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Kobe Bryant: 1978-2020

January 26th, 2020 · 1 Comment · Basketball, Kobe, Lakers, NBA

I heard about Kobe Bryant while leaving church, around 11:15 a.m. today. “Killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas,” someone said.

It took me a few seconds to process. “Kobe, dead? That can’t be right.” Pause. “A helicopter? That’s possible; how many celebrities have died in private planes and copters?” Pause. “Wow. Kobe dead.” At 41.

I must have seen Kobe Bean Bryant play for the Los Angeles Lakers a hundred times.

No. More than that. From his rookie season, 1996-97, through the 2007-08 season … and adding in playoffs games nearly every spring of almost 12 full seasons … yeah. Maybe closer to 150 games.

That includes covering every game of the 2000 finals, won by the Lakers 4-2 over the Indiana Pacers.

The point being, I saw him a lot, in person. Kobe Bryant was a fixture in my coverage plans because a game with Kobe Bryant playing automatically was newsworthy. Something magic, amazing, ridiculous might well happen.

Some thoughts on his career:

–The Lakers became a multi-season championship contender in 1996 thanks to two moves by top executive Jerry West over a span of about three weeks that summer: First, he got the prep star Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Vlade Divac, and soon after signed free-agent center Shaquille O’Neal. The Lakers were ready to roll.

–Kobe’s physical ability and cocksure attitude were obvious from the start. He was a crowd favorite long before he forced his way into the starting lineup, which wasn’t a sure thing until his third season.

–It was in Game 4 of the 2000 Finals that he showed he was a transcendent player. I was there, in Indiana’s Conseco Fieldhouse. Reggie Miller’s Pacers looked in good shape when O’Neil fouled out, in overtime, but Kobe ignored a “throbbing” ankle and took control, scoring six clutch points to give the Lakers a 3-1 lead in the series they would win 4-2.

–The Lakers repeated in 2001 (over Philadelphia) and three-peated in 2002 (over New Jersey), and that takes us to the Kobe-versus-Shaq rivalry. It was about “whose team” the Lakers were. The big guy’s or the gifted kid. I came down on the side of Kobe: He was a ball-hog, sure, but he was dynamic and scoring tons of points, and he looked to be more valuable going forward. The Lakers thought so, too, trading Shaq to Miami in 2004.

–The next three seasons were mostly about Kobe not having enough help, post-Shaq. On January 22 of 2006, I considered driving to Staples to cover the Lakers, but they were playing the mediocre Toronto Raptors, and the idea of a long Sunday drive … well, I stayed in the office. Meanwhile, Kobe scored 81, the second-highest single-game total in NBA history.

–Kobe and Co. were competitive again by 2007-08, and I covered them for this blog as they faced the Boston Celtics for the championship. This was the series when I took the tram from Long Beach to Staples several times, to save on parking. The Lakers had added Pau Gasol to jump back into the championship picture, and Kobe won his one and only MVP award. The turning point in the 2008 Finals was Game 4, which I covered, when the Lakers blew a 24-point third-quarter lead. Boston won the series 4-2. Kobe was stuck on three rings.

–The Lakers won titles in both 2009 (over Orlando) and 2010 (over Boston). The latter was particularly memorable, because of the animus between the Lakers and the Celtics, and Kobe’s strong overall play was dented by his 6-for-24 shooting in Game 7. Metta World Peace, of all people, was the surprise star of that game, scoring 20 points in an 83-79 Game 7 grind at Staples. (At the time, I was working in Abu Dhabi; no, I did not attend the game.) Kobe had 23.

–The Lakers had a decent season before being swept out of the playoffs by Dallas, in 2011, and they made the playoffs the two years after that, but they were fading, just as Kobe was. The key moment: Kobe snapping an Achilles on April 12, 2013.

–That was it for the Lakers as a winning team: They have posted six consecutive losing seasons. Kobe was a shadow of himself, when he came back, but he still commanded the ball despite awful shooting statistics, probably delaying the club’s rebuilding attempts.

He scored 60 points in his final game, at the end of the 2016 season, something to remember him by.

He seemed to be settling into post-NBA life, but that came to a shocking end today. News-radio stations in SoCal were all-Kobe-all-the-time, and while commuting I heard more than an hour of coverage, much of it deeply emotional fans, players and even coaches. (Doc Rivers’s tearful session with reporters early in the afternoon was perhaps the most memorable.)

An awful story, as Jerry West put it, was made more awful by the deaths of the eight people flying with Kobe, including the second of his four daughters, Gianna, 13.

We heard from sources who talked about how he was making a difference in various endeavors, after leaving the NBA. He was settling into a comfortable place, it was said.

It was noted by many that the sort of shock Kobe’s death generated may leave markers in a lot of minds about “where I was” when we heard that he had died.

For two decades Kobe was the face of one of the NBA’s premier franchises; he never played a minute for another club, and for most of his tenure the club was a threat to win a championship.

He is fourth all-time in NBA scoring, behind Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and LeBron James who passed Kobe last night, in a game at Philadelphia.

He was not perfect. None of us are. There was a charge of sexual assault in 2003 that was not taken to court. Phil Jackson, the coach for most of Kobe’s career, one described him in print as “uncoachable”. He sometimes terrorized teammates with his critiques of their play. He stayed around at least a year too long.

But we all expected, without thinking about it, that he would be around, would pop up here and there, for years to come. Kobe, dead? Kobe gone? Yes, and yes, but not forgotten. Absolutely not.

One last observation:

Kobe was great with the media. I can vouch for this; I so not recall an occasion when he stiffed reporters and snuck out the back door.

He showered first, while media people were talking to the coach and other Lakers, and about 25 minutes after the game ended, Kobe, freshly showered, would walk across the clubhouse to his locker, put down his things, turn around and answer our questions for five or 10 minutes. He was reliably calm and patient.

The area’s devotion to the man? Hard work. Leadership. Reliability. Rings. Perhaps no man heard as many M-V-P! chants as he did.

Those 100-plus times I saw him play? I don’t regret any of them.


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 David // Jan 27, 2020 at 7:01 PM

    I will forever be grateful that, with nothing else going on, I decided to go to that Toronto game.

    I would say he was the most significant athlete of my journalism career. I started covering the Lakers in the spring of 2000 — just in time for his first title — and the last Lakers game I ever covered was Game 7 in 2012, when he won his last championship.

    Still trying to process this.

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