Kobe Bryant went out with a bang, solidifying his legacy as an all-time great. But just how great was he?
SIXTY points! That's how much Kobe Bryant, aka the "Black Mamba," scored in his final career game two Wednesday's ago against a playoff-worthy Utah Jazz team. To put that in perspective, Michael Jordan scored just 15 points in his final career game; Larry Bird scored just 12 points. In a sold-out game attended by numerous celebrities, such as Kanye West, Jay-Z, Jack Nicholson, and Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant dazzled one final time in front of an adoring crowd. Twenty years, five championships, and 33,643 points later, Bryant was in a situation he has always thrived under. His team down 75-66 heading into the final quarter, Kobe went off, scoring 23 points in the final 12 minutes of the game; the Jazz had just 21 points in the entire 4th quarter. With a little under a minute to play and his team down one, Bryant hit his signature fade-away jumper to give the Lakers the lead. Talk about clutch. And don't forget, this was a 37-year-old Kobe Bryant, not the 26-year-old kid that scored 81 back in 2006. But it's something Bryant has done throughout his career; just when everyone thought the game was over, Bryant would hit seemingly impossible shots to get his team the win. And it's only fitting that Bryant did the exact same thing on Wednesday, in his final game on the Staples Center court. Donning his purple and gold No. 24 jersey one last time, Bryant hit clutch shots down the stretch; solidifying his reputation as the greatest closer the game has ever seen. Social media erupted. The Lakers Twitter account "broke" during the game, as fans, celebrities, and current and former players across the globe were in shock as well as awe. Everybody was watching Kobe's last game; in the fourth quarter, when Kobe was nearing 60 points, ESPN reported that roughly 5.1 million viewers were watching the Black Mamba make history, once again. Kobe's performance single-handedly gave viewership competition to another great game on the same night -- The Warriors setting the winningest season record with their 73rd regular season win.
An interesting ending for a player who has always been considered the villain, the player everyone roots against. Bryant created that reputation for himself, and he loved it. He fed off of the negative energy, boos, and curses thrown at him. It fueled him, and caused him to break records almost every time he stepped onto a basketball court. His most recent Nike advertisement, titled "The Conductor," encapsulates how he harnessed the 'hate energy.' He was a player who did the impossible, yet, ironically, constructed a villainous persona for himself. This attracted an army of skeptics and haters throughout his career. However, despite the Lakers' challenges, Kobe demonstrated a different side of his athletic personality in his last season by turning almost every league arena into a Kobe fan. Despite all of the hate in the past, people idolized Bryant everywhere during his "Farewell Tour," honoring him with tribute videos in every arena. Every time he checked into the game, touched the ball, made a basket, or checked out of the game, fans would chant his name. He received standing ovations everywhere, even in hostile territory like Boston, Portland, and Atlanta.
Kobe's "dark" personality really isn't that "dark," as we have all witnessed this season. He knows how to laugh, crack jokes, smile, and be kind. Kobe is a human, too. For years, it seemed otherwise; he came across as a conceited jerk and an egomaniac. But people don't realize that this was his way of doing what he did best; dominating the game of basketball. Kobe's insane work ethic is well known. He took zero shortcuts in order to achieve his success, and expected the same level of dedication from his teammates. In his final season, when he had nothing left to prove, he showcased what a joyous person he could be. The rhetoric about nobody wanting to play with Kobe might be true; he expects a lot out of his comrades, but if they were willing to put in the work, he would guarantee results - the ultimate result of winning championships. And what's wrong with that? Michael Jordan did the same thing. It's what legendary players do. Kobe was hell-bent on becoming the greatest of all time, and it's safe to say he came pretty damn close. I don't need to rehash his career statistics, or the number of championships he has, or that he has six 60+ point games in his career, or that he averaged close to 36 points per game for an entire season. The general public knows this stuff (hopefully). To understand Kobe and his legacy, one needs to dig deep and understand what he stood for and what he was like. He wanted to dominate whomever he was facing. He worked as hard as he could, tuning out all distractions.
