Once upon a time, more precisely by the end of the millennium, the NBA was about to finish a very important chapter. Bird and Magic, the two main protagonists of the popularity rise of the Association, were about to say goodbye – alongside millions of people around the world – to the greatest of all time, Michael “Air” Jordan. As people expressed their final thoughts, there was a feeling the NBA had peaked. Somehow, it could never be the same. The competitiveness and overall talent of the late 80’s and 90’s could never be replicated. The NBA massive appeal would eventually fade, and the flock of worldwide following – driven by the rivalry of Bird and Magic and the mesmerizing lack of gravity of Air Jordan – would slowly disappear. The NBA Scholar was a follower of this school of thought. The excellent spectacle produced by these amazing showmen was a once in a lifetime occurrence. How would the NBA counter the exit of these basketball juggernauts?
The rise of Kobe Bryant, the prodigy kid
A few years before Jordan’s departure, the NBA labeled yet another young player as “the next Jordan”. It was a regular occurrence back then. Fuelled by the media and the increasing viewers worldwide, the NBA was trying to find someone who could fill the shoes of the iconic Chicago Bulls legend. Many players fell into this label and couldn’t handle the pressure. Others, like Grant Hill or T-Mac, to name a few, were unlucky to test the veracity of such claims. In between this flood of names, a young player suddenly jumps into the arena with the goal of being the best. “Just another player who wants to be like Mike”, some said at the time. A few distinctive traits separated this particular player from all the rest. Unlike his contemporaries, caught in the new-found limelight showbiz lifestyle of the NBA, (all of the sudden a league with a lot of money to be distributed in record breaking publicity deals) Kobe Bryant had the demise and the poise of an obsessed gym rat or a borderline student, immersed in libraries. The future black mamba was refining his talent in the gym, with a work ethic that was second to none. His peers didn’t find this kid particularly convincing. A reclusive young man with unachievable dreams. He was too quiet. He didn’t party like the rest of them.
Kobe Bryant was, in fact, different from most of his contemporaries. It was all about getting better. Every day. Every month. Each season was a stepping stone to get into the sacred ground: NBA Finals. He took the opportunity to address his idol (in all fairness, everyone’s idol back then, even for those who didn’t follow the NBA! Jordan was a global icon, he transcended his country and his sport) and ask him questions. This is what separates the great ones from the skilled or talented ones… it’s not only the raw talent, the mesmerizing physical strength, and agility. There’s a process. Even Jordan had to go through it. He studied them. The bad boys. The offensive schemes. The matchups. He perfected his game until something extraordinary happened. Shaquille O’Neal was coming to LA.
Best 1-2 punch ever?
The liaison between Kobe and Shaq was as asymmetrical and surprisingly successful as it gets. Kobe was the prototype of the laborious, method performer while Shaq was too aware of his dominance. As he put it once, he knew he only had to do real work against two or three centers. The Kobe-Shaq combo worked like a charm, under the guidance of the Zen Master. As the Lakers evolved into a powerhouse, egos grew as well. Shaq knew he was the absolute best at his position. That he could not be stopped. Kobe felt the same. Eventually, one of them would have to take the back seat or, at least, admit who “owned” the team. Who was the big dog. None of them managed to address this situation in the best way. Too much heat, too many bright lights, soundbites, and newspaper headlines. Hollywood plotted for a divorce. The drama, always. Eventually, what seemed like a marriage made in heaven (the dominant outside player plus the huge “larger than life” center, a la old school NBA) quickly dissolved. Kobe and Shaq parted ways and for a long time, it seemed Shaq got the best part of the deal. Kobe and the Lakers fell in a deluge of losing seasons and Kobe was (apparently) more interested in adding to his already prolific and impressive career than caring for team wins. Kobe Bryant knew better. He never had the patience to wait. He kept asking for backup. At a certain point, Kobe considered leaving as well. The calling of the Titles. That sweet taste of the champagne tormented him. And he saw his now “nemesis” Shaq get a title in Miami. He became restless.
Enter Odom, Ariza, Gasol, Fisher
As Lamar Odom improved, so did the Lakers. They had some promising players. The future was, once again, looking brighter. They were missing one piece, though. A player able to fill the void in the middle. Enter Pau Gasol. He was the perfect ally for Kobe Bryant. Like him, Gasol was used to an international atmosphere; he was able to communicate and relate to Kobe in a different way. Moreover, Pau was better suited to handle Kobe fiery temperament. Pau Gasol took the back seat for this ride. He was the best big man on the team and one of the best ones in the league back then, but he knew it was Kobe’s team. Therefore, he followed his guidance and directions. Kobe Bryant appreciated the effort and with the help of his long-time friend and ally Derek Fisher plus an emerging very good 2-way player (Trevor Ariza), the Lakers were all of the sudden a force to be reckoned.
