I remember fondly watching the 1998 NBA All-Star Game.
It was important for two reasons. The first being it was billed as possibly Michael Jordan's last ASG appearance. The second being the kid with the cool afro was waiting to take the reins.
Of course that kid was literally that, a teenager, who had been acquired by the Los Angeles Lakers fresh out of high school only two years earlier.
This kid would eventually mesmerize all NBA fans, becoming the face of the NBA. He was none other than Kobe Bean Bryant.
My first impression of Kobe was based solely on his athletic ability. I enjoyed him winning the Slam Dunk Contest as a rookie in 1996, but admit I didn't see this future.
I had come to accept the fact we would never have another Jordan. Many had tried and ALL had failed. I was fine watching the game for the game, and cool not being madly infatuated by some transcendent figure.
The moment I realized Kobe was "a little different" from the rest probably came during Jordan's second comeback. The night the Black Mamba dropped 55 points in Jordan's farewell at Staples told us all we needed to know-- Kobe wasn't interested in being the next Jordan, only the first Kobe. He treated that game as a statement game for him long term—so all fans would know he wants the crown.
He wants to be the greatest.
Bryant has given us a resume of countless All-Star games, All-NBA First teams, an 81-point monster game and, most importantly, five NBA Titles.
He's been driven for those titles more than anything. He deserves them. No one has worked harder, practiced more, and played through as much pain as Bryant.
He's been ridiculed for being so outspoken but knows one more title will quiet his critics forever. The next ring allows him to join Jordan in history forever. Call those first three titles "Shaq's rings" all you want, but history doen't care and Kobe knows that. All the books will say is a six next to Bryant's and Jordan's championship totals.
Two problems may stop Kobe.
The first being the miles he's logged in the NBA and the age clock he can't stop from ticking. The second and most important being the 6'8" 260-pound Goliath that pulled a power play no one in the NBA ever imagined. And seemingly overnight, he took the title away from Kobe as the league's best player. Not only that, those Jordan comparisons have leapt from Kobe to this new champion, LeBron James.
What Kobe Bryant faces this season is an uphill climb that he may have never expected. If he fails to win a sixth title even after getting his own "super team," the Jordan debate may be all but closed. What's worse is if he loses to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, history will show James as the champion when the two best players of this generation squared off (no matter what Kobe's age is).
So Kobe, now faced with his biggest challenge, must kill two birds with one stone. How about getting a sixth ring to tie Jordan while defeating King James in the Finals? This keeps him in rare air alongside MJ and thwarts any plan LeBron had to overtake him.
Kobe has to know what's on the line here, his legacy.
This year just became the most important he might ever have.
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