Long before Kobe Bryant struck fear in his opponents or won five championships, he was a rookie simply looking to establish himself on an otherwise experienced Los Angeles Lakers roster. Bryant didn’t play much in his first year, which frustrated him but ultimately became something he deemed a valuable learning lesson.
Although Bryant had played sparingly under former head coach Del Harris, he was in the heat of the battle against the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of the 1997 Western Conference semifinals. The Lakers needed a win in order to avoid being eliminated.
They forced the Jazz to overtime, where Bryant’s blend of youth and confidence made for a deflating series of possessions as he shot the Lakers out of a game with one airball after another.
While it was a low moment for the rookie, O’Neal explained why that’s a favorite of his when reflecting on the illustrious career his former teammate had, via Spectrum SportsNet:
“My fondest memory of him was him having the guts in that Utah series to take those last three shots. Because I missed about 30 free throws in the game, I didn’t want to shoot it. Eddie didn’t, Nick didn’t want to shoot it. He shot [four] airballs, and if you can remember, I went to him and said hey, ‘All these people that are laughing at you, they will fear you one day because I know you’re going to hit more game-winners than you’ll miss.'”
Bryant himself also called that game a learning experience that proved pivotal to his career. He shot a total of four airballs in the 98-93 elimination loss, with three coming in overtime.
Bryant would go on to have more rough moments in big games, but none are more infamous than his rookie performance against the Jazz. And of course, the future Hall-of-Famer is most remembered for the clutch shots and game-winners he did make in the thousands of games that followed.
Some of which came at the expense of Utah, including eliminating them in the playoffs en route to winning a championship.
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