Anyone who has ever read anything that I've written about Kobe Bryant knows that I have been a huge fan of his—and I still am.
Kobe has treated us to some of the most memorable moments the NBA has seen in the post-Jordan era.
Unfortunately, he has also given his fans some disappointment to go along with his hoops greatness.
While his infidelity, smugness, and often abrasive personality have given rise to quite a bit of unnecessary venom from sportswriters and NBA fans, his basketball skill has usually been unchallenged.
This season had been a sort of coronation of Bryant, as he finally seemed to come from under the shadow of the baggage he had accumulated over the years—the Shaquille O'Neal trade, the sexual assault trial, the "selfish on-court" play, and the willingness to throw his teammates and management under the bus.
He won his first NBA MVP award, and he finally led his team back to the NBA Finals—in a season that began with his tenure as a Laker in serious doubt.
Bryant and the Lakers' blitzkrieg of the Western Conference in this year's postseason had many basketball pundits etching L.A.'s name on the Larry O'Brien trophy before they had even stepped on the floor for Game One against the Celtics—present company included.
Even after the Lakers went down two games to zero, most people thought that once Kobe went home to play in front of his Hollywood pals, the series would dramatically alter course.
It almost did.
After wining an ugly Game Three at home, the Lakers started Game 4 playing as if the Boston Celtics didn't even belong in the same league as them. Then came the biggest collapse in Finals history, and the writing was on the wall. Surely Number 23 would never have given up a 24-point lead at home.
Like the guy said in the GMC commercials that saturated the Finals coverage:
Kids in America don't walk around with shirts that say "I almost won".
This was supposed to be Kobe's year. It was all laid out for him. The stars appeared to be aligned in just the correct sequence for us to witness another Jordanesque moment of KB 24, as we all prepared for the inevitable tears and champagne that would finally solidify Bryant as being truly "like Mike."
But alas, there will be no cheers in Tinseltown. No parades down Rodeo Drive. No I told you so from Kobe or his legion of fans.
After Game Four's meltdown, the Lakers managed to win an even uglier Game Five to send the series back to Boston with a chance to make history. More importantly, a chance for Kobe to make his own history.
No team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the Finals. Surely if there was a player who could pull off the impossible, it was the guy who once scored 81 points in a single game. The guy who once outscored the Western Conference Champions by himself over three quarters. The guy who once scored over 50 points in four straight games.
The moment was there for Kobe to seize and KB24 fans waited with baited breath to say to the world we told you so. But the moment never came.
Bryant nailed three shots from the behind the arc in the early moments of the first quarter in Game Six, and I thought to myself, those shots were pure liquid.
I had flashbacks of Jordan dropping 63 on Bird and Co. in 1986.
But that was it. The highlights were over, as Boston's suffocating defense and spirited bench play eventually ran the Lakers out of the gym by halftime.
Forget the controversy surrounding the officiating. Forget the fact that the Celtics did in fact play superior defense than Lakers, who looked like they were studying the George Karl defensive play book. Forget the fact that Doc Rivers was schooling Phil Jackson on the bench. Forget even the fact that Kobe's supporting cast never really showed up for the Finals.
I, we, were waiting for the moment when Bryant said forget this, it's time for me to take charge.
The moment(s) never came. The victory by sheer willpower never materialized. In these Finals, Kobe played a little too much team ball and too little 'Black Mamba' ball.
Kobe may very well be the most talented player to ever lace 'em up. He certainly has the statistics to argue the point.
But unless he rattles off another three titles in a row, these Finals will be the blemish that all of his detractors will point to as the moment we all had to face the fact that maybe Kobe really isn't like Mike.
Bryant still has a lot of basketball left in his tank, but with younger players like LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant hot on his tail, his window is closing sooner rather than later.
Maybe Kobe fans should just take the 81 point game, the scoring titles, the three rings with Shaq, the MVP award and enjoy it—because we might not get much else.
All in all a superb, Hall-of-Fame career without question.
But when Kobe had a chance to become a legend—well, he just didn't make it happen.
Not yet, anyway. And maybe, not ever.
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