As a young basketball fan in the mid 90s, Kobe Bryant is a huge reason why I love sports. Enamored with the idea of someone 17-18 years old being talented enough for the NBA, I always rooted for the handful of guys each year that skipped college for the pros. My first favorite player was Kevin Garnett, he was drafted in 1995. That only lasted a year though because when Kobe came out in the 1996 draft, I pushed all my chips to the middle of the table: All in for Kobe.
Having the newest shoes growing up just wasn't a priority in my family but on my birthday one year I went to buy the then-new KB8 II shoes that were all purple and indisputably ugly but I wanted them.
Naturally I modeled my game after his and when my mom finally let me grow my hair out, I couldn't get braids like I wanted so I rocked the mini-afro, like Bean. With the look and an attempt at the game, I earned the nickname "Lil Kobe" in my neighborhood. It made me proud. Such that I got "Lil Kobe" stitched into my AAU warm up shirt when presented with the opportunity. At school for some Junior Achievement event, I bid for and won a Kobe Bryant poster that hung on the wall above my bed until my mother took it down after I moved out.
One distinct moment comes to mind. It was the 1996 NBA All-Star game and I'm pretty sure Kobe wasn't even old enough to buy booze yet. No one really knew about this young stud from Philly except for locals and the hoop-aficionados. A poor kid with maybe 15 tv stations growing up, I only saw the marquee NBA match ups that made national television. Being in Ohio, we usually saw Pacers or Bulls games, hardly ever the west coast teams, especially with a bedtime. The All-Star game was my first glimpse of Kobe.
The West squad was going right to left. The only person on the East team that I recall being on the floor was Dikembe Mutombo. Kobe dribbled the ball down the floor with the ball in his right hand. It was a fast-break (go figure - a fast break in an All Star game) and Mutombo picked up Kobe around the three-point line. Never losing stride, Kobe crossed the ball from right to left behind his back with what started off looking like a no-look pass. Just As Dikembe reacted with a subtle but detrimental pause, Kobe returned the ball back to the same hand with a wrap around dribble that many people had never seen before (2:14).
While the finesse of this move rivaled only one person, Michael Jordan, the play wasn't over. Kobe hadn't broken stride and while the ball handling was nice to watch, Mutombo was still effectively forcing him to the baseline.
Just then, with seemingly no options, essentially trapped on the baseline against a seven-footer, Kobe lofted a high arcing hook shot that teased Mutombo's outstretched finger tips before swishing through the net, completely avoiding the rim.
The move was like a tribute to both Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all at once. Just like that, Kobe surmounted Kevin Garnett as my favorite NBA player (behind Michael Jordan, of course).
With Kobe Bryant playing his final game tonight, the mini-'fro wearing, lanky kid incessantly pounding a basketball inside me felt compelled to pay homage so while Kobe videos will be shared all over the blog-o-sphere today, I wanted to share a few words on who the Black Mamba was, and is, to me.