The Los Angeles Lakers' all-time leading scorer has consistently been one of the best players in the league since the new millennium. However, the start of his career was turbulent enough that few truly knew what to expect from the 2-guard.
Kobe Bryant joined the league straight out of high school and initially struggled with the rigors of professional basketball. No longer surrounded by teenagers, the youngster had to earn the respect of grown men and find a way to play alongside them.
Bryant had numerous mishaps due to his self-confidence. Indeed, the swingman had already proved his worth in workouts during the summer with NBA players and even occasionally excelled in practice against some of his teammates with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Consequently, when he entered games, he strayed from plays and ad-libbed to the chagrin of his coaches and teammates. The talent and drive were unquestionable, but reining him in was difficult despite the presence of a dominant personality like Shaquille O'Neal.
Even in his rookie season, Bryant was already an alpha male, and that would prove to shape his relationship with O'Neal.
For all of Bryant's initial issues with his teammates, his talent was undeniable. The guard had a set of one-on-one skills that few could match. He had tremendous ball-handling ability, speed, quickness and jaw-dropping athleticism.
Bryant used these attributes to break down defenders off the bounce and get to the rim where he created highlights.
Thus, when the Lakers faced the Utah Jazz during the 1997 playoffs, they called upon Bryant to bail them out. Utah operated with surgical precision and routinely dispatched more talented teams that simply lacked discipline.
The Purple and Gold qualified on that front. The team simply did not have the mental toughness to maintain its focus when things went awry. Thus, with Los Angeles short on options, a coaching staff spearheaded by Del Harris at the time entrusted its fate to its wild card: Kobe Bryant.
The superstar in the making repeatedly isolated his defender and shot the ball. He manufactured a few awful jumpers that treated the rim like the plague, per Loren Jorgensen of Desert News:
While veterans such as Byron Scott, Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones watched, Bryant tried to will the Lakers to the victory. The rookie took the potential game-winning 3-pointer at the end of regulation, but it was an airball. He then shot three more treys in overtime — all of them airballs.
Bryant was never phased, though. He failed on a fairly big stage while Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were conducting clinics on postseason perimeter play that would go a long way toward shaping the youngster's style.
Setting the Standard
The duo of Jordan and Pippen was the standard by which swingmen were measured, and it appeared as though some notable athletes would follow in at least one of their footsteps.
Grant Hill was initially projected to be the next Jordan when he was in fact an evolutionary version of Pippen initially. Injuries eventually altered his career, and he became a role player instead of an all-time great.
Jerry Stackhouse and then later Vince Carter would be chosen to carry the mantle of the game's greatest player because of their North Carolina Tar Heels heritage. The burden proved to be too much for both, and they became rotation players as opposed to living legends.
Allen Iverson broke through for a period of time and defied the odds. Standing a mere 6'0", he played at shooting guard and dazzled the league with his superb and exciting play.
Iverson led an incredibly flawed Philadelphia 76ers team to the NBA Finals and exhibited just how wonderful of a player he was. Eventually, his fiery personality coupled with his deteriorating skills resulted in him getting traded multiple times.
He had become a headache, and consequently, teams simply shied away from signing him toward the end of his career. The risk became far greater than the rewards.
Perhaps a faction of basketball fans might want to include Tracy McGrady into the conversation, but in truth, he was never truly in the legends discussion. He was an all-world talent that may have been the best player in the league at one point, but he was never viewed as the face of the league.
Furthermore, the first-round failures of McGrady's teams during the playoffs never allowed him to truly enter the dialog revolving around the best ever.
Every perimeter player tasked with carrying the legacy of the league and approaching Jordan's mystique failed save for one Kobe Bean Bryant.
Phil Jackson joined the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1999 offseason, and Bryant's game took off from that point on and he never looked back. Jackson harnessed that potential and helped turn it into one of the best players in the history of basketball.
Since the 1999-00 season, no perimeter player is more decorated both in terms of individual and team success. Bryant outlasted all of the challengers to Jordan's throne and is by most accounts the second-best shooting guard ever.
