In his farewell game in the NBA, played at the Staples Center in 2016, Kobe Bryant scored 60 points — the fifth-highest scoring game of his career — in a performance that would lead you to believe that this was a man at the peak of powers, not a has-been star limping his way out of the league after 20 seasons, some of them hampered by various injuries.
Fittingly, he was asked if him scoring 60 points on last night as a NBA player was a perfect ending to his career.
“The perfect ending would have been a Championship,” he replied as his career ended with the Los Angeles Lakers finishing the 82-game season with just 17 wins.
In a way, both his last game, and that parting statement, were Bryant's life in a nutshell.
Teammates, and rivals, would have chuckled knowingly had they heard that quote. For, there was no man in the league who chased success with a single-minded desperation like Bryant did. He was, to put it simply, driven.
So driven, that a few months before his farewell game, he continued to play against San Antonio Spurs despite dislocating the middle finger of his shooting hand. It was a game that didn't matter, in a season that wasn't going to amount to anything.
A year before this, in the midst of a similarly hopeless season, Bryant tore the rotator cuff of his right arm while playing. “I still have my left hand,” he told the coaching staff before he had to be yanked out of the game. His 19th season in the NBA ended, thanks to that injury.
But none of this compares to Bryant playing against the Memphis Grizzlies in a 2013 game with a broken kneecap. When his team announced on Twitter that he would be out for six weeks after fracturing his lateral tibial plateau, he responded with a simple tweet: “#BrokenNotBeaten.”
Bryant was a man that despised losing. Showing weakness, or slacking off while on court, was not in his DNA.
“I can’t relate to lazy people. We don’t speak the same language. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to understand you,” Bryant once said when asked about his work ethic.
If a rival showed signs of cracking, Bryant would capitalise. Ruthlessly. If a teammate was laidback, there would be hell to pay.
“There are certain players that I’ve made cry. If I can make you cry by being sarcastic, then I really don’t want to play (along) with you in the NBA Playoffs,” he once said.
His ever-burning competitive fire often rubbed teammates the wrong way. Most popularly it led to a fallout with Los Angeles Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal, alongside whom Bryant had won a ‘threepeat’ of NBA Championships. The feud eventually led to O’Neal being traded by the Lakers.
“It used to drive me crazy that he was so lazy. You got to have the responsibility of working every single day. You can’t skate through shit,” Bryant once said.
He was equally acerbic about teammate Dwight Howard, who he branded ‘soft’ during the center’s first stint with the Los Angeles franchise.
“Winning takes precedence over all. There’s no grey area. No almosts,” he quipped once, in effect summing up his life.
You either won the Bryant way, or you were out of the Lakers team he carried on his shoulders for 20 seasons, five of which yielded titles.
“Some of my teammates took me in. Some of them didn't,” said Bryant.
Despite his ruthless drive for success, win-at-all-costs brand of basketball and the ensuing traits that made him get in the faces and under the skins of rival players and teammates alike, there’s probably no one in the league — players he got traded off his team, people he ‘made cry’, teammates who ‘didn’t take him in’, rivals whose hearts he broke on the court — that still holds a grudge against him.
O’Neal and Bryant have reconciled their differences since they both retired, but every now and then, both give in to the urge to take potshots at each other. But on Saturday, in an emotional post on social media, O’Neal said, “There are no words to express the pain I’m going through now with this tragic and sad moment of losing my niece Gigi and my friend, my brother, my partner in winning Championships, my dude and my homie (sic).”
Howard, meanwhile, posted: “Brothers fight, argue even hate each other at times. But we never stop loving each other. I love you... This season is dedicated to Kobe.”
Five years ago, as the last season of his 20-year career was winding down, Bryant was on a conference call with international journalists when someone asked him if he was relived to not have to deal with the pressures that came with playing professional basketball or he would miss the tension of game day.
Bryant mentioned how it was a ‘complicated’ answer for him considering how much he loved what he did. “I won’t be comfortable,” he added at some point during his answer, “…because I like that feeling of constant pressure and your body being sore.”
Another journalist asked him if given all the injuries, would he say the Basketball Gods had treated him unfairly.
“We have a very good relationship. We understand each other very well,” he chuckled.
Finally, someone asked what he considered to be his legacy. “I try to look at my legacy in terms of how it impacts the future of the game. I am not looking... at where I fit in with the greatest of the game. For me, it’s a moot point and a shallow argument,” said Bryant. “The most important thing is how you impact the generation of players to come.”
One of the ways Bryant was making an impact was to coach his daughter Gianna’s basketball team. In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel Live! Bryant spoke about how fans would come up to him and urge him to father a son so that he could pass on the torch.
“My daughter Gigi (Gianna) would be like ‘Oi! I got this!’” he said revealing how she wanted to play in the WNBA, the women’s basketball league. Tragically, 13-year-old Gigi was also one of the casualties of the helicopter crash that killed Bryant.
Just earlier this month, he was voicing his support for women players to play in the NBA.
But as far as his legacy in the NBA goes, it has never been clearer.
Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers center, started playing basketball because of Bryant. LeBron James remembers being just a child when he heard Bryant talk about basketball at a camp. Kyle Kuzma grew up watching YouTube highlights of Bryant and trying to mimic him.
Bryant can rest in peace, if he’s capable of it, that is. There’s a fair chance he’s up there playing ball with the Basketball Gods. And kicking their ass while he’s at it, make no mistake about that.
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Updated Date: Jan 27, 2020 19:38:43 IST