It is a crushing feeling to learn that one of the greatest NBA players of all time tragically died in a helicopter crash at just 41 years old. Despite being retired for several years, Kobe Bryant remains one of basketball’s most recognisable and iconic names. Following a legendary career on the court, he even went on to win an Oscar in 2018. Bryant was recently in headlines for the bond with his 13 year old daughter, Gianna. Her aspirations were to play professionally in the WNBA, and her father’s undying support to help get her there any way he could was inspiring and heartwarming. He was regularly seen by her side, watching games, studying them together, learning the ins and outs to help her to exploit any weaknesses, something her father knew how to do better than anybody. It was later confirmed that Gianna was amongst those on board the helicopter.
It was not only Gianna who Bryant inspired. Kobe Bryant is to young players in the league today, what Michael Jordan was to Kobe Bryant. Stars like Luka Dončić and Trae Young grew up idolising Kobe’s game. Be it in Ljubljana or Texas, his influence was vast and immense. For me, the first basketball I ever owned was £4 from JJB with Kobe blazed into the skin. That ball kept me great company on some long, lonely lunchtimes in high school when I had nobody to talk to. Bryant #24 was one of the very first NBA jerseys I ever bought, and it proudly hangs in my wardrobe to this day.
Known worldwide by just his first name, and playing his entire career for the LA Lakers, it is almost impossible to choose a moment that best defines the Black Mamba himself, but let’s take a look at a few options:
It could be his long overdue, somehow lone-MVP season in 2007-08, where he beat out an incredible season from young point guard, Chris Paul. Bryant played all 82 games in this campaign, battling night in, night out to take the LA Lakers all the way to the NBA Finals, before eventually falling to the Boston Celtics in a thrilling series.
Special mention has to be given to Bryant in the 2005-06 NBA season. This was Bryant’s highest-scoring season, erupting for 35 points a game, playing a massive 41 minutes a night. This was the season Kobe managed to single-handedly will the Lakers back into the NBA Playoffs for the first time after losing superstar teammate, Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat.
Then came the acquisition of Spanish star, Pau Gasol, and the new era of the LA Lakers. Pau and Kobe won back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009, with Bryant avenging the loss against the Boston Celtics, and decimating new challengers Orlando Magic 4-1 in the Finals. The Magic had battered the LeBron James-lead Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and were being picked by many to upset the Lakers yet again. Bryant was not interested in entertaining that possibility and lead the Lakers in scoring for all 5 games, promptly seeing off the competition and securing the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy for Los Angeles.
On an individual level, one of Kobe’s most iconic moments came in 2006, where he scored an unbelievable 81 points against the Toronto Raptors. This remains the 2nd highest total of all-time and despite the wealth of amazing scorers in the NBA today, it looks as though it 81 will remain a near-impossible score to surpass.
Outside the NBA, Bryant won Olympic Gold twice. Both in 2008 in Beijing, and 2012 in London, beating Spain, lead by Gasol, in the Gold Medal Game on both occasions. The 2008 Final remains, for my money, the greatest game of basketball ever played. After a disastrous 2004 outing in Athens, Captain Kobe Bryant put the team on his back and ensured there would not be another upset. The 2008 USA Team, known as the “Redeem Team” is one of the scariest teams ever assembled, featuring the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and a host of other NBA superstars. However, in the dying minutes with the game on the line, Team USA froze up. Spain were taking over. It was here that Kobe’s competitiveness rose to another level, and it was surreal seeing world’s elite players deferring to him on almost every possession to lead them over the finish line.
As you can see, there are plenty of worthy contenders, and anyone looking for heroic Kobe moments is spoiled for choice. However, all these medals, awards, and accolades aside, when I think of Kobe Bryant, there is one moment that truly defines him. It wasn’t his performance in the NBA Finals, leading his team to victory. It wasn’t even his dominance in the Olympics leading his country to victory.
If you want to see what Kobe Bryant was all about in a 3 second clip, you have to look at a regular, run of the mill Sunday afternoon game between the LA Lakers and the Orlando Magic in 2010.
Mid-way through the 3rd quarter, Magic forward, Matt Barnes (known for being something of a volatile character) goes to inbound the ball and Bryant is defending. Barnes and Bryant had been going back and forward for most of the quarter, and had both been hit with technical fouls just minutes prior after some crosswords and getting a little too close for the referees’ liking. The game was starting to get quite fiery, and it was then that Barnes decided to through a hard fake pass directly to Kobe’s face. And Kobe. Does. Not. Flinch. No reaction. Nothing. A stone wall.
I have watched this countless times and I believe this is the definition of Kobe Bryant. An ultra fierce, battle-hardened player who was unrivalled in his determination and focus. There will never be another like him.
A Laker legend. An NBA legend. A sporting legend. A legend.
Featured Image – Stacy Revere @ GettyImages