The loss of Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, and seven others in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020 has left the basketball community — and beyond — stunned and saddened.
Los Angeles Lakers fans, in particular, are struggling to mourn the loss of their greatest star.
With that in mind, it’s important fans take time to celebrate the positive things that Bryant brought them. Here are the top-five moments of his Lakers career:
5. Indiana: With the Lakers up 2-1 in the 2000 NBA Finals over the Indiana Pacers, a 21-year-old Bryant announced his arrival to the world as a full-fledged star. Bryant missed the previous game due to a sprained ankle, but gutted it out in Game 4. As the contest headed to overtime, Shaquille O’Neal fouled out, which should have spelled the end for the Lakers.
Instead, a young Bryant proved that he was all they needed to get the win. He drained a pair of long jumpers, then put the Lakers up three with a twisting offensive rebound and score to give the Lakers a 3-1 series lead. In some ways, it was reminiscent of a rookie Magic Johnson filling in for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1980. Bryant’s ability to rise to the moment on the game’s brightest stage was just a sign of things to come.
4. The Lob: The fact that one can mention ‘The Lob’ to any Lakers fan and they know exactly what it means speaks to how impactful the moment was. Down 15 points to the Blazers in the fourth quarter of Game 7 in the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the Lakers launched a furious rally to pull themselves back from the brink.
The coup de gras was delivered with less than a minute left and the Lakers leading by four. Bryant drove into the lane, forcing Brian Grant to step up and cut him off. In a split second, he had to decide whether to shoot the floater over Grant or toss a lob to O’Neal, who had cut to the basket. Bryant threw the lob and O’Neal hammered it home, sending Lakers fans into a euphoric frenzy. It was an unbelievable moment and one that culminated in Bryant making the perfect play at the perfect time.
3. 81: In 2006, the Lakers met up with the Toronto Raptors. The post-O’Neal team featured a hodge-podge lineup consisting of Smush Parker, Bryant, Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown, and Chris Mihm, which seems incredibly antiquated when compared to the spacing-obsessed offenses of the modern NBA.
Down at halftime to a Raptors team that was considered to be a non-playoff team, Bryant put the Lakers on his back with an offensive onslaught for the ages. With 26 points at halftime, Bryant would score another 55 in the second half to finish with 81. It was a testament to Bryant’s incredible scoring ability and will to win.
2. Boston: The Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals, granting the villainous club a 17th championship. Two years later, Bryant’s Lakers earned a chance to right that wrong, again drawing the Celtics. Alongside Pau Gasol, Bryant helped the Lakers claw their way to a Game 7 at Staples Center. It had all of the drama, all of the buildup that a massive clash between two historic rivals should.
The game itself wasn’t pretty. It was a defensive struggle as both teams dug deep on every possession and shooting percentages plummeted. Bryant himself would hit just 6-of-24 shots but still managed to make an impact in other ways. He got to the free-throw line 15 times while also grabbing 15 huge rebounds.
1. Finale: Bryant just may have saved his most memorable performance for last, finishing his career with an unbelievable 60-point performance in a win over the Utah Jazz. At 37 years old, it wasn’t clear what to expect from him as Bryant had spent the waning days of the season buried in ice packs and doing whatever he could to hold himself together.
On that night, however, he was exceptional. What has always set Bryant apart has been his single-minded obsession with becoming the best basketball player possible. He spent decades doing everything he could, learning every move, analyzing every angle, in order to gain an edge. Perhaps to a greater degree than any athlete before him, fans saw Bryant maximize every ounce of basketball ability that he had in his body.
In his final performance, he exhausted all of it, leaving the tank on empty and giving Lakers fans one last unforgettable moment.