It has been just one year to the day since Kobe Bryant laced up his sneakers and put on that familiar purple and gold uniform. It’s amazing how quickly we move on. I’ve already become accustomed to watching the Lakers without Bryant as a new generation attempts to carve out their own legacy.
Yet, even as life without Kobe settles into the norm, there will always be that uneasy feeling that something is missing. The Lakers no longer have that transcendent star to mesmerize us, to keep us on the edge of our seats in anticipation of the next display of greatness.
Instead, we look for hope in every game, searching for flickering embers that may one day be stoked into a raging fire. It comes in many forms, whether it be a D’Angelo Russell hot streak, Julius Randle fast break, or a vicious dunk by Brandon Ingram. All provide fleeting moments of excitement, followed by questions of just how high that player can fly. Could the next Kobe already be in uniform? Or perhaps be right around the corner, waiting to be signed or drafted?
But it’s futile. We might as well be searching for Leprechauns, Bigfoot, Clippers fans, or something else that doesn’t exist. The Lakers will eventually find a new star to hitch their wagon to, but there will never be another Kobe.
Bryant’s throne, just like Magic Johnson’s before him, is one that will forever remain empty. Ironically, in a career filled with incredible moments, it was his final performance that proved it.
Ever since he was a teenager, there was something about Kobe Bean Bryant that was captivating. The confidence, swagger, and undeniable talent all played a role in making him the basketball savant that he was, but it was his incredible work ethic that set him apart. Would-be Kobe-stoppers fell before him, records were broken, and injuries brushed off as nothing more than minor annoyances.
After all, who has time for a sprained ankle when history is at stake?
Certainly not Bryant.
Then, in 2013, Bryant’s immortality was lost, ironically due to a torn Achilles. The one injury he couldn’t shake. In an instant, the demi-god became a man.
It was tragic, but it’s also what made his 60-point send-off so special.
That night, it wasn’t the Superman version of Bryant that we saw, the one that could conquer anything he put his mind to. This was a Bryant who had battled Father Time tooth and nail and lost. This was a weary, aching man who, after years of mounting injuries, was finally coming to grips with the fact that he was in a fight he could not win. He was done, ready to accept defeat and bid farewell to basketball.
Yet, on that last night, Bryant didn’t graciously step away. Instead, he kicked Father Time to the sidelines one last time and reclaimed the spotlight, reminding us all what made him so great in the first place. At certain points, he looked like he would fall over from exhaustion, but the scoring outburst just kept going. As he drew closer to 40, announcers Hubie Brown and Mike Breen joked about how ridiculous Brown’s earlier premonition was that Bryant would go for 50 points. No one thought he had it in him, not anymore. I certainly didn’t.
40 gave way to 50, and in the clutch, Bryant scored time and time again, finally settling on 60 points in a win. He did it as a man, flawed and fragile, not the superhuman from six years prior who couldn’t be stopped. It was his vulnerability that made the moment all the more meaningful.
You see, Bryant had spent his entire career maximizing every moment in a maniacal pursuit of greatness. It was this drive that allowed him to fully realize every last ounce of basketball potential that he had in him, and to achieve near-superhuman levels of play.
He pushed his body to the limits and beyond year after year, demanding greatness. Bryant didn’t compete against other basketball players because that wouldn’t be a fair fight. He competed against himself, constantly raising the bar.
The years of carrying the team on his back had taken their toll, but on that final night, he had just a little bit of basketball magic left in him, and he used it all. That night, it what was happening: Bryant, beaten and broken down, was giving basketball everything he had left.
It’s cliche by now to say that he raged against the dying of the light, but it’s difficult to describe what he did any other way. Where so many others would have smiled and waved through a leisurely farewell game, Bryant, just a man, pushed himself back to superstardom, as though he wanted to prove, one last time, that he could.
Someday, a new superstar will grace the STAPLES Center, but his drive, his desire to be great, can never be replicated. Bryant left the game completely spent, pouring out the last bit of basketball in him on that final night. In an incredible career, it was a final performance that summed up everything he was as a player and a person. One final reminder that it took more than skill for Bryant to be the player that he was, an obsessive nature that forced him to push himself farther than anyone could have dreamed possible.
Someday a new star will walk through the door, but Kobe Bryant’s throne will still sit empty, and that’s exactly how it should be.