Kobe Bryant may have ridden off into the sunset last April, but the impact of the Los Angeles Lakers legend is still being felt. After two decades in Los Angeles, an entire generation, myself included, grew up along with him.
With the City of Los Angeles celebrating Kobe Bryant Day on August 24th (in honor of Bryant’s jersey numbers 8 and 24), it’s time to reflect back on his journey through the NBA and its parallels to life as part of the Kobe Bryant generation.
Basketball was something that could always connect my dad and I. My earliest memory is of sitting on our scratchy, pea-green couch in Southern California and watching the Showtime Lakers fast break their way to victories. Chick Hearn, who we used to listen to by bringing in a radio and turning down the volume on the TV, was essentially the narrative voice of my childhood, and as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t get much better.
When word broke in 1991 that Magic Johnson was retiring, one of my dad’s co-workers saw the saddened look on his face and asked, “What happened? Did the President get shot or something?”. My dad replied “No, much worse…Magic Johnson has HIV.”
It was an off-the-cuff comment, but it was still indicative of how important Lakers basketball was growing up in our household.
I was amazed by the athletes that visited our living room a few times a week. Magic Johnson, especially, was a favorite. When he came out of retirement briefly in 1996, I plastered the walls of my room with the newspaper articles announcing his return. I still remember nearly losing my mind when he faked Lattrell Sprewell out of his high tops in his first game back.
A few months later Magic was gone again, but the summer of 1996 delivered new blood to Los Angeles. Shaquille O’Neal stunned the basketball world when he signed with the Lakers, but it was the addition of an 18-year-old kid from Philadelphia that really caught my attention.
As a 14-year-old preparing to start my freshman year of high school I couldn’t believe that Kobe Bryant, someone who was the same age as some of the seniors I would walk past in the hallway, was going to be playing not just professional basketball, but Lakers basketball.
With Magic retired for good, Bryant gave me, and many others like me, a star to be captivated by.
He didn’t play a lot his rookie year, and only averaged 7.6 points, but I was hooked. Bryant had something, a spark that drew the eye whenever he was on the floor. There was a sense that if you looked away for even a moment, you might miss something incredible. Just as my dad had grown up watching Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, Bryant was the hero for a new generation.
It was a lot to put on such a young player, but Bryant was so confident, as though his ascension to the heights of the NBA was a foregone conclusion. He took ill-advised shots and came across as cocky, but the talent was undeniable.
Bryant took his lumps in that first year, including all of those airballs in the playoffs against Utah, but he kept firing away. The TV crew kept cutting to shots of then-Coach Del Harris, as though they were checking to see whether Bryant’s wayward shooting was somehow turning his hair even whiter.
The missed shots weren’t the point, the complete lack of fear of failure was. For me, and my generation, Bryant would be great, and we would be lucky enough to enjoy the ride.
I was just days away from graduating high school when Bryant was hoisting his first championship trophy. There was, of course, no real connection between Bryant and I, but the timing felt symbolic.
Just as Kobe was conquering the basketball world, stepping up in game four on the NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers when Shaq fouled out, I was thinking about making the leap to college.
To see someone so young rise to the level that Bryant had, well, you couldn’t help but be inspired. He had set out to maximize his basketball abilities, and just four years later he had reached the pinnacle of the sport.
Dad celebrated the championship with a yell, I just sat and grinned. He had experienced great Lakers teams growing up, and now I had mine. I saved the MSNBC news email on the Lakers winning the title and still have it today, even though the links no longer work. I knew that it was something I’d fondly remember in the years to come.
I thought about my high school classmates and wondered if any of us could even hope to have the same level of success. As optimistic and full of life as we were, could any of us realistically show the same kind of single-mindedness, the borderline maniacal obsession that Kobe had with basketball, in our own lives?
Was that even a good thing, or would it prevent us from becoming well-rounded individuals? These were the questions that Bryant’s meteoric success made me ponder.
As I looked across the sea of red robes on graduation night, I surmised that in all likelihood, none of us would emerge from college four years later as masters of our crafts, as Bryant had done. His education came from grown men in the top basketball league in the world, and in the blink of an eye, he had risen to the top.
It was unbelievable.
Maybe that’s always been part of his allure. Bryant set out with unabashed determination, laser-focus, and a work ethic that borders on superhuman, traits that few people can match.
