Three moments that might have broken Kobe Bryant but instead defined his legacy

Leave a comment

The moments that could have broken him instead ended up defining him.

It always seemed to be that way with Kobe Bryant.

Three different times in his career something that could have crushed him instead became a defining moment that re-shaped Kobe Bryant’s legacy and how we think of him today.

The first of those moments was May 12, 1997, when the Lakers were in a back-and-forth Game 5 of a second-round playoff series against the Jazz. Already down 3-1 in the series, it was win-or-go-home for the Lakers and things were stacked against them: Byron Scott was out with a sprained wrist, Robert Horry had been ejected for letting Jeff Hornacek get under his skin, and Shaquille O’Neal had fouled out. Kobe, primarily a bench player that rookie season, was pressed into action — and in the most Kobe of ways tried to take over.

Kobe attempted a game-winning pull-up elbow jumper as time expired in regulation — it was an airball.

So was his next jump shot. And the one after that. And the one after that.

Four airballs in a row in the clutch minutes of a playoff game on national television — it was humbling and potentially devastating. Kobe had grown up picturing himself draining exactly those kinds of game-winners, and he had airballed them all while his team lost. It led to rivers of newspaper ink and plenty of fan talk in bars — Lakers fans were angry the precocious rookie didn’t know his place. Laker coach Del Harris was shredded for leaving Kobe in the game.

Kobe’s response? When the Laker flight home after that loss landed in Los Angeles, he went directly to the Pacific Palisades High School gym and worked on his shot all night long, literally until the sun came up. Kobe refused to let the failure in Utah define him, or even slow him down. He worked like a maniac on his game and shot all summer long.

By the following February, Kobe was starting in the All-Star Game at age 19.

It was that will and that work ethic that won over fans — and earned deep respect from his adversaries — over a 20-year career that was polarizing yet made Bryant an icon of the game.

Kobe’s life — and the life of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, as well as seven others — was tragically cut short Sunday morning when the helicopter they were riding in crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, California. There were no survivors.

“For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “He was one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game with accomplishments that are legendary: five NBA championships, an NBA MVP award, 18 NBA All-Star selections, and two Olympic gold medals. But he will be remembered most for inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball and compete to the very best of their ability. He was generous with the wisdom he acquired and saw it as his mission to share it with future generations of players, taking special delight in passing down his love of the game to Gianna.”

Kobe’s early years, rise to the NBA

Kobe Bean Bryant was born on August 23, 1978, in Philadelphia. The son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe was named after an expensive style of Japanese beef.

In the 1983-84 season, Joe Bryant had fallen out of the NBA and took his family to Italy, where he continued to play professionally. It is there Kobe’s lifelong love of soccer started — he would credit the sport for his good footwork — while he continued to work on his basketball skills playing for the youth team of Pallacanestro Reggiana (his father’s club for a couple of years). Kobe lived in Italy for seven years and throughout his life spoke fondly of those times — and could do so in fluent Italian.

Kobe returned to high school in the Philadelphia area and rose to stardom leading Lower Merion High School to the 1996 Pennsylvania state championship.

Following in the footsteps of Kevin Garnett and others, Kobe decided to forgo college and went straight into the NBA Draft. Laker legend and then GM Jerry West worked out Kobe and greatness recognizes greatness — West wanted Bryant. What happened next was Laker legend: West talked the Nets John Calipari out of drafting Kobe, then set up a trade with Charlotte, which drafted Kobe at No. 13 and traded him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac.

It was that rookie year that Kobe airballed four-straight shots against Utah — and he vowed never to let that happen again.

The turbulent, championship Shaq/Kobe years

For a few seasons, as Kobe matured and the Lakers worked to find the right mix around them, Kobe and Shaq battled to control the locker room (Shaq won that battle) while the team never reached its potential on the court. For the 1999-2000 season, the Lakers brought in Phil Jackson and his triangle offense to try and maximize their talented roster. He did — although what Jackson really did that first season was get the Lakers to play much-improved defense and that was enough (the offense came along in later seasons).

