Kobe Bryant is about to lace up his high tops for the last time of his storied career. It’s going to be an emotional night, for both Bryant and his legion of fans, who will set out into the unknown of a post-Kobe world.
As the final game of the Los Angeles Lakers season has drawn nearer I’ve heard countless people claim that they will be a wreck when the last ovation descends from the rafters at the Staples Center.
Yet, the vast majority of those shedding tears will have never personally met the man. That doesn’t seem to matter, though. There is still a very real feeling of sadness to Bryant’s exit, one that only speaks to how immense his impact was.
To the average, sometimes rabid Lakers fan, Bryant has been practically family for the past 20 years. Through the magic of television, he has been right there, in our living rooms, during some of the biggest moments of our lives.
We can become so wrapped up in fandom that the separation that the TV screen provides all but disappears. A star player becomes more than that when he’s someone we have grown accustomed to seeing for so long. His presence becomes familiar, and in a way, comforting.
Bryant isn’t dying; he will still appear on television now and again. Still, his retirement feels a bit like a family member or close friend moving away. You know you will still talk from time to time, but it won’t be the same.
The relationship between player and fan, forged long ago, will change.
It is indeed the end, and in the end, you can’t help but think about the beginning. The incredible connection between Bryant and Lakers fans began when he first arrived in Los Angeles as a fresh-faced teenager trying to make the leap from high school to the NBA.
Sunglasses on his head, he announced that he would take his talent to the NBA, flashing a boyish smile at the resulting cheers and applause from the crowd. The Lakers moved a mountain named Vlade to obtain Bryant in the 1996 draft, a thirteenth pick that twelve other teams will forever regret passing on.
It was a different world then, and so much has changed. In 1996 pay phones were necessary and plentiful, clothes were baggy, and the Macarena topped the charts (no really). “Friends” ruled the television. The Twin Towers stood tall. Bill Clinton, saxophone and all, was in the White House. There were roughly 1.3 billion fewer people in the world.
Those good old days may be gone, but they don’t feel so far. Just a blink of an eye, really. Vivid memories leap forward of the people we’ve loved. The ones we lost. The triumphs, tragedies, and everything in between.
In the midst of it all, there was Kobe, naive but talented, donning on the purple and gold. Just as the world around us shifts and turns so too does the NBA, and the Lakers were unknowingly entering a new Golden Age.
As we all know now, Bryant is as special as he is cursed. His single-minded obsession with the game of basketball surely has just as much to do with his incredible success as his God-given physical abilities. Every failure he experienced as a young player taught him a lesson, one that would not need repeating.
It’s that thirst for knowledge, the desire to always improve, that allowed him to push on for 20 years. It’s also part of why Lakers fans treasure him so much.
The summer of ’96 saw the Lakers land Shaquille O’Neal, adding the gargantuan center to an already promising team that featured fan favorites like Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, and Cedric Ceballos.
There were plenty of likable, talented players on board for fans to flock to, and they did. Nick “The Quick” had the bravado to make the big plays, Eddie’s smooth, gliding game caused crowds to chant his name, and Ceballos astounded with his ability to do the dirty work.
And of course, Shaq was….well, Shaq.
Fans were excited about the new, promising young Lakers. Championships danced in our heads as we celebrated a new era, but strangely enough it was the 18-year-old kid who truly captivated us. He piqued our interest back then as a rookie and then refused to let it go for the next two decades.
He certainly had the talent to back up the adoration, but there was something else going on, something rarely seen, that truly created the connection between Kobe and the legion of Lakers fans.
It was work.
It’s no secret that life is hard, and success isn’t a given. Sure, there are the fortunate sons out there, but all of us are taught early on that it takes real effort to succeed. Sweat, tears, sometimes blood.
Almost universally, whether you are a prince or pauper, hard work is something to respected. And no one worked harder than Kobe.
Shaq was larger than life, a giant in every sense of the word. His dominance was awe inspiring, but there was always the sense that he could be even more. He played his way into shape during the season and healed on company time. Lakers fans loved him, but it’s hard to relate to a person so physically powerful, so genetically gifted.
Kobe, on the other hand, was certainly an impressive athlete, but what really endeared him to fans was his work ethic. With every new season, he showed up with more tricks in the bag, new wrinkles to his game that he had spent the summer developing.
Rumors of his marathon workout sessions trickled out across Los Angeles, verifying what was already evident on the court. Shaq worked hard, but Kobe was obsessed.
It was a kind of mania that was understood, and above all, respected. Lakers fans live and die with the team, and in Kobe Bryant, they found a player who did the same. A bond formed between city and player, one that only grew stronger over time.
As the years went by and our lives changed, Kobe was constant. The Towers fell, Clinton gave way to Bush and later Obama. Nickleback happened.
A technological revolution took the immense power of the internet, which features the accumulated knowledge of nearly all of human history and put it in our pockets (we mostly use it to look at funny cat videos).
Some people left our lives, others entered. We grew older, as we tend to do.
Still, there was something comforting about knowing that no matter what happened in our personal lives or what was going on in the world, every October the Black Mamba would resurface, ready to lead the Lakers once more.
He was like a force of nature, impossible to stop. Broken fingers, sprained ankles, dodgy knees, none of it seemed to matter. Kobe played the game with such passion that he seemed to be invulnerable to the ailments that afflict us. He shrugged off one injury after another, like an action hero with a bullet to the shoulder.
He was a testament to the power of sheer will, to the strength of the human spirit when one meets challenges head on and without hesitation.
We have all felt that to a degree, that sense of accomplishment when we do something no one thought we could. Watching Kobe Bryant we could relate, but still be amazed. He did the impossible night after night, thanks to his own personal drive.
It was inspiring.
Somewhere along the way, it’s hard to know exactly when, this aloof, sometimes arrogant man managed to become like family to millions.
Poetically, Bryant’s immortality was lost when his Achilles tore in 2013. His indomitable will was no longer enough to keep the years at bay. The conclusion was drawing near.
Now, with the sand in the hourglass nearly out, Lakers fans are preparing for the end of an era. For 20 years we have lived in a world where the only certainties are death, taxes, and Kobe Bryant, but no longer.
Wednesday night, sad though it may be, provides a chance to think about the beginning, and everything the journey between then and now has brought with it. This reflection sharpens our perception and allows us to appreciate the struggle fully to get to where we are today.
Perhaps more importantly, when that final buzzer sounds, there will be an opportunity for a city and its adopted son to share one last moment, and to say thank you, one more time.