As Michael Jordan’s career was coming to a close, many fans began to wonder who would fill the power vacuum in the league that Jordan would leave once he left. Unexpected to most was that his replacement would be a young 17 year old from Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania who would be drafted 13th overall in the 1996 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets, one Kobe Bean Bryant, Shooting Guard.
He was then consecutively traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Center Vlade Divac. A move that would shake the future of the NBA and would create an undying legacy that will stand the test of time.
Kobe came off the bench for his first 2 seasons with the Lakers, playing behind Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones with a budding star in Shaquille O’Neal leading this young squad. In Kobe’s third year, he took a large leap in his game becoming a starter in the lockout year. Then, in 2000, the Lakers squad lead by the now dynamic duo in Shaq & Kobe secured the ship in the NBA Finals Championship under the coaching of the legendary Phil Jackson and his triangle offense, the one he perfected with Jordan and the Bulls.
I recall my dad telling me about how the Lakers three-peated between the years 2000-2002. The Dynamic Duo of Shaq and Kobe paved the way for this period of dominance. Yet despite all the wins Shaq and Kobe amassed as teammates, there was a long standing rivalry between them (clashing personalities and a string of losses) that ultimately resulted in Shaq being traded to the Miami Heat with the Lakers’ reasoning being that Shaq was uncooperative with the organization. After Shaq’s departure is when the legend of the Black Mamba was born.
Kobe began to have monster games where he would score 40, 50, even 60 total points. He would go on unreal stretches of games where he would score at least 30 points per game. His legendary scoring ability became the material of legends spread in schools across the U.S. The famous phrase “Kobeeee” grew in prominence as thousands of kids would emulate their hero even when throwing paper in the trash. I have countless memories sitting in class and throwing away old pieces of paper and my friends and I would have a competition as to who could make more shots in the trash. Every single shot was accompanied by saying “Kobeeee.”
Every single game he played was electrifying to watch. It was impossible to take your eyes off the screen because you knew you were watching a legend play the sport he loved with intense passion. His intensity rubbed off on all of us, we all wanted to be as passionate as the Black Mamba. The now famous video of Kobe not even flinching when Matt Barnes fakes a pass into Kobe’s face is the perfect representation of him as a player: a cold-blooded assassin, the epitome of Mamba Mentality, and one of the greatest competitors to ever play.
But of all of his impressive performances, none will be as remembered as the 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors in 2006 and his final game before retirement in 2016. As I was only five at the time I don’t really remember but from what my parents have told me and the highlight reels have showed me, his 81-point game was unreal, currently standing as the second highest scoring performance in NBA history second to the great Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point performance back in the mid- to late 60’s. What made his legendary performance was his insanely efficient shooting performance going 28-46 from the field (which means he made a remarkable 61% of the shots he took) while going 7-13 from the three and making 18-20 free throws in the game. Despite this monster game, it was his final game in the league that holds the most impact for fans around the world. I remember this game so vividly. It was a fitting end for a legendary career. He went 22-50 from the field, 6-21 from the 3, and 10-12 from the free throw line. His career had been coming to a slow stand still and with his final game being such a throwback to his prime days, every sports fan had to shed at least a single tear when they watched this legend walk off the Staples Center court for the last time.
The Mamba’s post-basketball career was just as illustrious as his basketball career. He won an Oscar, became an extremely successful investor, and started his own podcast. Bryant became a large advocate for the expansion of women’s basketball, supported numerous local LA homeless centers, and funded many aspiring young athletes so that they may achieve their dreams. Yet the most important thing about Kobe was his love for his family. This is the part of him that I and others respected the most about Kobe.
His relationship with his wife and daughters was the most cherished thing in Kobe’s life. When asked about whether he would consider a return to the NBA, Bryant responded that even if he wanted to play, he wouldn’t because he wants to remain as close as possible to his family. His relationship with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna was one of the most heartwarming sights to see courtside at Lakers’ games. The camera would catch Kobe explaining to his daughter about plays and strategies that each team was utilizing and he would use these lessons to help her train for her own games. After games, he would catch up with the athletes and introduce them to his daughter so that she could meet a real player in the league whom she might learn things from. When not at a game, he would spend much of his afternoons watching basketball games with his daughter, helping her grow her game. Truly, this is the part of Kobe’s life that I admired the most: he was a dedicated family man above all else.
The only reason he stayed so connected to the game was because of his daughters. His daughters were, despite me not knowing this legend, the focus of his life. They were the only people that mattered to Kobe. So if I was to define the Mamba, the first thing I say wouldn’t be “all time great basketball player” but rather “a family man.” Kobe Bryant was a family man first and foremost — then he was a basketball player. Often when it comes to legends, it’s hard to imagine them as humans, but Kobe, like all of us, was a human at the end of the day.
We were tragically reminded of this on January 26, 2020, when the world lost a hero. A person I truly looked up to and admired.
“Kobe Bryant has been killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.”
All I, and many others, felt was shock and disbelief. This had to be impossible. It can’t be.
The Black Mamba … a childhood idol of mine … dead?
Truthfully, it still hasn’t properly settled in. Because how could someone as immortal and timeless as Kobe Bryant be dead?
I know I can’t keep denying it, but this is just different. Though I never knew him as a person, it hurts as if I really did know him. I won’t lie: I was raised a Celtics fan but this extends beyond team rivalries. I won’t say I shed a tear, but I was most certainly in a state of utter disbelief.
Then the new updates came.
“Kobe Bryant’s daughter Gianna, 13, has also been identified as one of the deceased.”
It felt like a punch in the face. Like someone had gutted me. I can’t imagine what Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s wife, is going through right now. I pray that she can get through this unimaginable tragedy and I pray that his other daughters can make it through these dark times and come out stronger. The victims of the crash also included seven other individuals. I pray that their families may find peace as well. The sadness of this tragedy impacts all of us sports fans as well as those who are indifferent to sports as well.
Kobe Bryant was just a different person. His persona extended beyond basketball. Forty-one years of legacy abruptly ended in an instant.
Is that even possible?
It shouldn’t be.
The world won’t be the same without you, Kobe.
Thank you for serving as a role model for many young athletes.
Thank you for the countless memories you have given us over the years.
And thank you for being such a big part of my childhood.
We will never forget about you.
Rest In Peace, Kobe and Gigi.
Mamba for life.
Anuraj Nair is a columnist for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl