Kobe Bryant entered the National Basketball Association at 18 years of age, straight out of high school. At that time, professional basketball players jumping from high school to the NBA wasn’t that common, or at least not as headline-worthy. Kevin Garnett, a.k.a. “the Big Ticket,” was the big name who shattered that glass, then Kobe. Kobe was heralded, but then again– so were others. There was the vacuum left by Michael Jordan in terms of who would be the greatest all-around player. Commentators, analysts, and sports talk-radio hosts were calling Lamar Odom(then with the Clippers), Anfernee Hardaway(Orlando Magic), Tracy MacGrady, Vince Carter, and a slew of others the potential “heir apparent(s).” There was even some now-forgotten player being referred to as “Baby Jordan.” No one remembers who he was.
Kobe Bryant was in that mix, but at that point it was just too early to tell. His high school game footage was exactly like what is now repeated with Lebron James’, only not as ubiquitous. There was no documentary, no book or any interviews with coaches and players of his past. There were just glimpses of a young high school basketball player taking the ball down the court and slamming it down with speed. Kobe Bryant entered the league and was acquired by the Los Angeles Lakers, an organization known for its legacy and legends, in a trade for well-liked Center Vlade Divac and outside shooter Anthony Peeler.
Divac was a story in himself, filling the void left by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and growing from a shy transplant from Yugoslavia to a showtime performer under the tutelage of another legend, Earvin Magic Johnson. But with the departure of Divac, Peeler, and these legends of yesteryear, the Los Angeles Lakers were a youthful team promising potential for years to come. The key players included a young center named Shaquille O’neal, not yet in his prime; a back-up center well loved by fans: Elden Campbell; a slashing shooting guard nicknamed “Flash” by Shaquille: Eddie Jones; and a point guard named Nick Van Exel. This was the core of the Los Angeles Lakers, and though they lacked veteran leadership, experience, and smartness, they made up for it by winning games with style and exuberance. They had many memorable battles with conference rivals the Utah Jazz, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Seattle Supersonics but no championships. During this time, Kobe Bryant was nothing more than a gimmick.
“Come watch Kobe Bryant play!,” signs could’ve read, “He may be the next Michael Jordan, he may not!” Early in his Laker career, Kobe showed sporadic flashes of brilliance, followed by extended periods of rookie-like numbskulledness. Bryant once publicly recalled an early three-point airball he missed late, during a critical game against the Jazz. If you followed Kobe’s career, studied Kobe’s career, and recognize Kobe’s career, you remember that shot. As Bryant’s first professional season came to pass, so did a championship opportunity. The Lakers had the potentially greatest center of all time, the potentially greatest guard, and a sufficient supporting squad but no rings on any fingers. There was no Lebron-esque media attention or interviews during that time. It was simply-put and simply disregarded: the Lakers have a potentially good team. Case closed.
When Bryant’s second season came to fruition, it was obvious to any student of basketball that he had not been resting on his laurels. Bryant came back significantly more muscular and built. It was immediately obvious that he had lifted weights during the off-season and put hardware on his then-skinny 18 year old frame. His second season was a dramatic improvement. Suddenly, the talk about he being the next heir apparent had some legitimacy, but it was still too soon to tell. Michael Jordan had won 6 championships in such unguardable fashion that he actually left basketball between that time to pursue another challenge: professional baseball.
Bryant was nowhere near Jordan’s legacy, but as media and attention spans began to change, clips of him crossing defenders over or slam dunking on centers began to fuel more buzz. It was almost like a competition between Bryant and the other possible Jordans: Odom, Hardaway, MacGrady, and Carter. Who would it be? Kobe had some great moves but he didn’t dunk as well as Carter. As the season progressed, more championship opportunities floated away. O’neal, also highly touted as a future hall-of-famer, had the agility, skills, and strength to be unstoppable, but something was missing.
Enter Coach Phil Jackson. When they say events of magnitude always occur in three’s, you could cite the acquisition of Shaquille O’neal, Kobe Bryant, and Phil Jackson as an example. Jackson’s legendary status as a coach can unarguably be attributed to his career with the Chicago Bulls and his ties to Michael Jordan. Critics pan Jackson as being the luckiest coach ever, having Michael Jordan’s brilliance to illuminate him. But during their intertwining careers Jordan shot critics down by publicly stating he would never play for another coach but Jackson, giving merit, validation, and attention to Jackson’s coaching approach. Since, Jackson has been widely famed and respected for his “Zen-mastery,” triangle-fueled offense, and general calmness. Whether deserved or not, it was this reputation that preceded him into the Laker organization, commanding attention, if not respect, of two of the biggest stars the sport would come to know.
During this time, three events of magnitude again did occur: the Lakers, under Jackson’s command, became the team they were constructed to be; Shaquille O’neal became the future hall-of-fame center he was constructed to be; and Bryant… helped. From the get-go it became no secret that Jackson’s approach to winning centered around their center: feed the ball to Shaq, role players clean up the mess. The face of the Lakers changed as well, acquiring the best role players and ex-Bulls familiar with Jackson’s offense. Robert Horry, Rick Fox, and Brian Shaw became critical “kick-out” shooters; Derek Fisher and Ron Harper became the face of calm ball-handling; and Kobe Bryant became something in between.
