“I can’t believe how fast 20 years went by; man, this is crazy. This is absolutely crazy, and to be standing at center court with you guys, my teammates behind me, appreciating the journey that we’ve been on. We’ve been through our ups, been through our downs. I think the most important part is we all stayed together throughout. We didn’t run. We played through all that stuff, and we got our championships, and we did it the right way. What’s funny, the thing that had me cracking up all night long, is the fact that I go through 20 years of everybody screaming to pass the ball, and then the last night they’re like, ‘Don’t pass it!’ All I can do here is thank you guys. Thank you guys for all the years of support. Thank you guys for all the motivation. Thank you for all the inspiration. What can I say? Mamba out!”
The last words of Kobe Bean Bryant as he spoke center floor for the final time as a Los Angeles Laker at Staples Center. A man who gave 20 years of his life to the game he loved so much and in return was given love, hate, criticism, and pain.
Fans, celebrities, and even haters, attended and tuned in Wednesday night to Bryant’s final home game against the Utah Jazz where he went out with a bang scoring a season-high of 60 points and outscoring the Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter. It won’t be the same knowing when the 2017 NBA regular season comes back around and the Lakers play their hearts out, that No. 24 will no longer be in the starting lineup.
Who knew this time would come, especially those who remember the day, back in 1996 when he was drafted 13th right out of Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania to the Charlotte Hornets and then traded to the Lakers. Who knew he would give Laker fans a three-peat championship season and be the youngest player to do so at 23.
Who also knew that fame would come with a price? The 2003-04 season was one of trials and tribulations and even learning experiences. That was the year of the alleged sexual assault case in Denver for Bryant, the Shaq-Kobe feud where roles on the team were questioned, the upset in five games in the NBA Finals by the Detroit Pistons, the non-renewal contract of then head coach Phil Jackson, and the loss of Shaq to the Miami Heat.
Through it all he managed to surpass the criticism from sports fans and commentators signing a seven-year extension and even got his old coach Jackson back despite differences in the following season.
If you didn’t know, 24 wasn’t always Bryant’s number to begin with, it was number 8. Upon entering the league, he wanted 24 as a rookie but it was not available as well as the number 33 was retired by former Laker and Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He switched in the 2006-07 season, where 24 was his first high school number before he wore 33.
With the number 24, he acquired two more championships making his grand total of championships 5 in the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Through changes in roster during the off seasons and even coaches, Bryant never saw the lights of the playoffs again and the coming years didn’t help as he became very injury-prone limiting his playing time throughout the 2013 through 2015 seasons.
He played in a combined 41 games in two seasons due to a lateral tibia plateau fracture in his left knee which he was out for majority of the ’13-14 season and endured a torn rotatory cuff in his right shoulder in the following season where season sending surgery was needed. Despite the injuries, Bryant in December 2014 surpassed Michael Jordan becoming the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer right behind Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul Jabbar off a free throw against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Not more than two months into his final season, Bryant understood although he enjoyed playing the game his body just could not keep up fully. And on November 29, 2015, the Black Mamba announced he would retire at the end of the season.
We truly cannot forget what he brought to the game and to the Laker franchise. Bryant walked off the court that night as a 5-time NBA Champion, 2-time NBA Finals MVP, 18-time NBA All Star, 2-time NBA scoring champion and remains the Los Angeles Laker all-time leading scorer. And also let us not forget he ranks third in all-time regular season scoring with and all-time postseason scoring in the league and second highest in point total in NBA history with 81.
People may not have liked the Black Mamba for his desire to win, his toughness when it came to his teammates, and his shoot not pass mentality, but not a day goes by where we will not forget No. 24 as one of the greats to ever play the game.
featured photo credit: (LA Times) Winslow Townson / Associated Press