If anyone ever earned the unique—i.e. unwieldy, strange and profoundly audacious—honor of a dual jersey retirement, it’s Kobe Bryant.
He delivered three NBA championships to L.A. wearing one number, then collected two more titles wearing another. He’s the best Laker ever to wear the No. 8, and also the best ever to don the 24. Retire both? Sure, why not?
But if we’re really drilling down to the essence of Kobe’s legacy, if we have to choose the number that best represents him—the one they’ll chisel into a statue some day in the near future—it should, without question, be...
Everything we know about Kobe, all the important stuff, happened in that jersey. His debut in 1996. His first points. His slam dunk award in 1997. His All-Star Game duel with Michael Jordan in 1998.
He was No. 8 through every locker room battle with Shaquille O’Neal, and he was No. 8 when those two leaped into each other’s arms to celebrate their first championship in 2000.
The jersey became his identity. “Ocho!” Rudy Garciduenas, the longtime equipment manager, would bellow when he needed Kobe’s attention. (No one, to my knowledge, called him “Veinticuatro” after the jersey change in 2006-07.)
We define NBA legends by point totals and playoff wins and the number of ringzzz on their fingers, but it’s the journey that matters. From 1996 through 2006, we witnessed the full Kobe evolution—from brash rookie to brash perennial All-Star; from a skinny kid shooting air balls in a playoff loss to Utah to a fearsome clutch performer burying the Blazers and Spurs and Kings.
In those early years, we met Selfish Kobe and Playmaker Kobe, Angry Kobe and Thoughtful Kobe, Kobe the Loner and Kobe the Leader, Kobe the Destroyer and Kobe the Savior.
By the time he made that enigmatic jersey change, in 2007, Kobe’s legacy and his persona were well established. There were, of course, more evolutionary stages to come. It was only after Shaq left that Kobe, rechristening himself the Black Mamba, could fully impose his will, flex his leadership muscles and become a league MVP.
He won two more rings as the undisputed franchise star, albeit with considerable help from Pau Gasol (and uncanny shooting from Ron Artest). Those titles matter. They elevated Kobe’s historical standing. They did not materially change his legacy. We’ll remember No. 24 for the searing gaze and the weird chin-juts and the flights of profound self-indulgence. But these moments were additive, derivative, redundant. They were all just slightly embellished versions of a script we’d already seen—the one written by No. 8. — Howard Beck
There are two Kobe Bryants.
OK, not literally, though I’m sure the Lakers front office daydreamed about cloning him once or twice. There also aren’t necessarily two Kobe Bryants in the Mamba’s own mind, the way some great athletes—think of the foot-stomping, antagonistic Russell Westbrook on the court and the wildly humorous cultural star off it—have to embrace dual personas to transcend their already prodigious gifts. No, there are two Kobe Bryants to us, to the fans.
It’s hard to think of an elite pro going through the same evolution Bryant did, from 8 to 24, from the dissolution of his partnership with Shaquille O’Neal to his final season lion-in-winter act and cheeky Apple TV commercials. Those two numbers, which the Lakers have chosen to retire in tandem, represent distinct stages in the growth and maturation we witnessed on television, in newspaper columns, and reflected in the eyes of an unquestioning Lakers fanbase.
But who do we want to remember? Unless the Lakers want to carve out more prime real estate in front of Staples Center for two statues (they’ve got to save room for that Lonzo Ball statue, after all), there can be only one monument to his on-court brilliance. Do we want to gaze up at callow young Kobe—sporting his mini-fro while soaring through the air for a monster dunk—or the Kobe who embraced Los Angeles and his teammates en route to three consecutive NBA Finals appearances and two titles?
For all the memories and all the magic Bryant brought to basketball in No. 8, it was in 24 that he achieved his full potential. His lone regular-season MVP award came in 24. His two championships without Shaq came in 24. One of the most indelible moments of his career—arms outstretched on the scorer’s table after vanquishing the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals—was in 24. The legendary 81-point game might have been in No. 8, but Kobe scored over 50 points 10 times in his first year after the number switch.
Bryant truly became the leader of the Lakers in No. 24, the player who defined a generation for L.A. sports fans. No. 8 might have been the prototype, but 24 was the finished product. Let’s remember that. — Dave Schilling
And here's what past and present NBA stars say:
Chauncey Billups (NBA TV analyst; former Detroit Pistons guard)
"There’s no wrong answer. Both guys (No. 8 and No. 24) are Hall of Famers to me. I’m going to go with the one he won the most championships with, and that’s No. 8. But to me, they were pretty much the same guy. I did feel like when Shaq left, he was a little more driven to get it done and to win it, so people would not say it was because of Shaq that he won.
“On his statue they need to have both numbers, man—8 on the front, 24 on the back.”
Brent Barry (NBA TV analyst; former San Antonio Spurs guard)
"I love the idea of the No. 8 jersey on the front, where he started on his career, and the No. 24 on the back, where he finished."
"I’m partial to 8. My initial impressions of him in No. 8 are always going to be indelible for me. Twenty-four was complete ownership. But 8 was the teenage years, 8 was the adolescence of his career, 8 was the awkward, growing-up phase, where he made his mistakes, he had a chip on his shoulder, he had enough swagger for an entire team and had to learn and grow.
"He found himself in that number. That was who Kobe was for me."
Grant Hill (NBA TV analyst; former seven-time All-Star forward)
"You have to have both. To me, 8 represents: I’m here, I’m ready, I’m fighting for respect. [No.] 24, it was him fighting for his legacy and chasing the title of ‘the greatest.’ You look at his numbers [in each uniform number] and they’re very similar. Leaving one out wouldn’t seem right.”
Isiah Thomas (NBA TV analyst; Hall of Fame guard for the Detroit Pistons)
“Kobe was a brilliant and gifted player wearing No. 8, and he was a brilliant and gifted player wearing No. 24. I agree with the Lakers they both should be retired.”
Gordon Hayward (Boston Celtics forward)
"I’d probably say No. 24 Kobe just because I think it’s harder to be as dominant as he was and put up the numbers he did when he was older. When he was younger, he was just a little more athletic, a little quicker. He was doing stuff based off of that. When he’s older, it’s all footwork and skill, and he was still going by guys that had a step on him or were younger and could jump higher. To me, that’s impressive."