Kobe Bryant was the first athlete I remember following as a kid from beginning to end.
My dad watched Michael Jordan lead the Chicago Bulls throughout the ’90s, and I enjoyed watching them, too. But the year that was most important for me, as a sports fan, was 1998. That year had everything: the Tennessee Volunteers football team went undefeated and won the national championship, baseball had the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and Jordan’s Bulls went on one last title run, where Jordan had “the shot.”
It was in the middle of Jordan’s last run, I remember, that my dad would watch a game and the announcers would talk about the NBA’s “next Michael Jordan.” During one game, someone suggested the next Jordan was a young kid named Kobe Bryant.
Naturally, I decided that if Kobe Bryant was the next Jordan, I had to follow him, because I wanted my own Jordan, just like my dad.
Of course, I didn’t get the next Michael Jordan. I got Kobe Bryant, a guy who emulated and chased Jordan but ended up creating a legend all his own.
Kobe had this way of making absolute circus shots look routine and planned. There was one play where he starts out posting up an Oklahoma City Thunder player down low, then spins to his left and jumps to fire a shot. But the way the defender bodies him up, Kobe ended up drifting out of bounds and behind the backboard. Naturally, he shot the ball over the backboard, and it went in as pretty as any other Kobe jump shot.
And the thing is, he probably did practice that exact shot. Kobe had a ridiculous work ethic; he was always fine-tuning his game and adding new moves and tools to his arsenal. He was always practicing and trying to keep his body at an elite level.
There was a moment in 2011 when the Lakers were coming off their back-to-back title, with Kobe and Pau Gasol both on the roster. They’d made three finals appearances and were working on a fourth. Kobe had five championship rings and a 5–2 record in the NBA Finals.
But there was a new challenger that year; the newly constructed Miami Heat had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. The Lakers and Heat clashed, and the Lakers lost 94–88. Kobe started the game strong, with 5–6 shooting, but finished the game abysmally with 8–21.
After the game finished that night, Kobe left the locker room and ran a practice session in Miami’s arena. His teammates spoke of it reverentially, but Kobe said at the time: “It’s my job. I got to work at it. This is what you’re supposed to do. If you’re uncomfortable about something and feel like you can tweak some things, you got to work on them. It doesn’t matter when you work on them. You got to get it done. You got to figure it out.”
And that was my favorite part about Kobe Bryant: no matter where he was, who he was facing, or the condition of his body, he always came to play. He always showed up. If you wanted to beat Kobe, you had to play every single minute of the game. You had to play offense and defense; you couldn’t take off a single play.
My favorite shot Kobe ever took was a long three-pointer in the finals. It was one of those shots we’d now say was in Steph Curry range, but in those days, they were no-go shots that no one took.
But Kobe got the ball with time running out and drilled it, making Dwyane Wade shake his head in disbelief as he watched from the stands.
And that’s what I’ll always love about Kobe. He was never afraid to take the shot. He wanted those moments. He’s the reason why every person, kid or adult, shouts out “Kobe!” when trying to make a basket.
It’s that confidence to take those shots in critical moments — and never shy away — that Kobe is known for. And you don’t get to those places, or those shots, without hard work, drive, and commitment.
The year Kobe retired, he penned a poetic send-off called “Dear Basketball.” It moved me then, and moves me more, now. He said of leaving the game behind:
And that’s OK.
I’m ready to let you go.
I want you to know now
So we both can savor every moment we have left together.
The good and the bad.
We have given each other
All that we have.
Thank you for everything you gave us, Kobe Bryant. I’ll savor all the memories you left behind, all the highlights, and all the work you did to promote basketball in the United States and abroad.
You are gone too soon, and I will miss your presence in this world greatly. You inspired a lot of people, including normal guys like me, in the middle of the country of Tennessee. I’ll work hard to take my future shots and grind it out just like you.
Rest in peace, Black Mamba.