Kobe Bryant has had an enormous impact, not just on the game of basketball, but also on society. His Kobe brand of shoes and clothing is seen everywhere. His jersey is one of the most recognizable in the world of sports apparel. His charity, the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation, has helped millions of at-risk/disadvantaged kids and families in Los Angeles and beyond get the educational and cultural enrichment needed to build strong communities. His After-School All-Stars initiative has provided after school programs for over 72,000 inner city kids. He has donated millions towards medical research, such as cancer treatments and HIV/AIDS treatment. Everybody thinks they know who Kobe Bryant is. He is a polarizing figure that the world has witnessed for twenty years. Michael Jordan is the only other athlete that had this type of impact on the game of basketball and the sporting world as a whole.
ESPN's All-Time #NBARank places Kobe Bryant at No. 12. LeBron James is No. 3. Shaquille O'Neal is No. 9. Really?!! Kobe never fit the "perfect athlete" that ESPN and other media outlets looked for to exploit and cover endlessly. Which is why people have never fully understood Kobe's greatness. The media has always been focused on players like LeBron James because they fit the image of the "perfect athlete"; they talk to the media, give them the "politically correct" answers, and are concerned solely with their personal image. Kobe was never concerned with what people thought of him; he was focused solely on his craft. Herein lies Kobe's true greatness. Some may consider him a rebel, and in some ways he was. But true basketball aficionados know that his impact on the game will be felt forever. He is the last of a dying breed of athletes, those solely concerned with dominating their sport - media and distractions be damned. It is interesting to note that Kobe was never present on social media till late 2013. He spent his offseasons promoting his Kobe shoes and clothing brand. But when it was time to play basketball, he only focused on playing basketball. Which is why he was able to play at such a high level for so long. Before he tore his Achilles couple of years ago, Kobe was playing some of the best basketball anyone had ever seen a 35-year-old play. He willed that Lakers team to the Playoffs, averaging 27.3 points per game and shooting almost 47% from the field. He sacrificed his body for the team's success, all at an age where players decline significantly. Kobe was never marketed the way he should have been. And because he did not fit the image of that "perfect athlete," ESPN and other media outlets used every opportunity to question Kobe's greatness, put him down, and paint him as a player undeserving of our attention.
Which brings me to my final point. What exactly is Kobe Bryant's legacy? A villain? An all-around superstar? A ruthless competitor? It is all of these things, and more. What Kobe has accomplished in his career, few can ever hope to accomplish in a lifetime. Love him or hate him, you have to respect him. The city of LA is blessed to have had him don the purple and gold for twenty storied years. When the NBA was looking for someone to fill the void Michael Jordan left after his retirement, Kobe stepped up to the challenge and wowed us all. In a pregame speech at Kobe's last game this past Wednesday, Magic Johnson, widely regarded as the greatest Laker ever, called Bryant the greatest to ever play for the Los Angeles Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal called their duo the greatest ever, despite the tensions they had. Players all across the NBA, from LeBron James to Kevin Durant, Dwayne Wade to Paul George, have commented on the immense impact Kobe has had on the game of basketball. For most of the players in the NBA, he was their Michael Jordan. He was their idol. He was the reason they decided to pursue basketball. Festus Ezeli, role player for the champion Golden State Warriors, paid tribute to Kobe and said, "Before I knew the game, I knew your name."
Kobe's career should be an inspiration to everyone, athlete or not. Hard work, commitment, dedication, and staying true to yourself are the keys to success. His on-court achievements, off-court successes, and global impact make him worthy of being regarded as one of the top ten greatest basketball players of all-time. While today's NBA features many great players, there is and will only be one Kobe Bryant. He is in a league of his own, and his tenure is the reason why the NBA has attracted so many talented players today. Don't believe the media that portrayed him as unworthy of our respect. Kobe has earned our respect in an unorthodox way, and its time for everyone to give credit where it's due. Twenty years have gone by, and the NBA is in a better place because of him. Mission accomplished. Thank you, Kobe Bryant.