In the world we live in nowadays, every death, and especially a celebrity death, requires an immediate audit of a person’s life. Everything has to be dissected, good and bad. In the coming days, a lot of people are going to write think pieces about what they consider the tainted legacy of Kobe Bryant. It never feels like we talk about the great things someone did, but rather dissect the more salacious moments of someone’s life.
Kobe, who died on Sunday in a helicopter crash in California, was widely publicized for a sexual assault investigation in 2006 in Colorado. When people talk about Kobe, it will inevitably come up. So i’m gonna bring it up right now so I don’t have to again. The case was settled out of court. Kobe’s wife stayed with him. He portrayed himself as a family man. Maybe he was. He seemed to truly love his family. His daughters were with him at many games.
Now that i’ve mentioned that: Kobe Bryant was one of the greatest players in NBA history. He transcended the game in a way that only a handful of players ever have in the history of the NBA. He was truly in the discussion for greatest of all time, and he’s the only player not named Michael Jordan to truly have the killer instinct needed to be the best.
In many ways, he made basketball look easy. Easier than any person watching on television could ever understand. Whether it was the 81 points he dropped (in basically three quarters) against the Raptors, the five championships he won, or the criminally low single MVP he captured in his career (he deserved three, but voters looked for reasons not to vote for him), Bryant was the poster child for the post-Jordan NBA. Whether he was teaming up with Shaquille O’neal, Pau Gasol, or anyone else, he was the star. He was the man. He was the legend.
Twelve times over his career, he was named to the All Defensive team. He never lived his life on offense exclusively, as so many wrestlers do these days. He was an 18 time all star in a league where the average career lasts under three seasons. He came to the NBA in an era that was as much known for the people who simply could not make the jump from high school to the NBA. Bryant rose above the Leon Smiths and the Korleone Youngs of the world. He had that special thing that sets people in life apart.
Kobe Bryant so went above and beyond that his shadow is cast far beyond just the world of basketball. Drew Brees gave a solemn interview in the middle of the Pro Bowl to Bryant. People from every corner of the sports and pop culture world were stepping onto Twitter to speak in platitudes about Kobe. He will, no doubt, have an award named after him someday in the NBA.
As I write this, I really just want to write about one game. His final game, to be exact, because this is the way i’m always going to remember him. I remember exactly where I was, too. Same bar in Plainfield I always hang out at. Nobody paid any attention to the game until the fourth quarter. But as the 4th went on, people started focusing more and more on the game. Paying closer attention. And then Kobe absolutely went off. Kobe went full Frank Sinatra. He wanted to go off his way.
If you remember, that Lakers team wasn’t very good. Metta World Peace, nee Ron Artest was a guy who played on this team. On this night, everyone was at this game. Jay Z. Jack Nicholson. Shaq. Snoop. Everyone who cared about basketball made sure they were there for the night. Kobe went out there trying to give them a show, but more importantly he wanted to go out on his terms.
Sports is filled with guys who hung around too long. Players who couldn’t play anymore, but nobody have the heart to tell them. Shaq on the Celtics and Cavs. Hakeem on the Raptors. Willie Mays on the Mets. Ken Griffey Jr. on the White Sox. Wherever Tom Brady is gonna end up next year. Kobe was getting close to that point. his knees weren’t great. He’d gone through experimental procedures. He’d torn his Achilles. He’d come back (probably too quick) and kept pushing himself. His body was betraying him. He could have hung around and been a role player somewhere, but he didn’t want to be Karl Malone, being a basketball vagabond in search of a championship ring. So Kobe decided to walk away. But Los Angeles was his town, and he was damn sure going to go off in a big way.
And he did. He scored. And kept scoring. And he didn’t bother to miss. It was thrilling to watch. In the bar, everyone surrounded around the television playing the game. You could feel the excitement through the television screen. He kept shooting. The shot kept going in. He was single handedly bringing the Lakers back from a late game deficit. Then he steals the ball, he pushes the ball down court. He stops, steps back, drops another shot. Nobody else was even touching the ball. Everyone at the bar was standing and cheering. We kept getting louder.
Then, as the game came to it’s epic climax, Kobe dropped two free throws to get to 60 points before getting taken out of the game to an extended standing ovation. It is a moment laser etched into my memory. If only every star can go out that way. The way we want to remember him. The way he wants to be remembered.
RIP Mamba. The entire basketball community and sports community as a whole holds a debt of honor to you.