In a final tribute to a remarkable career, Kobe Bryant, who joined the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996 and helped lead the club to five championships, will lace up his high-tops one last time, soaking up his last game wearing purple and gold when the Lakers host the Utah Jazz at Staples Center. The result of the game is a minor anecdote for a Hollywood script filled with multiple plot twists.
In his adopted town, Bryant was one of the biggest stars in a city of stars. Bryant told CNN that beginning and ending his career with the Lakers “means everything.”
“I grew up a die-hard Laker fan,” Bryant said. “It’s like a dream come true, for a kid to grow up, play for his favorite team and play here for 20 years, his entire career. I’ve seen the city grow. I’ve seen the city develop and vice versa. There’s no place I’d rather end my career.”
The Staples Center ovation will consist of many things. It will certainly be deafening and certainly be long. But most of all, it will be deserved.
Bryant’s accomplishments are too long to list, but some of the most notable stats and achievements include finishing third in all-time scoring, two NBA Finals MVPs, 18 NBA All-Star selections, 11 All-NBA First Teams selections, nine All-Defensive First Team selections and the Lakers all-time leading scorer.
He arrived in Los Angeles as a confident and smiling teenager with sky-high potential, and determined to build a memorable legacy. Bryant had spent a good portion of his youth in Italy, where he watched Lakers games at odd hours while wearing his No. 32 Magic Johnson jersey. Little did he know at the time that he would go from watching the Showtime Lakers to being the Lakers one-man show.
Recognizing Bryant’s wide array of skills didn’t require a doctorate in basketball talent evaluation. Longtime Lakers scout Gene Tormohlen recalled sitting next to former Laker great and then-general manager Jerry West at training camp while they watched Bryant shoot three-pointers despite an arm injury that prevented him from scrimmaging.
“We were watching the Lakers work out, and also keeping an eye out on Kobe who was shooting on a side basket,” Tormohlen told International Business Times in a phone interview. “After a while, Jerry bumped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Do you know how many in a row that is?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. It’s 17.’ And Jerry said, ‘You’re right. You’re counting them too?’ He had made 17 three-point shots in a row, and I couldn’t believe it.”
Tormohlen pointed out that minutes after watching Bryant’s first workout, West was on the phone with Bob Bass, the general manager of the Charlotte Hornets. A deal would eventually be worked out that sent Vlade Divac, who at the time was a quality center, for the Hornets’ No. 13 pick in the 1996 draft. It was a deal that would have heavily favored Charlotte, but turned out to be one-sided for the Lakers due to other teams’ complicated and risk-averse reluctance to draft players without college basketball experience.
Pressure and lofty expectations surrounded Bryant before he ever set foot on the Great Western Forum hardwood. West had pulled off the seemingly impossible by signing Shaquille O’Neal from the Orlando Magic, and thus immediately lifted the Lakers into championship contenders. Bryant would have to share time behind fan favorite Eddie Jones, who had played his college basketball at Temple University in Bryant’s hometown of Philadelphia. The prevailing wisdom was that Bryant was too raw, while the more-experienced Jones had the right level of maturity. Bryant was also making the transition to the most competitive basketball league in the world and many thought he could stall the Lakers’ title hopes.
Meanwhile, there was the imposing stature of his boyhood idol. Bryant seemed to mimic Michael Jordan so much, from his shaved head to his footwork, that being the heir to the “Air” was a nauseating exercise for some to witness. While Jordan was on his way to another three-peat with the Chicago Bulls, the Lakers were being bounced out of the playoffs by the Jazz, with some pointing the finger at the precocious teenager for his questionable shot selection.
After a rookie season that provided glimpses of stardom, it was becoming clear that Bryant was something special. By 1998, fans were voting him into the All-Star game despite the fact he wasn’t even a Lakers starter.
Having watched Bryant’s All-Star debut, Woody Allen wrote in the New York Observer: “I experienced a true religious epiphany watching the All-Star Game this year when the ‘torch’ was passed from Michael to Kobe Bryant. For a minute, I thought I saw angels at Madison Square Garden.”
By his fourth season, Bryant was a champion. The Lakers would eventually three-peat, and after a hiatus from the Finals, Bryant would win two more in 2009 and 2010. The career that so many anticipated was realized. Basketball fans were treated to a career of mesmerizing acrobatics and consistent results.
Yet through it all, Bryant was a polarizing figure. Alienated teammates complained of his selfishness and arrogance, while head coaches Del Harris and Phil Jackson grew increasingly frustrated with his stubbornness and overconfidence.
In 2003, Bryant found himself charged with sexual assault in Eagle, Colorado. Bryant would fly from Los Angeles to Colorado and back again while continuing to play for the Lakers in a tense season. The charges were eventually dropped when the 19-year-old accuser chose not to testify.
There was also the issue of O’Neal. A charismatic figure with a larger-than-life personality to match his larger-than-life size, O’Neal somehow struggled to coexist with Bryant and the prevailing thought was that neither wanted to share the spotlight with the other. Some also believed that it bothered Bryant that his championships were shared with another legend, unlike with Jordan, who won rings without a superstar big man.
When O’Neal forced a trade, the Lakers languished as an average team, with Bryant’s detractors growing more vocal that he couldn’t mend things with a legendary center. As the Lakers toiled in mediocrity, Bryant’s patience with the front office grew thin and he would ask for a trade. In turn, Lakers fans booed him in the 2007 home opener. Once the golden child for a club that collected gold trophies, Bryant was losing favor from those who still had a bad taste in their mouth from O’Neal’s departure.
But in sports, winning often cures all ill feelings. A one-sided trade that sent Pau Gasol to the Lakers helped lift the Lakers from their playoff doldrums to championship contenders. Bryant had his running mate in Gasol, and the Lakers would win two more titles for Bryant to draw even with Magic Johnson’s five rings.
All seemed to be forgiven in Lakerland.
Recent years have been less kind. Bryant would struggle to deal with both injuries and Father Time, while the roster’s talent was quickly depleting. He was mired in a season more difficult than most expected, shooting a miserable 35.4 percent from the field and averaging just 16.9 points per game as the Lakers close in on the worst season in their history.
Watching Bryant one last time has been Lakers’ fans lone respite. The sight of the Black Mamba conjured memories of his days flying through the air for a soaring dunk, or his head fakes that led to drained three-point shots, or his lethal first step as he drove to the hole. Thinking of the past was a lot more fun than watching was happening in the present.
In a city that loves entertainment, Bryant spent nearly two decades entertaining. He dropped jaws with his dunks. He raised eyebrows with his 81-point game. He had opponents scratching their heads when he had a streak of nine games with 40 points or more. He had Staples Center fans chanting "M-V-P" like they were part of a basketball cult.
He didn't suprass Jordan, but who could have?
Bryant will mostly be remembered as a competitor. Tormohlen pointed out that he “never saw Kobe smile while he was behind in a game.” It was that type of intensity, dedication and commitment to winning that endured him to so many.
There will be plenty of smiles, and perhaps some tears, on Wednesday night.