Kobe Bryant never had a chance. That’s right. The guy that’s been on the inside door of high school lockers for nearly 20 years was doomed from the beginning. Even before the infamous 2003 rape allegations shattered the squeaky-clean image of Bryant, he could never live up to the basketball world’s expectations of him.
And how could he? Kobe Bryant’s greatness came during the most waste-land time period the NBA has seen in the last 40 years; Kobe came (mostly) after Jordan, but (mostly) before LeBron. He shared the era with “boring” champions like Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs. The competition, at least in the minds of most fans, wasn’t as grueling as we see it today. The Magics, Birds, Ewings, and Malones of the 80s and 90s were long gone. The Durants, LeBrons, Wades, and Roses had yet to come into power.
However, that’s not what we talk about when we talk about Kobe Bryant. Instead, we talk about Kobe’s toughness and will to compete as if it’s the only niche of his game that should be mentioned in the same breath as MJ. We talk about the five titles and how three of them were half-measures because of Shaq O’Neal. We talk about the new contract and how it has doomed the Lakers to the NBA basement in Bryant’s twilight. And finally, these days we whisper, as if Kobe himself were listening around the corner, about his seemingly all-too-content attitude toward trading in wins for shots, points, and higher notches on all-time statistics lists.
But the argument for Kobe Bryant should be made in the name of much more than any of that. He should be remembered as the player who helped guide a league and a sport through a time when super stars were few and far between. He led the NBA through a decade when “Dynasties” with a capital “D” were separated by years, not single summers. We have to look hard, but Bryant’s job was more than winning titles and All-Star game MVPs (he’s got 4 of those, by the way). No, Bryant’s job, or maybe rather his duty, was to bridge the gap between Jordan’s legend and LeBron’s kingdom. It was to be the link between the two best players of a generation. He carried the toughness and grit of Jordan’s era, an era many of us grew up watching and falling in love with, and carried it so well. He’s the final, fading super star, the last link many of us have to the best memories we have of true greatness.
Somehow, sadly (and at the same time all-too-fitting), as we look back on Kobe’s amazing career we can see how his legacy never had a chance. He could never, no matter how many titles he won with or without Shaq, accomplish what Jordan accomplished. And at the same time he never had the all-around game LeBron brought to the table. It was crystal clear from very early on he’d never experience the team success Jordan did, nor did he possess the individual talent, athleticism, and strength LeBron was blessed with. And so he is doomed, doomed forever to be brought up after the two legends that bookend his career. Fair? Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s how it is, and how it will probably be.
Weeks ago an ESPN talent that shall remain nameless, while talking about Bryant, made the argument his greatness was diminished because he didn’t have that “moment you can picture in your mind as soon as someone mentions his name…” How wrong. How sad. Sure, Kobe’s moment didn’t come during a Game 7 of the NBA Finals or at one of his 16 (soon to be 17) All-Star games. No, it came April 12, 2013 when Bryant attempted to drive left past Harrison Barnes in one of the final games of the season. The seemingly innocent move caused Bryant to pull up lame. His Achilles was torn and his season was over. It would have been the end of the evening for anyone else. But not for number 24. Not yet. Not for Kobe Bryant. He had two free throws to sink before he made his dramatic exit, an exit he made under his own power and on his own two feet. Free throw one: Swish. Was there any doubt the second wouldn’t do the same?
That’s Kobe Bryant’s moment. With two free throws he reminded us what era he was drafted into, which era he carried on his back, and which era he was leaving behind. The game changed so much between Jordan and LeBron. Kobe tried his damnedest to bridge that gap and bridge it well.
So, yes, I have a very nostalgic feeling when I think about or watch Kobe Bryant. His picture, cut from a magazine, hung in my very own 8th grade locker, now almost 20 years ago. His #8 gold “Lakers” jersey still hangs in my closet. And I’ll tell my children a lot more about what he meant to the game than what he accomplished while playing it.
This post can also be found on my blog, hackinghoops.wordpress.com. Enjoy!
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Daniel Muster