Kobe Bryant was 18 years old when he formally introduced himself as a budding star to a national audience. It was in Cleveland, Ohio, at the league's 47th All-Star Weekend; a celebrity-studded event to commemorate the NBA’s 50-year anniversary.
Up until the midseason break, Bryant’s NBA career was but a blip—more spectacle than substance. In 39 games with the Los Angeles Lakers, he averaged 7.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.0 assist per game, with a field-goal percentage that barely cracked 40 percent. He came off the bench in all but two games and was hardly a dependable figure in head coach Del Harris’ rotation, stuck behind Eddie Jones and a 35-year-old Byron Scott.
But at 1997's All-Star Weekend, Bryant was everything.
The Saturday night Rookie Challenge featured unforgettable names like Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Antoine Walker and Marcus Camby.
The legendary Red Auerbach led the Eastern Conference rookies, while New York Knicks icon Red Holzman coached Bryant’s Western Conference squad. Holzman first mentored Phil Jackson nearly 30 years before the Zen Master coached Bryant to his first championship in 2000.
Iverson, the 1996 draft's first overall pick, scored 19 points, dished nine assists and was named the game’s MVP—in part because the East won by five. It’s a meaningless contest, though, so who cares who won MVP?
Well, Kobe cared. He scored a game-high 31 points (then a record in the Rookie Challenge) on a game-high 17 shots and went 13-of-16 from the free-throw line (in an exhibition!). Later on, Bryant was asked by TNT's Craig Sager if not getting the MVP award psyched him up even more for the dunk contest. Mamba's response was the same then as it would be now.
"Sure. You want to win as much as you can. Coming into the NBA Slam Dunk contest I was psyched up as it is, so, you know it just pumped me up a little more," he said.
The Cleveland crowd cared too, booing Iverson hard after he won the MVP award, according to the New York Times:
"Maybe people felt that Kobe should have won the m.v.p.,'' said Iverson, who went from taking two shots and having eight assists in the first half, to taking nine shots and having one assist in the second. ''That's their opinion. We play Cleveland Tuesday and I can't wait to play the Cavaliers. I've never had people boo me for playing hard.''
Current Atlanta Hawks assistant coach Darvin Ham had a front row seat to that weekend's festivities, and to this day he still remembers how serious Bryant was throughout the event.
"He competed his ass off," Ham said. "Really, you could see, like ‘Oh OK, all right,’ this is how he was able to make the jump straight from high school [laughter].
"This kid has skill. He wasn’t as physically mature as he would become, but his approach and the way he was attacking every play, not only offensively but defensively, trying to guard his man. You could see that this kid means business and he’s going to make good use of his time in the NBA.”
Bryant felt the need to shine even brighter in his next event, the one everybody still remembers: the Slam Dunk Contest.
Bryant, Ham, Ray Allen, Michael Finley, Bob Sura and Chris Carr all felt confident, but Bryant did something during the day’s practice that shook their faith.
“We were at the NBA Jam Session gym…the biggest thing I remember was Eddie Jones telling Kobe to do a dunk that he had worked on in practice right before we left to go to All-Star break," Carr told Bleacher Report. "He just sat to himself and didn’t say much to anybody, [in] typical Kobe Bryant fashion…‘I’m gonna be here and I’m here to win.’ He gets up, and he’s not even loose, and he comes out and does this dunk—a windmill where he brings it behind the back—and I remember looking at Michael Finley and saying ‘Well, if he does that tonight, we’re all playing for second.’”
Bryant never attempted what would’ve been one of the greatest dunks in history, but he did pull off what’s since become arguably the most memorable moment from that entire NBA season: a between-the-legs jam that lifted him to victory in the final round.
To this day, Ham half-seriously still believes he should've walked away with the trophy that night.
"I was definitely planning on winning," he said. "I know I was the only guy to have all three of his dunks make it to ESPN. But I didn’t make it to the next round because I didn’t let enough time pass in between my dunks, I didn’t play up to the crowd really, because I was just trying to make all my dunks in the first round. And then the second round was when I was planning on really just going all in, and I had some really nice dunks set up and prepared for that crowd. But unfortunately, I never had a chance to get there."
Bryant, with the perfect combination of dunk artistry and awe-inducing swag, knew how to win over a crowd. He'd been doing it since high school, and the 1997 dunk contest was the perfect example of putting that combo on display in front of a national audience.
Looking back, the dunk that earned Kobe his crown isn’t all that impressive today (Gerald Green did the exact same thing in his socks 10 years later, and Sports Illustrated ranked that year's contest as the worst in history), but at the time it symbolized Bryant kicking in the door and announcing his arrival.
That night, he took down another star-to-be in Ray Allen, who's forever remembered as one of the best three-point shooters in history. This is a crime. Allen was an unbelievable athlete in his prime and would have gotten more credit for that had it not been for Bryant stealing the spotlight:
“At that point in time you hadn’t had the Vince Carters and the Zach LaVines and the [Andre] Iguodalas and the Jason Richardsons and the Josh Smiths. Some of the dunks that they were able to pull off as time went on, it kind of pushes the dunk that Kobe did to the back of the room,” Ham said. “But at that time that was a hard dunk. It still is a hard dunk to do. But these guys, every year we get people who are more athletic, more explosive, more creative, so looking at it now, it was OK. But back then it was a pretty big deal…you have to place everything in the proper perspective when it comes to the timing. And at that time it was a hell of a dunk for him to pull off.”
Even the great ones need confirmation every now and then; Bryant just happened to get some before his 19th birthday.
“Even in his rookie year you could see the competitive fire and the nature of him as an individual,” Carr said. “He came off very arrogantly in terms of, ‘I’m standoffish, I’m focused on what I need to do to be who I’m supposed to be.’ It did rub some guys the wrong way, but you look back now and, well, the thing that separates him is also the thing that made him driven and made him great. It made him vulnerable. That same year he shot the air balls in the playoffs. It all kind of melded together into one big thing.”
On that night, two decades ago, the world was formally introduced to one of the best basketball players in NBA history. Bryant’s game has undoubtedly evolved, matured and ascended to exceptional heights since then. With this year's midseason classic being his last, Bryant reflected at All-Star media day to reporters on how amazing his journey has been:
I'm looking around the room and seeing guys that I'm playing with that are tearing the league up that were like four during my first All-Star Game. It's true. I mean, how many players can say they've played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations. You know what I mean? It's not sad at all. I mean, I'm really happy and honored to be here and see this...God, as a younger player, I couldn't even see the next day. No, when you're young, you never think you'll get old. You're always just moment to moment. You think it's never going to end, the body is never going to hurt, never going to give out.
That body is honing in on its 38th birthday. It's creaky now, barely able to lift Bryant above the rim. But his poise and determination remain remarkably consistent. He's as confident at his last All-Star Game as he was at his first.
The result? A true icon.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.