Impossible shots, tenacious defense, and an unmatched willingness to win. These are just a few of the things we have all come to expect from Kobe Bryant. Entering his fourteenth season in the NBA, Bryant has matured and changed as a basketball player, but even more as a human being. The evolution of Kobe Bryant has been truly remarkable to experience, not just for basketball fans but everyday people as well. To truly appreciate Bryant and what he has been able to accomplish in his illustrious career thus far we must travel back to the beginning of Bryant’s life in the public spotlight, and only then will we be able to completely understand Bryant and respect him for his unending perseverance and desire to be better than anyone else.
Kobe Bryant grew up with basketball ingrained in his blood. As most people crave food and water, Bryant craved competition. The thrill of the fight and the ultimate joy of victory is something that has been brewing in Bryant’s soul since a young age. Growing up with a professional basketball playing father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, there was no doubt that Kobe was going to ultimately be the nexus of modern basketball. Bryant is the type of player who learned to shoot before learning to walk, who exited the birth canal with his sneakers laced up and ready to go. His desire and pure love for the game of basketball has never been questioned, and may God help the poor soul who does decide to question that. In high school Bryant was unmatched, leading Lower Merion High School to a state championship his senior season. He went on to pass Wilt Chamberlain’s all time scoring record for a Pennsylvania high school player and racked up more accolades than a Lexus luxury sedan. After dominating the competition on the high school level with such ease Bryant decided to take his skills to the ultimate level, the National Basketball Association.
Entering the NBA at the tender age of seventeen, Bryant immediately became a fascinating figure. His swagger and arrogance rubbed many the wrong way, a seventeen year old rookie with an extreme feeling of self-entitlement that irritated veterans and coaches alike. However, much of this behavior is merely Bryant’s undying quench for success. Facing seemingly impossible expectations out of high school, Bryant built the hype even more with his attitude and pride, but understood what it was going to take for him to meet the endless demands. When Bryant announced his decision to jump straight to the NBA it was met with surprise and skepticism by many, for in 1996 players didn’t jump straight to the Association from high school, in fact only one player, Kevin Garnett, had made the leap in the several years before Bryant. Many felt that he would be over his head in the NBA, and for a while he was.
As the thirteenth overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, a draft that now is arguably one of the best ever, Bryant was taken by the Charlotte Hornets and immediately traded to Los Angeles for center Vlade Divac. Bryant joined a Lakers team that already had a talented back court duo of Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones and spent much of his rookie season on the bench. Kobe’s desire and belief in himself led him to express his displeasure with his playing minutes which led to rifts between Bryant and Lakers coach Del Harris. However, Kobe’s popularity began to grow as the rest of the basketball world was beginning to see just how talented the young star was. Bryant won the NBA Slam Dunk contest his rookie season, earning himself a reputation as a high flying star. However his rookie season ended in disaster as Bryant hurled three air balls in crunch time which led to the Lakers demise at the hands of the Utah Jazz. Interesting enough, it would be shots similar to these he missed in Utah back in 1997 that would begin to form Bryant into a truly legendary player.
The next few seasons allowed Bryant to showcase his skills and improve his game as he thrust himself in the center of the basketball spotlight. Several All-Star appearances boosted his popularity and allowed the rest of the league to see the budding superstar that was rapidly developing in Los Angeles. The combination of Bryant and fellow superstar Shaquille O’Neal culminated in three straight NBA championships starting in the 1999-2000 season and cemented Bryant’s status as one of the league’s best. However, Lakers fans and NBA fans as well understood that the leader of those teams was not Bryant, but O’Neal. Certainly those titles would not have been possible without Bryant, but for Kobe he was not quite ready to lead a team. This was a burden that Bryant carried with him for years and became a consistent theme that Bryant would have to fight off for a large portion of his career. The apparent unwillingness by the Lakers’ two stars to push aside their differences resulted in the dismantling of the Lakers and the derailing of a dynasty.
After the departure of O’Neal a very interesting thing happened to Bryant, he had to start over. He had tasted the success of championships and had been to the top of the mountain, but he was now nothing more than a spectacular player on an average team. Looking back now it is easy to see that the worst years, by team record, in Bryant’s career were the final missing pieces in what has become a legendary puzzle. Bryant learned, painfully and brutally, just how hard it is to cement a legacy and become a legend. Sure Sportscenter and YouTube loved his scoring binges, culminating in a breathtaking 81 point explosion in January of 2006, but the team was struggling and the pressure continued to bury Bryant. According to the fans and the media this is exactly what Bryant wanted, his own team to manipulate and lead, and Bryant was coming up short. The pressure continued to mount, continued to pile onto Bryant’s already loaded shoulders. The doubt crept in even more as the ghost of Shaquille O’Neal loomed larger with every loss and every Bryant shortcoming. However, like he had done in the past, in every previous instance where he was told he could not, Bryant came out and proved that he could, and more importantly, that he would.
