
Rooting against Kobe has always been natural. Growing up three hours away from San Antonio with a mom who had gone to school in Boston, disliking the Lakers was not hard. Especially the name. What lakes are in Los Angeles? Are you kidding me? They couldn’t afford to change the name to Stars or something that actually is applicable?
Kobe Bryant is a face of the Lakers, so I have to dislike him. My first Kobe memory is seeing him on the NBA video game commercial when he said that someone had stolen his moves. He’s a star at this point. He’s known as the team’s second best player because of the massive beast that is Shaquille O’Neal who was the Finals MVP on their three championships together. But Bryant is obviously a key part to the team and at this juncture, he’s still fulfilling his untapped potential.
The question surrounding him is what else can he do?
With 1:45 remaining and after making a pair of free throws a possession earlier, Kobe takes the ball out and then goes in to the basket. The Jazz aren’t even contesting. An easy layup for the future Hall of Famer. Kobe has 51 points.
Score: Jazz 96 Lakers 90
After O’Neal was traded, Bryant became the unanimous team leader of the Lakers. Only the Lakers weren’t the Lakers. Phil Jackson was gone. Derek Fisher gone. Lakers trade Rick Fox. Rudy Tomjanovich has to resign due to health problems. The team misses the playoffs. The only silver lining is Jackson comes back.
The Lakers draft Andrew Bynum and pair him with Lamar Odom who they got from the O’Neal trade. In late January of 2006, Kobe has his greatest game ever with 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game in 1962. But the Lakers are a quick loss in the playoffs and Kobe demands to be traded. Lakers agree, but also try to change his mind.
With 1:27 remaining, Kobe has the ball and is in attack mode. He’s playing like he’s 18 and with a bounce and a gallop, he’s inside and a quick jumper from 15 feet out swishes in. Kobe has 53 points.
Score: Jazz 96 Lakers 92
The Lakers don’t trade Bryant but get Derek Fisher back and then make a great trade for Pau Gasol. By also getting rid of Kwame Brown (who was then destroyed in an analysis by Stephen A. Smith), the Lakers are ready to contend. Bryant meets with Gasol at the Ritz Carlton and says its go time. Time to get that ring. Gasol and Bryant are a click. The duo even speak Spanish to each other on the court to circumvent their opponents. That’s one major thing that’s underrated about Kobe. He’s one smart man and isn’t given enough credit for it.
He wins the MVP that year but the Lakers lose in six to the Celtics in the finals.
The Lakers rebound the next season however and beat the Orlando Magic in five. Then they repeat in 2010 against the Celtics in seven. Kobe Bryant is the Finals MVP both times. He has a handful of rings. He’s won without Shaq but more importantly, he’s won again. His lust to win and be the best has delivered him the ultimate success. Any doubt about him being an all-time NBA player is laid to rest.
With 59.7 seconds remaining, the guy next to me says he wants Jazz to win, but in overtime so Bryant can play longer. Speaking of Bryant, he has the ball and goes up the left side of the perimeter. How the Jazz can’t see it coming is beyond me.
He pulls up and fires a three from 26 feet out; the defender not even able to respond.
The arc of the ball goes as high as the heavens before coming down crisply through the net. Mike Tirico explodes in excitement: “IT’S GOOD!!!! OH OH OH!” The Jazz fans are stunned and are feeling what I’ve been feeling for last 25 minutes. That he’s going to win the game somehow. Kobe has 56 points.
Score: Jazz 96 Lakers 95
The final years of Kobe are not pleasant. 2011 features the first sweep of a Phil Jackson team by the eventual champion Mavericks. Odom and Bynum are ejected in the Zen Master’s final game and Bryant has to be wondering about the future. He’s closing in on 35, the twilight years are upon him.
A trade for Chris Paul is nixed by the league office in what’s a controversial decision. The team tries to stay contenders by getting Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Sadly, Nash is healthy for maybe two games in his time in LA and Dwight Howard bolts for the Houston Rockets in free agency after one year.
Kobe also is hit with injuries. An Achilles tear, a torn rotator cuff, and a knee fracture end three separate seasons. His body is breaking down. But his heart and iron will aren’t ready to give up. He wants to go out the way he wants to. On the court.
With 31.6 seconds remaining, Kobe takes the ball out. With the help of a screen, he fakes left, goes right inside and from 20 feet out, he pulls up, the shot avoids the defender’s outstretched block attempt, and the lead changes! The Jazz fans groan. Kobe has 58 points.
Score: Lakers 97 Jazz 96
Kobe Bryant. The will. The fortitude. The magic. The smooth as silk athleticism that only a blessed few have ever had. The joy of watching all of that win. That’s what so much fun about Kobe. That’s why his fans love him the way they do. Because the man gives them the best he’s got and win or lose, he’s going to be exciting to watch. More often than not, he’s going to slice the other team apart and it’s going to be fun to see. No wonder some fans try to argue him over Jordan. It’s moments like these where he takes command of the ball, the court, and with the go-ahead shot, the audience that make him legendary. That’s what I’ve been missing out on until tonight. What an amazing feeling. What an amazing player.
With 14.8 seconds remaining, Trevor Booker has to foul Kobe and put LA in the bonus. Kobe goes to the line for his final ever free throw attempts. He hits both. Kobe has 60 points.
Score: Lakers 99 Jazz 96
The final seconds of the game feature the Jazz screwing up a layup attempt (which I still don’t understand the strategy there) and then Jordan Clarkson getting one last dunk with Kobe Bryant assisting him. The obnoxious Jazz fan nearby says: “Are you kidding me?!”
Final Score: Lakers 101 Jazz 96
“What else can I say? Mamba out.”