Ever since the announcement of Kobe Bryant's retirement, I look back as a long-time supporter on all of the times where I've watched him play live. I don't even think I can count the amount of times I've been to a Laker game anymore, but every time I stepped foot inside that Staples Center arena, there was #24/#8 giving it his all. Being a Los Angeles resident my entire life, the Lakers reign supreme around these parts. There's a presence in the air that I can't describe, but there's nothing like it when the Lakers dominated the NBA landscape. A majority of it had to do with this man. I think every basketball player growing up in the mid to late 90s has taken something from Kobe's game and used it to their benefit. Ever since I actually started following NBA basketball, I have been through the ups and downs of Kobe's incredible Laker career. I want to take the time to reflect upon the five most memorable Kobe Bryant games that I've ever seen over his twenty-year run.
February 8, 1998 - First All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden, New York City 23 points, 7-16 FG, 2-3 3P, 2-2 FT, 6 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL
This particular All-Star event was dubbed the coming out party for Kobe Bryant. Many of the doubters who failed to realize why a 19 year old kid deserved to be a starting All-Star guard were completely put in their place after watching this spectacle. And man, what better stage could you possibly have than the famed Madison Square Garden. If you were going to make a name for yourself, this was the time to do it... and Kobe did just that. On top of that, this was the long awaited star studded exhibition match-up between Kobe and the great Michael Jordan. Let's just say, it did not disappoint. Although Jordan took the win and the MVP of the game, flashes of a young and athletic Kobe throughout the game would draw comparisons to the GOAT and we would finally have our air apparent that we've been searching for once MJ decided to retire for good.
January 22, 2008 - The 81 Point Game (Los Angeles Lakers vs. Toronto Raptors) 81 points, 28-46 FG, 7-13 3P, 18-20 FT, 6 REB, 2 AST, 3 STL
If I could pinpoint a specific time where all the Kobe hate started to transition into true respect, this game would be the turning point. The Kobe haters could not deny that this dude was something special. Up until then, you could hate him for being all the things that he was off the court: an adulterer, a ball hog, or just a shitty person in general. Even some of my friends who HATED Kobe with a passion back in the day have changed in their ways. I ask them what changed their minds, and all they say is "81 points, man". What can you say about that? And what I think puts Kobe's performance above Wilt's 100 is that he did it mainly off of jump shots and free throws.
August 24, 2008 - 2008 Olympics Gold Medal Game in Beijing (United States vs. Spain) 20 points, 7-14 FG, 3-8 3P, 3-3 FT, 3 REB, 6 AST, 2 BLK
I always say that the greatest gift that Kobe ever gave to his fans was never the five championships, but the gold medal in 2008 he single-handedly brought back to the United States. In previous posts, I've chastised the United States Senior Mens' Basketball Teams ever since 2004 when they failed in the 2004 Olympics and then failed again in the FIBA Championships in 2006. Keep in mind that this was without Kobe on the team. As soon as he joined the team, expectations were at an all-time high. Spain has always been a serious threat with a roster built on chemistry and better talent. This was a tough fought match with no clear advantages at all. After watching this game, I never again questioned his killer instinct. The team went on to place gold again in the next Olympics in London, but this game set a precedent over the course of the next decade that the United States was not to be trifled with if #10 was on the floor.
June 17, 2010 - Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals (Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics) 23 points, 6-24 FG, 0-6 3P, 11-15 FT, 15 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL
What I remember specifically about this game wasn't necessarily Kobe's performance (which was horrible throughout the first three quarters of the entire game), but his incredible will to shoulder the responsibility of carrying the Lakers to their 16th title. Kobe was willing to go down shooting bad shot after bad shot, even if it meant losing to the Celtics in the finals twice in a row. Nothing phased this guy and I loved it. I believe the scoring contributions from Pau Gasol and Ron Artest were way more valuable to the 2010 Lakers victory than Kobe's overall output, but he demonstrated leadership and intensity that eventually carried them to this title. If you compare his demeanor back to the 2004 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons, you could sense that his maturity as a leader has evolved tremendously. Not just this game, but this entire series secured his legacy amongst the Laker greats and quite possibly one the top five players of all-time.
January 15, 2015 - Los Angeles Lakers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers 23 points, 7-14 FG, 3-6 3P, 2-3 FT, 6 REB, 17 AST
This game, I actually attended live. In many ways, you could say it would be the best last game that Kobe will ever play against the next force in line, LeBron James. I would consider it almost a passing of the torch game since these two never met in the Finals. If you were going to see a premiere match up in the NBA, these two are basically our generation's version of MJ and Magic. Who wouldn't want to pay to watch those two go up against each other? The energy is always crazy in the building when the king comes to ball. I remember LeBron saying in an interview that his favorite team to play against is the Lakers, and I can see why. Those two always bring it. They really play their best basketball against each other. They are simply the best at what they do. If you watch the phantom footage of this game, it is beautiful.
It is truly sad to see a basketball legend retire, but it is all part of the evolution of the game. My friend, Gotham Chopra, directed Kobe's SHOWTIME documentary, MUSE, and to get that insight from him directly was something to behold. I told Gotham that this particular retrospective in athletic storytelling was something we never got closure with when Jordan retired for the very last time. How someone could find joy and be tortured in the fabric of the game that they love is something that most fans view from the outside looking in. For all the hate and blame surrounding Kobe, the documentary truly humanized how we view him as a polarizing and dominant figure in the sports world. All the work, the passion, and emulation of MJ was a path going forward that many have tried, but only Kobe has succeeded in finding what he was looking for. In watching his MUSE, I could accept the fact the conclusion of an era in basketball was near, and it ends with #24.