From the day Kobe Bryant announced he would be skipping college and “taking his talents” straight to the NBA, I did not like the guy.
I abhorred everything about Bryant, from the goofy way in which he grew his hair during his first couple of years in the league to his borderline-creepy Adidas commercials.
Looking back, I am not sure what it was about Kobe Bryant that boiled my blood so much. Maybe it was the arrogant manner in which he carried himself before accomplishing anything in the NBA; the way he openly compared himself to His Airness.
Maybe it was the ’98 All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden—Michael Jordan’s final All-Star Game (’02 and ’03 with the Wizards never happened).
Kobe bent over backwards to steal the show on a night Jordan’s greatness was supposed to be celebrated, not challenged by a punk kid who, at the time, couldn’t crack the starting lineup of his own team.
On the other hand, maybe I hated Bryant because I was forced to wear No. 8 during that basketball season because they did not have the numbers I wanted in my size.
Either way, Kobe was front and center in Dan Love’s Burn Book.
I detested Bryant’s meteoric rise to the top of the NBA as he, along with Shaquille O’Neal, catapulted the L.A. Lakers’ mini-dynasty to three consecutive NBA Championships from 2000-2002.
The more Kobe Bryant won, the more he grew and began to establish himself as “The Next Big Thing,” the more the inner Jordan fanatic in me became threatened by this “punk kid.”
Although I am somewhat ashamed to admit it now—I thoroughly enjoyed the rapid fall of Kobe Bryant after the 2003 season. After the Lakers disintegrated in the ’03 playoffs, Kobe’s wheels fell off shortly after Bryant underwent knee surgery in Colorado.
We all know what happened there. On top of the rape charges against him, Kobe’s feud with Shaquille O’Neal reached new levels as the two exchanged verbal blows in the media, and a split seemed imminent.
FAN-tastic, I thought joyfully, as the MJ comparisons temporarily stopped. I loved it.
Despite troubles off the court, Bryant’s Lakers loaded up that season—adding veteran stars Karl Malone and Gary Payton—reached the 2004 NBA Finals and were heavily favored to beat the Detroit Pistons for the Lake Show’s fourth title in five years.
Initially, the old worries began to creep back into my thoughts, however, much to my delight, the Lakers imploded during the finals.
Kobe and his ego, in all of their selfishness, somehow managed to make the most dominant force in the league, Shaquille O’Neal, a virtual non-factor, leading to a four games to one embarrassment at the hands of Detroit Basketball.
That offseason, Kobe Bryant’s career and reputation continued to take a Tony Montana-like turn for the worse. Bryant strong-armed the Lakers organization—using free agency and the Los Angeles Clippers as leverage—into sending both Shaq and Coach Phil Jackson packing.
Kobe had officially claimed his place as The Man in Los Angeles, and with a depleted, Shaq-less roster, I was fully prepared for Kobe’s Apocalypse.
(Quick tangent: If you look back at the Shaq to Miami trade for “the Lamar Odom pu pu platter,” the deal was not as lopsided as you would think. Through a chain of events—, which included dumbly trading All-Star Caron Butler for Kwame Brown, straight up—L.A. basically got Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol for a declining O’Neal. Seems pretty even, no? That does not even take into consideration the fact that Washington probably would have taken Odom for Kwame Brown and likely would have thrown in another piece/draft pick on top of that. Doesn’t replacing the inconsistent/soft Lamar Odom for the tough as nails Caron Butler fill virtually every single hole the Celtics exposed in the Finals? Just saying…)
In Bryant’s first season as The Man failed to take the Lakers to the playoffs as O’Neal and his new sidekick, Dwyane Wade were taking the Miami Heat to the Eastern Conference Finals.
On top of that, the more likable and more popular LeBron James was beginning to challenge Kobe’s status as “The Next Jordan.” Some even wondered if Kobe was nothing more than just another Vince Carter or Tracy McGrady without Shaq at his side (Yes, this really happened.)
Kobe Bryant’s career had hit a low point, and, you want to know something? I loved every single millisecond of it.
That began to change January 22, 2006.
What Kobe did that night, scoring 81 (EIGHTY-FREAKING-ONE!) points against the Toronto Raptors, was, without a doubt, the sickest thing I have ever seen.
Seriously, the guy scored 81 points. That is not a typo; he really scored 81, including 55 in the second half. Does that even make sense?
I remember asking my friends. Kobe realized that he was playing in the NBA against professional athletes, not 5’5” pimple-faced-high-school-sophomores, right?
The truly sick thing about the 81-point game is that I am not 100 percent convinced that Kobe cannot score 81 (or more) again.
We have completely forgotten this now, but Kobe’s first 60-point game of his career came a few weeks prior to 81, when he dropped 62 through three quarters against the Dallas Mavericks.
Had he been needed to play the fourth quarter of that night’s blowout win, does anyone doubt he could have scored 80 or more?
That is the thing about The Black Mamba; you never quite know what to expect, but you are never quite shocked.
Ironically, Kobe’s 81-point outburst came just hours before my buddy, Trevor, and I argued over which player we would choose to start an expansion team. Trevor chose LeBron, and I think I went with Tony Parker, simply for the Eva Longoria Factor.
I was kidding, of course (well… kind of). Anyway, Kobe was quickly dismissed as a headache who shoots too much, and someone who could not lead a team from one side of a street to the other.
After that night’s epic performance and performances that followed, however, my mind was made up. With the possible exception of Chris Paul, I would not take any player in the league over Kobe Bean Bryant.
I don’t care that he is a ball hog; that he is egotistical, arrogant, somewhat insecure and more obsessed with his place in history than with winning another ring—and he is all of those things, by the way—if my Chicago Bulls somehow acquired him today, I would drive to Chicago and roll out the red carpet myself.
Love him or hate him—and I still somewhat hate him—Kobe Bryant is the best player in basketball right now. Period.
Maybe, that All-Star Game in NYC was not a going away party for Michael Jordan, I thought going into the 2008 NBA Finals. Perhaps it was a passing of the torch.
I have never been happier to be so wrong.
In two short weeks, Kobe Bryant—with an assist from the Boston Celtics’ defense—showed the world what I had suspected all along.
Kobe Bryant is definitely not the next Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Jordan would have never allowed the Celtics to come back from 20-plus down in the second half to steal game four.
Jordan would have rather died than allowed his Bulls team to throw up a garbage performance as the Lakers did in the series clincher. And Michael Jordan would have never, ever, allowed someone like Paul Pierce become, unquestionably, the best player on the court.
The thing is Kobe was not terrible in The Finals, averaging close to 26 per game. Kobe Bryant just was not Michael Jordan, and it is finally apparent that he never will be. On a more personal note, he is no longer a threat to me and my childhood memories.
I do not have to worry about, one day, sitting down with my kids to talk about the greatest player I have ever seen and having to utter the words “Kobe” or “Black Mamba.”
Suddenly Kobe Bryant is just another great, great player passing through my world. Will I tell my kids about the nights I stayed up late to watch Kobe Bryant play? Sure, I will.
But after the 2008 Finals, I do not have to worry about talking about The Black Mamba the way I do His Airness.
Suddenly, Kobe Bryant just became a lot more likable.