Kobe and Shaq continued feuding but they won three straight NBA titles. On the court they were the perfect inside/outside combination for the era, but the always driven Kobe seethed at Shaq’s work ethic (like not showing up to camp in shape) and Shaq enjoyed needling the serious Kobe. The combination of winning, plus Jackson’s mediation and mind games, kept the balance of power… until he couldn’t.

After the 2004 season and a loss in the Finals to Detroit, Kobe was a free agent and the Lakers had to chose which superstar to build around. They wisely chose Kobe and traded Shaq to Miami.

The second moment: The sexual assault charge in Colorado

This was the second time in Kobe’s career where his actions could have destroyed him, but instead how he came out of it defined the second half of his career. Even if it left him with an asterisk.

In July 2003 Bryant was charged with the sexual assault of a 19-year-old employee of a hotel in Edwards, Colorado. Bryant admitted to adultery — which led to very public challenges with his wife, Vanessa, and the purchase of a reportedly $4 million diamond ring — but said he had not raped the woman, that everything was consensual.

The case and Kobe’s marriage is the kind of juicy celebrity story that sells tabloids and his case got wall-to-wall coverage across the nation. Graphic details of blood and positions became front-page news. Bryant lost endorsements, and had to fly from court dates in Colorado to Staples Center for games, at points barely making it on time.

Kobe’s legal defense team used the kind of victim shaming tactics that keep women who are raped from coming forward, but it worked — the victim refused to testify and the criminal case was dismissed. The woman filed a civil suit, which was settled out of court. The case was behind him, but it would always leave him tarnished.

Rather than be destroyed by all this, Kobe came out of the Colorado incident with a new attitude — or more accurately, he publicly embraced the polarizing nature of his personality and game. It’s what came to define the second half of his career — love him or hate him, he didn’t care, but you had to respect his game. His “hate me” ad for Nike perfectly summed up this new attitude.

For the next few seasons after the Shaq trade, Kobe put up monster individual numbers — he averaged 35.4 points per game in the 2005-06 season — but with a thin roster the team did not succeed.

That was until just before the trade deadline in February 2008 when the Lakers traded for All-Star big man Pau Gasol out of Memphis. That year Kobe won the MVP — the only time in his career — and the Lakers reached the NBA Finals, where they fell to the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce/Ray Allen Celtics.

The next year, the Lakers would beat Dwight Howard‘s Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. The following year, Kobe and company would get their revenge on the Boston Celtics, giving Kobe his fifth NBA ring (and second-straight Finals MVP).

Also in there, in 2008 and 2012, Kobe would play a critical role for Team USA as it won two Olympic gold medals. On a team loaded with talent, Kobe went to coach Mike Krzyzewski and asked for the toughest defensive assignments — he was going to lead by example on that end of the court. It worked.

The third moment: Kobe tears his Achilles, makes one more comeback

In 2013, as people started to wonder how many more years Kobe would play, he got on a hot streak and was putting up numbers — and then he tore his Achilles.

It happened in a game against Golden State, and Kobe legendarily hobbled to the free throw line and still took his free throws (which would have allowed him to re-enter the game, something that was never going to happen).

This became the third time Kobe could have been broken and instead used it to define himself again. It drove him to play a few more seasons and leave the game on his own terms.

Kobe was 34 when he tore his Achilles, he had five rings and a resume full of accolades, and he knew his career was winding down. He could have just walked away and nobody would have questioned it.

That’s not Kobe — he was going to leave on his own terms. No injury would dictate the terms of the end of his career.

Kobe rehabbed almost the entire next season, playing just six games, and then the following season injuries to his other leg kept Kobe at just 35 games. Again, his will and drive refused to let that be how he would leave the game.

Kobe returned for the 2015-16 season and won more fans over around the league during a farewell tour. Kobe played hard that season and as much as he could, and in his final game dropped 60 points in an unforgettable performance.

That drive, that passion — something first evidenced in a high school gym in 1997 after an ugly loss — is what drew so many fans to him. It was something in Kobe that people wanted to see in themselves and took inspiration from. It led to a wild, entertaining, amazing ride.

A ride that ended far too early.

Adam Silver: I ‘strongly believe’ NBA will add in-season and play-in tournaments

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Leave a comment

CHICAGO – NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted to overhaul the schedule – including in-season and play-in tournaments – for the league’s 75th-anniversary season, 2021-22.