If Shaq was Batman, Kobe was his Robin, but a Robin suppressed. Bryant’s role was not to play his best, but to give the ball to O’neal and play his best around him. There was no conspiracy against Bryant, Jackson’s brilliance was in his ability to see simplicity: there was no single defender, or oftentimes no double-team of defenders, that could guard or contain Shaq. Under Jackson’s guidance and approach, the Los Angeles Lakers won 3 consecutive championships, the second of which they nearly did so undefeated in the post-season. Talk of comparing Kobe to Lamar Odom, Anfernee Hardaway, Tracy MacGrady, and Vince Carter all but vanished. Kobe’s 3 rings put him in a level above the rest. With Shaq’s dominance, the role players’ utility, and Bryant’s ability to pick up the slack, the Lakers’ only potential downfall looked to be self-destruction.
And it was after those 3 consecutive championships of magnitude that they did. As other teams rebuilt their rosters to contend with the Lakers, the Lakers stuck with the weapons they had but added aging superstars Karl “the Mailman” Malone and Gary Payton. For Malone and Payton, it was their last ditch effort to win a ring before father time told them to retire. For them to join the Lakers, it was the best possible option at the worst possible time. It would be the year that the Detroit Pistons re-taught the basketball world that five players playing together could defeat singular players playing alone.
It was a crumble of a dynasty for the Lakers, and afterwards, most pointer fingers were aimed at Bryant. It was in Game 4 of the championship series that Bryant’s season-long disregard for Jackson’s “get-Shaq-the-ball” approach truly failed to pay off. During the regular season, it was not such a big deal: lose a game, but they were still good enough to make the play-offs. But during this critical, final series game, it was everything. Shaquille O’neal was having a monster game, and after the last championship year that tested him moderately at best(except for the 7 game Western Conference Finals against the Sacramento Kings), it looked as if a sleeping giant had not only awoken, but awoken in a terrible mood. But the game differed in the closing minutes, because instead of the usual routine of giving the unstoppable center the ball, Bryant took it upon himself to try and win it for them. There are other perspectives, like perhaps the defensive focus on Shaq was too smothering to feed him the ball. But if you have watched Kobe, followed Kobe, and studied Kobe, you should understand why he truly did what he did.
For his entire career until that point, Kobe Bryant’s role had been to defer. Defer his talent, defer his ability, and defer the ball to Shaquille O’neal. And for his entire career up until that point, he did. But what people did not know about Kobe Bryant, was how unyielding his determination to be the best is. Until then, it was clear that Bryant had a determination to win. It was apparent when he hit clutch shots to win games, when he skied for a game-winning rebound and put-back against the taller San Antonio Spurs, and when he refused to give up the ball against the Detroit Pistons the year they imploded. Kobe Bryant’s observable determination to be the best became apparent the years following the Los Angeles Lakers’ 3-title crumble.
Following that year, Shaquille O’neal left. It was played out in the media as if the Laker organization had to pick between O’neal and Bryant, and because of O’neal’s age the organization went with Bryant. There were nasty sound-byte exchanges between the two, and many of the loyal Laker following suddenly had the perception that Bryant was selfish. To some extent, this is true.
The years following were ugly, to put it best. The Lakers floundered somewhere between mediocrity and bad. The role players had also jumped ship with O’neal, which fed to the rumors that Bryant was intolerable. Furthermore, Jackson wrote a book in which he called Bryant “uncoachable.” As Bryant and the Lakers amassed losing seasons, Bryant’s patience also waned. He made public threats to seek trade and explore his options with other teams. But Bryant’s stock to other teams would not have been appealing were it not for his continued excellence in play. As the Lamar Odom’s, Anfernee Hardaway’s, Tracy MacGrady’s, and Vince Carter’s dissipated with age and in heir apparency, Bryant’s newfound freedom to lead the offense was boundless. The near eternally-standing Wilt Chamberlain record of 100 points in a game back was unfathomably challenged, when Bryant scored 82 against the Toronto Raptors. Anyone who watched that game will also recall that not only was the 82 scored within an offensive flow and not a “ball-hogging” scenario, but Bryant had also scored 60 points in three quarters against the Dallas Mavericks the game before. Bryant’s anger, experience, wisdom, and determination refused to let him be a shadow of his old self, despite being on a team that lived in the cellar.
After what seemed an eternity of dysfunction, despair, and discord within the Laker organization, Kobe Bryant was saved by the acquisitions of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and the return of his old point-guard Derek Fisher. It is intrinsic to say that during the years of turmoil, coach Phil Jackson also did not turn tail and run. He remained, possibly envisioning what did eventually occur: a return to championship glory. But this time, under Kobe Bryant’s lead.
This time, there was no dominant, unstoppable center. There was no single, unguardable player, not even Bryant. Bryant not only found humility in losing, but found humanity. As great as he was, he was not going to hoist any more trophies unless his teammates excelled with him. He had to learn to provide for his teammates as innately as he could score. Being the centerpiece of his team was different to Kobe as compared to when he first joined the league. But Bryant’s determination to improve has always been at the core of his burning DNA. After returning to the NBA finals to win their first championship post-Shaq, Bryant spent the off-season working on his post-up game with hall-of-fame center Hakeem Olajuwon. He joined the Olympic Dream Team and brought gold back to a humbled American failure. In interviews, he is stern and focused when talking basketball. He is not on every ad, every sneaker, or every sports drink bottled on shelves. He dismisses comparisons to Jordan, stating that Jordan is Jordan. His focus, unyieldingly, is centered on winning. His biggest smiles come when tackled by his daughters. This year, he has again led his team to repeat as champions. That’s five so far. On occasion, in an interview, he will still refer to that airball he shot early in his career against the Utah Jazz.