You have just witnessed history. What was done last night had never been done before, will never be done again, and needs to be remembered for all time.
There will never be another Kobe.
The History of Pro Basketball (in Three Paragraphs)
I’ve written extensively on this before, but to summarize, the history of pro basketball can be divided in four major epochs: The Early Days (through AD 1980), The TV Era (1980-2003), and The Internet Era (2003-2016), and The Future (post 2016).
The Early Days gave us Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havicek and the Celtics’ 11 championships (the equivalent of East Coast rap’s Run DMC and A Tribe Called Quest); Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the rise of the Lakers (the equivalent of West Coast rap’s NWA); Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points; Julius Erving, Oscar Robertson and the NBA/ABA merger; and so on. These were the days of Harlem street ballers going pro, small time colleges winning the NCAA tournament. There were no three pointers and few dunks; no AAU circuit and no Top 75 Prep Rankings of Sixth Graders. These were simpler times.
The TV Era… now these were the NBA’s golden years. Magic and Showtime. Larry and the Garden. Isaiah and the Bad Boys. Ewing and Starks. Malone and Stockton. Kemp and Payton. Wilkens. Olajuwon. Shaq. Drexler. Pippen. Robinson. Rodman. Oh and there was his Airness, from Nooooorrrrth Carolina, number 23, Michael Jordan. In the TV era, there were no friends; there were no easy buckets; there were no flagrant one’s; there was no flopping; nobody got away with James Harden like defense. These guys hated each other, wanted to kill each other, would not hang out in the offseason—remember players hardly ever switched teams back then. Hell, they barely even could play on the same Olympics team.
And then were was the Internet Era, starting with LeBron coming straight out of high school. This era is identified by kids essentially going pro at 14, joining elite AAU teams, skipping college, jumping around team to team in the NBA to play with their buddies and chase contracts. There’s no hate: it’s just LeBron, CP3, Melo, Dwight, D-Rose, T-Mac, and a million other super talented guys throwing each other alley oops and jacking up three’s.
When games end in The Internet Era, everybody goes out for drinks together.
When games ended in The TV Era, there was blood on the court.
Standing in the Gap
But in between The TV Era and The Internet Era, there are two guys: Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant. Both belong to The TV Era with their heart and soul, yet they’ve somehow lasted long enough—two full decades each—to be now mistakenly identified with The Internet Era. This is why people don’t understand why Timmy—the Big Fundamental—does what he does, why he went to college for four years, why he’s still the first one in the gym every day, even at age 39. It’s also why kids these days don’t get Kobe, don’t properly value him, call him a ball hog and generally rank him behind LeBron. BEHIND LEBRON!!!???!!! Child please.
Kobe’s dad played pro ball so he grew up around the game; he spend most of his adolescent years playing against pro’s in Europe, so he skipped out on the buddy-buddy high school and AAU years. When he was drafted at 17 (by the Charlotte Hornets and after a dozen other guys, don’t forget), it wasn’t about the money or fame or social media followers. It was about winning.
When Kobe steps on the court, he doesn’t have friends. Not even his teammates, really. When you read some of his most classic lines from the years, you see that he only loves one thing. It’s not the camaraderie of the game, it’s not the teamwork, it’s not the off-court hype. And it’s not even that Kobe just love Kobe: Mamba isn’t half as narcissistic as LeBron, Melo and Dwight. (Can you imagine Kobe sitting down with a reporter and a million people watching, saying “I just want to take my talents somewhere else, somewhere where I might be able to win more… I want to play with my buddies.” Heck no. See, Kobe only loves one thing: winning.
That’s why he’s always been surrounded by a symphony of haters, at least since the beginning of The Internet Era. They’re grading him according to The Internet Era, a place he doesn’t belong and a land he seems to hate.
How Should We Remember Kobe?
My earliest memory of KB8 is, not surprisingly the ’97 Dunk Contest. 18 years old. “He was doing this last year at Lower Marion High School…”
Memory number 2 comes from 1997 also. Second year Kobe goes head-to-head with Mr. Jordan himself, dropping 33 points… AT THE AGE OF NINETEEN!!! (Of course, MJ scored 36 and da Bulls won by 20+.)
And then there was Game Seven of the 2000 WC Finals. Kobe is now basically a junior in college, playing at the highest level, and he’s been harshly criticized his entire three years in LA. And then with 40 ticks to go against Portland, Kobe breaks a Hall of Famer’s ankles and…
In 2002, he interrupted G1 of the Finals to do this to someone named Todd MacCulloch.