Instead, the Board of Governors vote planned for April was canceled.

Not because the ideas were unpopular, according to Silver. Because they were too popular.

“When we went to our teams, the Players Association and our media partners – probably the most important constituents in making changes,” Silver said, “the response we got was that, frankly, there was so much interest that they didn’t think it made sense to do it as a one-off.”

It’s easy to be skeptical of spin. But Silver is adamant.

“I strongly believe we will end up with some sort of in-season tournament and a play-in tournament,” Silver said.

The NBA will probably eventually have a play-in tournament. It makes a lot of sense, both competitively and financially. When those considerations align, things usually get done.

The league might even also add an in-season tournament. But it’s hard to find people actually enthusiastic about that idea.

Did Dwyane Wade violate judges’ agreement to keep dunk contest tied?

Dwyane Wade judging dunk contest
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Leave a comment

CHICAGO – Dwyane Wade is a self-proclaimed Heat lifer.

Heat forward Derrick Jones Jr. won the dunk contest with Wade as a judge.

You do the math.

On his final dunk, Jones got a 48. Then, Aaron Gordon dunked over terrified Tacko Fall… and got a 47.

The voting for Gordon’s last dunk:

  • Dwyane Wade: 9
  • Common: 10
  • Candace Parker: 10
  • Chadwick Bozeman: 9
  • Scottie Pippen: 9

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

With Common and Parker giving 10s and casting blame elsewhere, Wade, Bozeman and Pippen became suspects. The evidence points strongly at Wade.

Before the scores were even revealed a smiling Wade removed his earpiece, as if he knew the contest was finished. Notice how Common and Scottie Pippen both look at Wade after seeing the scores:

Wade danced around the controversy, never directly denying that he didn’t vote how he agreed he would:

Gordon’s final dunk was better than Jones’ final dunk. But Jones dunked better throughout the contest. Does that mean Gordon got robbed? At that point, yes. But Jones should have won the contest before then.

The bigger problem is judging dunks on a 6-10 scale. They should be judged relative to each other, and Jones’ were better.

Kobe Bryant’s legacy remembered, celebrated at All-Star weekend

Kobe Bryant jersey at All-Star Game
Getty Images
Leave a comment

CHICAGO — Kobe Bryant always seemed to be in top form when he stepped onto the court for the NBA All-Star Game. The league’s current best will try to match his effort when Team LeBron and Team Giannis meet on Sunday.

The All-Star festivities returned to Chicago for the first time since 1988 when Michael Jordan beat Dominique Wilkins in a slam dunk contest that remains the standard and scored 40 points to lead the East over the West.

But Bryant is casting a huge shadow over the events this weekend, just weeks after he and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine people killed when their helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain near Los Angeles.

Commissioner Adam Silver announced Saturday night that the All-Star Game MVP award has been renamed in Bryant’s memory.

“We know that he’s watching over us,” the Lakers’ LeBron James said. “It’s our responsibility to just represent the purple and gold not only for him but for all the greats, everybody that’s ever come through the Lake Show. I really don’t want to sit up here and talk about it too much. It’s a very, very sensitive subject, but he’s with us every day.”

Bryant played on five NBA championship teams, won a league MVP award and two scoring titles in a career that spanned 20 seasons and has him poised to enter the Hall of Fame after he was announced Friday as one of eight finalists.

He was the youngest All-Star in league history, ranks second with 18 selections and took game MVP honors a record-tying four times, including on his home court in 2011 when he dazzled with 37 points and 14 rebounds. Bryant scored 20 or more seven times.

“The whole thing of paying respect to Kobe is awesome, so I think it’s going to be fun,” said Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, making his sixth straight All-Star appearance. “I’m hoping it’s really, really intense. Hopefully, we’ll give the fans one of the best All-Star Games ever.”

PAYING TRIBUTE

The support for Bryant and his daughter is uniform.

Team Giannis will wear No. 24 on its jerseys and Team LeBron No. 2 for Gianna, a promising player who wore that number.