When the pressure was at it’s highest, there was Kobe, rocking the fro and hitting the big shots, but still maintaining his youthful grin. He had come so far from the confident but unprepared rookie that had debuted just a few years earlier.
Just as college life welcomed my generation with endless possibilities, the sky was the limit on just how good Bryant could eventually become.
In the summer of 2004, the Lakers had just suffered a disappointing loss in the NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons, and Bryant was heading into free agency. Three championships didn’t change the fact that he had grown tired of playing second fiddle to O’Neal, and Los Angeles ultimately decided that, with the dynamic duo’s relationship at a breaking point, Bryant was the player they would build their future around.
As I wrapped up my college days and prepared to start my career, Bryant was likewise about to be thrust into a new environment. For the first time, he would have a team of his own, with a supporting cast that wouldn’t be considered championship-caliber.
The ultimate success or failure of the team would be Bryant’s responsibility, and he was eager to take on the challenge. Similarly, myself and the rest of my generation were heading out into the professional world, and our future would be determined by the sweat on our brow and the strength of our backs.
For me, that meant moving far away from home. Lakers games with Dad became less frequent, and just as Bryant experienced bumps and bruises along the way towards making the Lakers his own, I hit a few setbacks as I tried to navigate the vast world that was suddenly before me.
We tried and failed, lived and learned. The Lakers struggled, unable to reach the same level as they did with O’Neal in the fold, but Bryant attempted to will them to victory every night.
A few years into my career, I took a risk and switched to a more lucrative but also volatile profession. When the housing bubble burst so did the job, which knocked me back to square one. I was fortunate enough to eventually find a job that made ends meet, but it was soul-crushing; a great reminder of how much of a blessing it is to do what you love.
I couldn’t help but think that maybe Bryant also regretted his big move, watching O’Neal leave to forge a path of his own. After all, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
As Kobe battled the ball-hog label, an antsy fan base, and Smush Parker, the Kobe generation experienced a looming recession, crushing student loan debt, and an oversaturated workplace.
In the end, those difficult years would forge a stronger, more resilient people. Bryant, like all of us, had to learn how to win again.
By 2010, things were starting to get back on track. I had worked my way back to a job that I loved, the financial crisis was slowly beginning to improve, and Kobe Bryant and the Lakers were back on top of the NBA world.
The Lakers were the reigning champs after defeating the Orlando Magic in 2009, but a loss to the Boston Celtics in 2008 still stung. Even with the addition of Pau Gasol, the Lakers couldn’t handle the Celtics’ physicality that year. The 2010 Finals would bring a chance to right that wrong.
With Gasol now firmly entrenched as Bryant’s sidekick, and a sturdy supporting cast that included Ron Artest, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum, the Lakers were prepared to battle their longtime rivals.
It was a grueling seven-game series, one that I was fortunate enough to get to watch with Dad. The fact that it was the Celtics made it infinitely more important, as the decades-old rivalry spilled over to a new generation.
Bryant’s shot was off in Game 7, but he managed to help will his team to victory by hitting the boards and doing the little things.
In the end, the Lakers mercifully emerged victorious in a series that was more about grit and grind than flash and sizzle. On the biggest stage, against the Lakers’ fiercest rival, Bryant had to dig deep and find a way to help his team win even though he wasn’t at his best.
Just as Americans enduring the Great Recession had done, Bryant managed to overcome adversity when everything was on the line. It wasn’t pretty, but the important part was that he (and we) got the job done.
When the final buzzer sounded, Dad, who had suffered more than his share of problems during the Recession, reached across the couch and gave me a high-five. I’ll never forget that moment. No words were needed, we just sat there, savoring victory over the Celtics, and enjoying the feeling that for the first time in a long time, everything was going to be all right.
The night ended with Bryant on top of the announcer’s table, celebrated in front of a sea of Lakers fans as a five-time NBA champion.
It was perfect.
I’ll never forget where I was when it happened. It was a night just like any other, spent eating a hastily-made dinner while enjoying some Lakers basketball. Los Angeles was expected to be a title contender with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in town, but luck was not on their side. Nash’s leg broke, Howard’s back limited him, and Pau Gasol was in and out of the lineup with injuries of his own.
The team that many thought would win it all was reduced to clawing and scratching just to get to the playoffs.
