Wednesday night will mark the 1,566th time that Kobe Bryant steps on to the hardwood floor to play a NBA basketball game (including the playoffs). It will also be the last time he ever does so.
This wasn’t Kobe’s most achieving season, but there was plenty to admire about it. For starters, he was able to finish with his health — something Bryant hasn’t accomplished in the last three consecutive years.
However, the most entertaining part about Kobe’s final NBA go-around was his ability to shed his Mamba skin. Sure, Kobe still gives it his all when he’s on the court, but he’s lowered his guard with the media, not taken himself too seriously and accepted the situation the Lakers are in all while being celebrated during every single game. He’s allowing himself to … well, enjoy himself.
This season has been fun, Kobe. But now is also the perfect time to look back at some of the greatest moments that you’ve given us over the years.
The Torn Achilles
This injury was it. Kobe went down at the end of the 2013 season and that was the last time we saw him as an elite superstar. Aside from marking the last time we saw Kobe as “The Black Mamba,” we got to see who Kobe really is inside was for a couple of brief moments. For one, it was the only time Bryant cried in his career. He’s worked back from so many injuries to be where he is now, but he knew his greatness had come to a close. But after tearing his Achilles tendon, which leaves most humans crippled on the floor, Kobe calmly walked back to the free throw line and knocked down a pair before walking off the court. Kobe is the last of his kind. I’m a sucker for the NBA in the ’80’s and 90’s, and the “toughness” from that era is gone with Kobe.
2006 vs. Suns — Game 4
Shaq had left for Miami already (going on to win the title in 2006) and the Lakers were rebuilding, but still managed to make the postseason with Kobe there. They fell to the 2-seeded Suns in seven games after leading 3-1 in the series, but this was the moment we realized Kobe was still going to win without Shaq. Two years later he was back in the Finals.
1998 All-Star Game
This was a fun, passing the torch moment here. Jordan’s last All-Star Game (until the whole Wizards thing) and Kobe’s first. Bryant was still coming off the bench at the time for the Lakers but was voted a starter in this game, which is insane to think about. The kid put on a show, though, and MJ showed him respect.
2000 vs. Portland — Game 7
The Lakers didn’t have a lot of postseason success in the first three years of the Kobe/Shaq era. Both had their struggles, and it almost led to a fourth time bowing out of the playoffs. But this fourth quarter comeback (highlighted by the famous alley-oop) was the moment the Lakers turned the corner.
2004 Double OT vs. Portland
Blazers fans really don’t like Kobe. This game was the perfect example of Kobe’s skill set and killer instinct combined. With the division title on the line (when that still mattered for playoff seeding) in the last game of the season he simply would not let his team lose. It wasn’t one lucky shot, this was Kobe doing everything he could to win. Classic Kobe doing the impossible right here.
Four Straight with 50+
You might not have enough time to watch all these buckets but you can trust me, they’re all there. Kobe went off in the spring of 2007, scoring 50+ in four straight games (and kicked the streak off with 65 vs. the Blazers, of course). He had another streak of nine games with 40+ in his career as well. When Kobe wanted/needed to be, he was one of the most lethal scoring machines of all-time.
2000 Finals vs. Pacers — Game 4
The 2000 Lakers were still clearly Shaq’s team. People forget that this would have still been Kobe’s senior year in college. Instead he’s playing in his first NBA Finals, on the road, playing injured and the MVP fouls out with 36 points and 21 boards. Leave it to the 22-year old to take control of the biggest game of his life. This was Kobe’s “welcome to the big stage” moment and he never left.
Rings 4 and 5
This one pains me because the Celtics should have won this game. But they didn’t and it was because of Kobe Bryant. He shot horribly playing through a broken finger in his only NBA Finals Game 7, yet still made the plays down the stretch, particularly his 15 boards. At least Kobe had the presence of mind to admit it was the sweetest, because the 2009-10 Celtics were by far the best team Bryant ever beat in the Finals. (P.S. — the C’s three-peat from ’08-’10 if KG never tears up his knee in 2009).
Nobody was more popular than Shaq and Kobe from 2000-2002. But also nobody was better than Shaq and Kobe during that time frame either. There was no duo that could even come close, and that’s why we saw pure dominance. That put Kobe on the map as a champion and took him from an exciting, young talent to a bonafide, world wide superstar.
Obviously, 81 tops it all. Wilt’s 100-points are the individual game record but that was a totally different era. That’s like me scoring 100 on a bunch of third graders. I truly believe nobody will top Kobe’s 81 points. Steph can shoot as many 3-pointers are he wants, but it’s not going to happen within the flow of a game. We should have seen it coming too — just a month earlier Kobe outscored the Mavericks 62-61 though three quarters before resting the final 12 minutes.
Wednesday night is going to be special.
Yep, it sure was…
Turns out Wednesday night was even more special than any of us imagined. On his last legs, Kobe gave us 60 one last time. Sure it was on 50 shots, but 22-for-50 isn’t that bad. Kobe was vintage in the fourth quarter, dropping 23 points and draining all of his shots down the stretch in an epic (yet very meaningless) comeback victory. What an image to leave us with.