February 1st, 2008. A normal Thursday night turned into a Friday that would change the future of the Lakers, and give Bryant a chance to reach the summit once more. The Lakers traded for Memphis Grizzlies forward Pau Gasol in wake of a devastating injury to young center Andrew Bynum, and they never looked back. Soaring to the top seed in the Western Conferece, the Lakers were once again a powerhouse, and at the center of this finely tuned machine was a familiar character in a new role. Bryant was the man on a championship caliber team, and he proved it. Running away with the NBA Most Valuable Player award in 2007-2008, the first of his career, Bryant took a team that began the season in turmoil and pushed them deep into the playoffs. However even then, when it seemed Bryant’s redemption was finally upon him, it disappeared. The Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in six games, with the most pivotal moment of the series being a 24 point Lakers collapse at the end of Game 4 that ultimately sealed their fate. The critics were out again to prove Bryant couldn’t do it. He wasn’t tough enough, he wasn’t strong enough mentally, and he just couldn’t do it on his own. While many people felt Bryant was finished there was one man who knew he wasn’t, who knew that Bryant would never stop fighting for his legacy, and that man was the only one who truly mattered, that man was Kobe Bryant.
The summer of 2008 climaxed with a USA Basketball victory in the Gold Medal game against Spain, redeeming a disheartening third place finish in the 2004 Athens games. The team, led by Bryant, cruised through many of the Olympics but suddenly found itself in a fight with a tough Spanish team, led by Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol. The Spanish fought the US hard and the game was close in the final minutes when one man on the US team pushed the Americans to victory with sheer willpower and dominance. Like he has done so many times for the Lakers, Kobe Bryant took over the game, telling his teammates, the best players on the planet, that he was the one. Bryant lifted his team, and more importantly his country, onto his shoulders and marched to the finish line. He would make sure that the United States got the Gold, and they did. Bryant has admitted that the Gold Medal victory was one of the best of his career, one of his proudest moments, but one couldn’t help but think that standing up on that podium accepting the Gold, that Bryant still had the sour taste of the NBA Finals on his lips, and he was ready to lead a different team to redemption as well.
The old cliche states that what fails to kill you only makes you stronger. In Bryant’s case what didn’t finish him off only motivated him more. The Lakers started the 2009 season with one thing and one thing only on their mind, a championship. Anything less would be considered a disappointment for the team. While these may seem like unfair expectations, it was obvious that the Lakers players felt the same way. The Lakers stormed through the regular season, starting off 17-2, ultimately finishing 65-17 and atop the Western Conference. Bryant was the catalyst the entire season, never settling for anything less than absolute perfection. From a record 61 point outburst at Madison Square Garden to his third All-Star game MVP award, an honor he ironically shared with former running mate Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant never slowed down. The postseason came and Bryant stepped up as only he can. Bryant led the Lakers through the Western Conference playoffs, albeit they faced several tests along the way, including fantastic performances by the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets, but in the end Bryant and the Lakers were just too much. The NBA Finals were the same result, a quick dismantling of the Orlando Magic. It was done. He was there. Bryant again stood at the top of mountain with the rest of the basketball world at his feet. He had beaten all the naysayers and critics who said he would never be there again. Bryant, had returned to glory.
The fire that burns inside Bryant is something that many people do not, and cannot understand. The unflinching desire for victory is something that motivates and pushes Bryant to run two miles when the coaches ask him for one, to wake up at 6 in the morning when he doesn’t need to be up until 7. Bryant has spent his entire adult life in the middle of the fishbowl that is the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA, and he has thrived. Coming into the league at the age of seventeen Bryant had much to learn, even more than he was probably willing to admit at the time, but he has learned all he needed and more. He has become a player that men and women will tell their children about, as they try to explain to the next generation just how great Bryant was, but to no avail. This is because ultimately there is not a good way to describe Bryant, to explain him in a way to make somebody understand who hasn’t witnessed his outstanding career just how fascinating and spectacular Bryant is. People have searched for years for the next Michael Jordan, for the heir to Jordan’s throne and have cast Bryant into that spot. However, we have all learned that he is most certainly not the next Michael Jordan, he is something the basketball world needed more than that, he is the first, and only, Kobe Bryant.
to be continued . . . .