He is the all-time leading scorer of the most glamorous franchise in professional basketball and has celebrated five championship parades. On his path to immortality, Bryant collected an MVP award as well as two finals MVP trophies.
An argument can be made that Bryant has been a top-five player in every season since joining forces with Jackson in 1999. His remarkable production combined with his numerous memorable performances have turned him into the standard for which current wing players are now measured on.
In a fictional dinner with the top 15 greatest players ever, Bryant's invitation to attend would be sent out via email, text, Twitter, Facebook and every sports channel's ticker given his importance to the sport.
Kobe Bryant's career is approaching its final chapters, but his book has multiple tales already. His legacy is not yet set, but it is nearly done taking shape.
For some, Bryant is simply the greatest scorer of his generation by virtue of his ridiculous 81-point explosion against the Toronto Raptors during the 2005-06 season.
Others will choose to believe the Lakers' all-time leading scorer is the most clutch player in league history given the outrageous catalog of fourth-quarter shots he has compiled during his illustrious 17-year career.
Then again, the title of greatest player ever might well be within grasp given his stellar production during both the regular season and playoffs regardless of the fact that he does not make everyone's all-time top-five list.
It is quite difficult to determine quite specifically what Bryant's legacy will be, but it feels as though he will eventually be remembered as the most polarizing player in NBA history.
Bryant gave the NBA a superstar to bank on after Michael Jordan's retirement and prior to LeBron James' ascension. He was essentially the face of the league during a large stretch of the new millennium.
His terrific all-around play mixed in with his titles turned him into one of the most popular athletes in the sport as evidenced by his jersey sales. Bryant is one of the game's greatest treasures, and yet he keeps reinventing himself with age.
He took notes from the greatest perimeter post player of all time and added a few tweaks that better suited his game:
There are multiple differences between [Michael] Jordan and Bryant, but none more apparent than the ball-handling ability. The five-time champion is simply superior than his predecessor on this front and it is not even close.
Bryant is not only a great ball-handler, he is also a very willing one. In his post-ups, he favors using his dribble and keeping it live until he is ready to get into his shooting motion. With his back to the basket, his favorite moves are the turnaround jumper or the baseline spin off the bounce.
The additions and changes to his offensive repertoire have consistently kept him a step ahead of scouting reports and defenders. This has made him a facsimile of Michael Jordan, and that creates outrage.
Indeed, the similarities between Jordan and Bryant are quite frankly unavoidable. They share the same position, devotion to hard work and an almost homicidal approach toward winning.
Mind you, the temple of Jordan has a myriad of disciples. Many of which are not ready or willing to entertain the notion that their god might have to worry about the rise of a new would-be conqueror. Thus, Bryant has seen his fair share of criticism simply because of the territory he has approached.
The label overrated has been thrown at him, and some have pegged the 2013 NBA Finals as a loss for him given that it elevated LeBron James' status while seemingly reducing Bryant's. The Lakers lifer is simply judged either as an all-time great or as a scrub that will never eclipse Jordan.
There is no middle ground with Bryant. He is either celebrated for his exploits or chastised for his failures. Make no mistake, though, that makes him incredibly compelling.
The path has stopped being interesting with Bryant. That has instead been replaced with a fixation on his destination. Matching Jordan's ring count might be the one factor that no longer makes the future Hall of Fame guard polarizing. Then again, that might be a stretch.
With that said, if we put all of these things together, one thing becomes abundantly clear: There has never been a player like Bryant before, and there probably never will be.
That makes him irreplaceable for the Lakers, the NBA and its fans. He has carried the torch for so long that we cannot even fathom what the league will look like when he is gone. When he eventually decides his time has come, though, none of us will be ready.
Even if Bryant provides us all with a warning prior to his final season, watching him walk away will be an emotional event for all. Like it or not, the game needs him and so do you.
J.M. Poulard is a featured columnist and can be found on Twitter under the handle name @ShyneIV.
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