While we’re on the topic of dunks, how bout this one over Steve Nash (who—poor guy—was called for a foul, adding insult to injury)…
Or this one over Dwight Howard (my man Kendrick Lamar has the best commentary on the baptism of Dwight Howard)…
And less than four months ago, when 39-year old Kobe crossed up former teammate Trevor Ariza and posterized a half-his-age Clint Capela…
And don’t forget about Kobe’s 81 points vs. Toronto (on 46 shots, he scored 1.76 points per shot while the rest of his team went 14-for-42 for an avg of 0.99 points per shot—go ahead an call him a ball hog if you want; was he going to pass for 1-for-5 Kwame Brown?)…
And in case you somehow did not watch or see the highlights of Kobe’s last game last night, here are all of his 60 points.
How special was last night? Kobe’s Sixty overshadowed the breaking of the most unbreakable record in the league—MJ and the Bulls’ 72 wins. Kobe’s Sixty caused a one-day record in sports memorabilia. And Kobe’s Sixty caused the biggest news of the NFL offseason to be delayed 24 hours—“Kobe deserved his night, and there was no reason for this trade to be announced on his night.”
His night. That’s what it was.
Kobe At His Finest
But my favorite all time Kobe memory? Let me set the scene.
It’s June 17th, 2010. NBA Finals. Kobe is well past his prime and the haters have said he’ll never get another ring. The Celtics have assembled the original Big Three: Kevin Garnett (boo!), Ray Allen (boooooo!!), Paul Pierce (BOOOOOO!!!!!). The Celtics have three Hall of Famers, and Kobe has Paul Gasol (old) and Derek Fisher (older).
It’s like the early Nineties all over again. Lakers/Celtics. Games 1-6 are split three even. And Game Seven goes into the fourth quarter with scores in the 50’s.
After an 82 game season and some 20+ postseason games, Kobe is visibly exhausted. You’ve got to remember: At this point, people were already talking retirement for Bryant. “It’s time for him to move over,” they said. “Let LeBron and Melo and Rajon Rondo have their moment.” And for three quarters, the haters seemed to be right.
LA is down 13 and Kobe can’t seem to hit anything—all his dogged jumpers are coming up short. It looks like time has caught up with him, like he didn’t have one more championship in the tank, like the young bucks from Boston—assembled by executives through free agency and trades for this exact moment—were destined to take the throne. But all of a sudden….
Kobe gives up his jumper for a few minutes, starts driving, picking up easy confidence points at the free throw line, and the Lakers chip away at the Celtics’ lead. At the 5:30 mark, with the game now at a gridlock, Mamba’s energy miraculously returns, and he—somehow, some way—rises up for a dagger of a mid-range jumper over Ray Allen. From that point on, Boston is deflated and Kobe wraps it up by swishing free throw over free throw.
An easily forgotten stat from this night: Kobe had 15 rebounds. Seriously!? The Celtics’ Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, and Kendrick Perkins had a combined 9 rebounds. And this aging, six-foot-six guard snatches 15 boards? Only Game Seven of the NBA Finals.
Kobe lived for Game Seven. He ate, slept, and breathed Game Seven. But as we saw last night, he also played every game like it was Game Seven. In fact, Mamba even practiced like it was Game Seven. One teammate recalls the time Bryant broke his shooting wrist in a preseason game the night before…
I am ashamed to say that I was excited the day after his injury because I knew that there was no way that No. 8 would be the first to practice, if he would even be there at all.
As I walked through the training room, I became stricken with fear when I heard a ball bouncing. No, no, it couldn’t be! Yes, it could. Kobe was already in a full sweat with a cast on his right arm, dribbling and shooting with his left.
Real NBA fans, real students of the greatest game ever, know the difference between Kobe and Everyone Else. While LeBron was making “the announcement,” Kobe was in the gym. When Carmelo was wasting away on the bench of the 15-win Knicks, Kobe was in the gym. When these young kids are out picking out new sneakers, calling everyone from Paul George to freaking James Harden the next Kobe, talking about how Bryant should have retired in 2014 after his Achilles injury, Kobe was in the gym.
Why? Because Kobe is from a different era, the last of a dying breed, cut from the cloth of MJ, Magic, Bird and Isaiah. Kobe never lived for the internet highlights, the social media buzz, the movie cameos, the clothing lines, the auxiliary businesses, or the postgame feel good speeches.
In short, Kobe never existed for you. He existed to compete, to win. Kobe Bryant existed to keep basketball in its golden ages for a few more fleeting minutes.
And now he’s gone. Farewell, Kobe.