All participants in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday and 3-point, slam dunk and skills competition on Saturday wore patches showing the numbers 24 and 2 and nine stars to commemorate the victims of the helicopter crash. The patches worn Sunday will only have the nine stars since players will be wearing the numbers 24 and 2.

“He was the Michael Jordan of our generation,” Antetokounmpo said. “He was one of those guys that gave back to the game so much, gave back to the players. A lot of people when they’re so great, they don’t do that. There was a quote that said that talent is worthless if you’re not willing to share it, right? And he was one of those guys that was sharing his talent with us. He’s going to be definitely missed.”

Anthony Davis, Patrick Beverley, more return to sweet home Chicago for All-Star Game

Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

CHICAGO — For Anthony Davis, it means a lot of things. Like snow.

“I don’t get to see the snow as much now. Me and my cousins would go outside and have snowball fights almost every day after school,” Davis said. “I kinda miss that.”

And deep-dish pizza.

“Giordano’s pizza is my go-to,” Davis said.

For Patrick Beverley, it means grit.

“My Chicago grit goes everywhere with me,” Beverley said. “It’s something, when I get on the court, I try to represent. That’s just a part of my game.”

For a handful of players — Davis, Beverley in the Skills Challenge, Miami’s Kendrick Nunn in Rising Stars, Detroit’s Derrick Rose (who had to pull out of the Skills Challenge due to injury) — the NBA All-Star weekend of events is a chance to come back home, to the city where they grew up and learned to play the game.

“Really excited to be back home, really excited to see my friends, the high schools I went to,” Beverley said. “I’m really excited to smell the Chicago air. I’m so happy to be back home right now…

“It’s an emotion I really can’t explain. It’s surreal to me, I find myself trying to pinch myself. I think the last All-Star Game (in Chicago) was 32 years ago, so I wasn’t even born yet. You know me, I represent Chicago, the grit of Chicago, I’m just fortunate to be able to represent the city the right way.”

“It’s good to be back home, spend time with my family, my friends…” Davis said. “Just trying to stay warm. But to get back here and play in front of the fans in the place I grew up, the place I had my first big-time game, the McDonalds game at UC (United Center). It’s been great to get back here and re-live some of the high school memories I had here in Chicago.”

Davis didn’t attend one of Chicago’s basketball powers. Kind of the opposite. He went to Perspectives Charter School — which didn’t even have a gym on campus at the time. They played at a church nearby. Davis entered school as a 6’2″ guard who was relatively unremarkable, but he grew 8 inches in 18 months, bringing those guard skills with him, and suddenly he was on the top of everyone’s recruiting lists.

Davis could have transferred to any of Chicago’s power schools, like Rose’s Simeon Career Academy, but he stayed at Perspectives.

“I was just being loyal, it was my junior year and I didn’t want to leave and have to sit out a year, so I kinda just stayed around and tried to stick it out,” Davis said. “My dad always gave me the saying ‘no matter where you are they’ll find you,’ and I kind of took that to heart and kept doing what I was doing, working hard, and eventually someone would come see me. Then Coach Cal [Kentucky’s John Calipari] came to one of my games and the rest is history.”

Chicago influenced all of their games.

For Beverley, he said it was another Chicago guy, Will Bynum, who served as a mentor. Plus, when Beverley was in elementary and heading into middle school, it was the Michael Jordan Bulls era.

“There were a lot of parades at that time, the city was on fire. Literally on fire,” Beverley said. “Seeing all that made you want to go out and play basketball. I guess that was every kid’s dream.”

When Davis was having his growth spurt and starting to emerge in high school, Derrick Rose was drafted and took over the NBA — right there in Chicago.

“Derrick Rose is still one of my favorite players to watch,” Davis said. “He was the guy every guy underneath him looked up to. The things he did for the city, and him getting drafted to the Bulls and that whole run, it was just inspiring for all of us.”

All-Star weekend is not a time Davis is going to get to chill on the couch with family and friends. The games, the charity events, the sponsor events — and not to mention a few parties — pull the players in the events a lot of directions.

“I haven’t been able to take it all in, I’ve been running around,” Davis said.

But they are still home. They get to smell the Chicago air, see some friends.

And maybe throw in a slice of pizza.