Still, they had Bryant, and it appeared that would be enough. At 34-years-old he was turning in a virtuoso performance, nearly single-handedly dragging his teammates into the post-season.
With just two games remaining, Bryant was yet again leading the way in a critical game against the Golden State Warriors. He was in a groove, knocking Klay Thompson to the floor before burying a jumper, then torching him again by deftly using a screen to get an open look from three. The splash brother was getting an education courtesy of the Black Mamba.
Then everything fell apart.
Bryant drove baseline early in the third quarter but collided knees with Festus Ezeli. He stayed down, laying on the Staples Center floor in pain for what seemed like an eternity. Bryant clambered back to his feet, but moments later came up limping again after a jump shot.
Bryant had spent the season as the team’s workhorse, taxing his body by playing 38.6 minutes per game. If the Lakers wanted to make the playoffs, there was simply no time for rest and Bryant would pay the price.
He pressed on, scoring on a variety of jumpers and beautiful spin moves, dissecting the defense with surgical precision. Bryant was getting older, but he could still do whatever he wanted to on the basketball court.
Still, with each painful step, it felt as though something ominous was coming. The human body can only take so much.
With three minutes and eight seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Lakers world, my world, was torn apart.
Bryant attempted to drive past Harrison Barnes, but in the middle of his move, he suddenly fell to the floor, reaching for the back of his leg. He asked Barnes if he had kicked him, and when the Golden State rookie said no, Bryant knew what had happened: his Achilles was torn.
Bryant shot his free throws on one leg (anything to help the team win) and hobbled off the floor, unable to hide the despair that covered his face.
Dad’s text confirmed the dire situation: “Achilles… that could be the end.”
Bryant had always bounced back, always found a way to push through what would have sidelined anyone else. Sprained ankles, broken fingers, aching knees, they couldn’t stop Bryant, who seemed to heal like Wolverine.
Now, he was hit with an injury that he couldn’t brush off, couldn’t play through. Fittingly, a torn Achilles had robbed him of his immortality, and the future was suddenly in question.
For the first time, a generation of Lakers fans who could scarcely remember the time before Kobe had to contemplate a future without their superstar.
It wasn’t easy watching Bryant fight a losing battle against Father Time. He returned from Achilles surgery, but a cascade of other injuries ended his next few seasons prematurely.
Though he was still standing, the Black Mamba wasn’t the same anymore.
His struggles were a reminder of own mortality. Bryant was the best of us, proving time and time again that sheer will could overcome the limitations of the human body, and yet even he eventually fell.
As the Kobe generation ventured into their thirties, we could empathize with a fading Bryant. Throughout my twenties I played pickup basketball often, heading to the local YMCA for some competition as often as five times a week.
As time wore on the abuse started to catch up to me. Aches and pains became more frequent as recovery time increased. Some nights, I would step on the court and just wouldn’t have it. My friends experienced similar struggles. It was as though we had blinked and the game had passed us by.
It’s amazing how fleeting our athletic prime is.
During his final season, Bryant’s farewell tour captivated us all. We watched in admiration as the greatest player of our generation gave his final performances, doing what he could to hold his body together just long enough to reach the finish line.
As the season wore on Bryant’s assortment of post-game wraps and ice packs grew, leaving him looking something like a walking mummy. He pressed on regardless, determined to give the fans one last show.
In his last game, Kobe burned through every last bit of basketball left in his body to turn back the clock and score an incredible 60 points against the Utah Jazz, leading the Lakers to a rare win in a difficult season. It was a final, defiant act from a player who had spent his career beating the odds, and a reminder to us all that we don’t have to go quietly into that good night.
Father Time may have won the war, but Kobe Bryant went down swinging, dropping an all-time performance as a parting shot at the victor. Even Dad, who had seen all the greats, was impressed.
For two decades Kobe Bean Bryant related to an entire generation of Lakers fans. We grew up with him, and Bryant’s exploits in purple and gold provided the backdrop as we transitioned into adulthood.
My daughter was born just a few months after Bryant’s final game. Even though she’s an infant, the other day I sat on the couch with her and watched a replay of Kobe scoring 81 points, drifting back to all the great times I had spent watching basketball with my dad.
I said a quick prayer, hoping that the next generation will have it as good as we did.