This was probably the best time of Kobe’s career. He was at the top of his game, and he managed to win two more titles. He had now surpassed his rival, Shaquille O’Neal. He was just one title away from getting that elusive sixth title, a Championship that would put him at the same level as Jordan, at least from a NBA Titles standpoint. Nevertheless, the 2 Championships conquered by Kobe’s Lakers weren’t as dominant and conclusive as the ones he got with Shaq. The league was different now. Tim Duncan and his two companions were a tough customer in the West, and the big three in Boston seemed a more powerful and resourceful team. With the arrival of his good friend LeBron James to Miami, pairing with the likes of Bosh, Wade and later with Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant quest for the sixth title became a mirage, a kind of Fata Morgana looming as the years passed by. All of the sudden, father time had sneaked on him, and injuries started to be a factor. They were coming frequently and painfully.
A final effort
The last time Kobe Bryant had a real chance to go all the way happened in the year, he joined forces with Dwight Howard (back then the most dominant center) and Steve Nash, an older point guard that was able to extract the best of the Lakers assets. Everything went wrong, though. Nash injuries prevented the Lakers from getting any kind of rhythm. Dwight Howard couldn’t mesh with Kobe. Ironically, it was like the second coming of a Shaq partnership. Much like O’Neal, Dwight Howard thrived on a laid back approach, too juvenile for Kobe’s tasting. As the losses and injuries made it a season to forget, Kobe began to lose his temper and eventually Howard had to leave. Bryant doesn’t respect players who don’t give 110%. It’s just the way he’s wired. He didn’t make it a secret. In his recurrent quotes and talks with the media, Kobe Bryant always expressed his eagerness to win. As Jordan put it “he’s as cursed as I am”. It doesn’t get any clearer than that. Many critics tried to downplay Kobe’s antics stating he was a mere copycat, mimicking the gestures and poses of his hero. Without a unique personality. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Unlike Jordan, Kobe was never a sympathetic leader. Kobe’s tunnel vision might have prevented him from getting more titles. The “how many titles would Kobe and Shaq win if they had stayed together” will be a discussion that will entertain NBA historians and analytics junkies for decades.
It is an absolute pleasure to see the way Kobe Bryant is handling his last season. He finally understood that slowing down isn’t a flaw of character. Quite simply, getting older is a fact of life. When the body can’t keep up with your mind, not even the best basketball IQ player can “magically” ignore and bypass the physical constraints. Still, every now and again there is a Kobe’s rant, some aggressive language. Probably something he does to remind him of his former self. The black mamba personality, the killer, the clutch performer. He can lash out on the kids, but it is probably for the greater good. It’s the way he sees the game. A constant need to improve and work on your skills.
Kobe Bryant will stand in NBA books as one of the fiercest competitors ever. His name will be synonymous of hard work, relentless passion for the game and winning at all costs. Some will question his path and the options he chose, but that’s a common discussion for all the great athletes. A few weeks ago Shaq and Kobe were together in a radio show, again in good terms. It’s the circle of life. Shaq also showed some regrets. How many more titles would they win? 2, 3? Some say they could have won at least seven titles if they didn’t allow egos to get in the way. In any case, from an individual and team perspective, Kobe ended getting the better end of the deal. He got one more Championship than Shaq, and his numbers didn’t fall as abruptly as O’Neal.
In a few days, we’ll witness the final All-Star of Kobe Bean Bryant. Such a polarizing figure. In today’s NBA, characterized by an excessive “political correctness” Kobe’s antics seem a memory of livelier days. The transition days from the NBA gods (Bird, Magic, Isiah, Olajuwon, Drexler, Barkley) and the ruler of them all (Jordan) to the new kids on the block, the hip hop kids and their very own NBA cultural revolution. Kobe Bryant was wise to announce his retirement at the beginning of the season. It’s been an absolute delight to observe the many homages important players, coaches, and teams are giving him. His former friend/enemy is now a commentator on TNT. Shaq will get a statue in Los Angeles next year. Will Kobe’s statue be placed around O’Neal? In any case, his legacy amongst Lakers fans was carved a long time ago. Iron will to win, stomping against all elements: teammates, coaches, game plans. At the end of the day, nothing mattered most to Kobe than winning Championships. In a recent interview, he mentioned that NBA Finals he should have won.
In a few weeks, Kobe Bryant will make his final appearance. Next Sunday, like two decades ago, he’ll be out there chasing perfection. Demanding it from his teammates. Some will get it – only a few, probably. Such is the nature of the genius minds. They can’t explain how they do it or be caught up in the process of “mentoring.” They’re too busy winning their inner battles. To overcome their former self. At some point, they forget the competition. Because they can’t catch up with themselves. The mamba bite was too dangerous. There was always a skill to improve, a new season goal to achieve. Mediocrity is always around. Kobe knew it better than most. And that’s why he, like Jordan, always chased perfection. Drives, dunks, post game, high basketball IQ… Kobe had the full package. 10th best player ever.
PLEASE CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW TO SEE THE “GIF STORY”: