Kobe Bryant is one of the most polarizing athletes in sports. Millions love Kobe across the globe while thousands more hate to give him his props. I was never the biggest Kobe fan, especially after the fiasco between him and The Diesel, Shaquille O’Neal but I always admired his will to win. Before LeBron James, Kobe had the most annoying fans in the world, you couldn’t discuss basketball with Kobe fans, they would drive you crazy with their comparisons, fictional scenarios, and analogies to why he is the next Michael Jordan.
After 30,000 points and 5 NBA titles, even the biggest Kobe hater has to appreciate the Black Mamba’s greatness.
June 26th 1996 is a defining moment in NBA History, not only because this was one of the greatest draft classes in NBA history, but it was the day that help rejuvenate the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. After Magic Johnson retired in 1991, the Lakers were officially in the post-Showtime era. Michael Jordan had shifted the NBA attention and power back into the Eastern Conference with his amazing playing ability, defeating the Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals that would start an incredible 8-year run.
The Lakers were still a contender in the Western Conference, with the likes of A.C. Green, Vlade Divac, Nick Van Exel, and Eddie Jones. While the Lakers were still making it to the playoffs, that wasn’t enough, still with memories of the Showtime era that included 8 trips to the Finals and 5 Larry O’Brien trophies. General Manager and Laker Legend, Jerry West, knew the franchise needed bigger than life players that could not only take the Lakers to the promise land, but also continue the franchise’s rich legacy of great charismatic players.
Man, if the Hornets could go back in time, I’m sure this would be the day they picked to change history. Jerry West was a big fan of Kobe and was one of the few who thought he would end up being one of the greatest. West decided to trade Vlade Divac, who was not a fan of the trade, to the Hornets for the 6’6 Swing guard out of high school during the NBA draft. Later that summer, he also signed free agent Shaquille O’Neal to a seven-year $120 million deal.
Trading Vlade to the Hornets was not just cause of West’s fandom for Kobe, but to make cap room to sign Shaq. At that time, people said the trade was great for the Lakers because it helped them sign Shaq, not because they got Kobe Bryant.
Kobe remained an afterthought for the next two seasons. While other guards from his class was killing the league such as Allen Iverson (#1 pick), Stephon Marbury (#4), and Ray Allen (#5 pick), Kobe was coming off the bench. In his first season, Kobe only average 15 minutes per game and 7 points. In his sophomore campaign, he would make the All-Star game, but the numbers still didn’t show “the remix to Michael Jordan”, averaging 26 minutes and 15 points a game as a reserve.
1996 Rookie Guards
It wasn’t until the Lakers first championship run that the Michael Jordan comparison began to hold weight. Shaq was still the top dawg, winning his first MVP award after the 1999-2000 season. Many Kobe haters like to say that he was a sidekick and Shaq carried him; if that is the case than Kobe is the greatest sidekick ever. Jerry West trading Vlade Divac would end up being one of the greatest off-season moves ever. Cue Game 7 in the 2000 Western Conference Finals. A lasting memory in all of our minds, Kobe lob to Shaq to put the dagger in the Portland Trailblazers and send the Lakers to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1991, was the starting point of the Lakers Dynasty.
Kobe numbers increased each of the 7 season he played with Shaq. In 2001 Kobe averaged 28.5 points, 6 boards, 5 dimes in 68 games and in the playoffs he elevated his averaged to 29 points, 7 boards, 6 dimes during one of the best runs by a team in the postseason. In back-to-back games, Kobe dropped 48 points & 16 boards to in the final game of the Western Conference semi-finals against the Kings and 45 points & 10 boards to start the Western Conference Finals against the Spurs. In the first three rounds, the Lakers swept all three opponents, with an average margin of victory 13 points. They didn’t see their first loss until the Finals against the Sixers - a legendary performance by Allen Iverson - but they would win the next three four games, finishing with a postseason record of 15-1.
Kobe averaged 30 points for the first time in his career at the end of the 2002-03. This was also the beginning of the fallout of the Shaq-Kobe era. Kobe’s image took a major blow with the fans after the alleged rape charges and snitching on Shaq about adultery in before the 2003-04 NBA season. All throughout the season the Lakers went through a rumor mill of Kobe-Shaq headlines that including each other wives and personal lives, all while Kobe was entering the prime years of his career. The Lakers would go on to lose to the Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals in six games, and the Shaq-Kobe era was officially over.
The Lakers decided to go with the younger Kobe Bryant, trading Shaq to the Heat. Kobe reacted to Shaq’s trade by declining an offer from the Clippers and re-signing with the Lakers for the next seven seasons. The damage was already done and Kobe had some making up to do with the LA faithful who was disappointed that Shaq was on his way to South Beach and Kobe was still in town. Phil Jackson also departed after the 2003-04 season, criticizing Kobe, saying he was un-coachable. The first season in the Kobe era resulted in a 34-48 year, Lakers missing the postseason for the first time since 1993-94.
At this point in his career, Kobe was at a crossroads, suffice to the negativity surrounding his name, or rise from the ashes like a phoenix? Kobe did neither, instead he became the most lethal killer in the NBA.
The Black Mamba became an official moniker for Kobe during the 2005-06 season. Kobe had one of the best individual seasons in NBA history, averaging 35 points a game. That same season included the 62 points in three quarters against the Mavericks and 81-point performance against the Raptors. Kobe dropped 40+ points 25 times that season with a starting five that included, Kwame Brown, Smush Parker, and Chris Mhim. Kobe would go on to average 31 points the next season and completely changed his image for most hated to league favorite. The Lakers still were not a bonafide threat in the western conference, winning less than 45 games in both of Kobe’s stellar seasons. Kobe still needed some added assistance to shake that “He can’t win without Shaq” label.
Enter Pau Gasol the summer of 2007.
Pau Gasol played the perfect role in the Kobe saga. He was a dominant enough big man to guide a team to a title but didn’t have the skill or charisma to overshine Kobe. With Gasol, Kobe remained the top dog on the Lakers, and was the best player in the NBA. Some might say that the LeBron James was top at that time, but Kobe was still in the prime of his career. He led the league in total points scored for the third straight season and the Lakers were number one in the west with 57 wins. Winning the Finals was the only thing that Kobe needed to solidify the Lakers trading away Shaq but the Boston Celtics had a different plan.
FIrst off I want to say that this was one of the illest freestyles. Shaq not only dissed Kobe but he dissed Patrick Ewing and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, classic Shaq.
Kobe played in his first Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals but was on the losing end of it. Shaq’s memorable freestyle came after the Lakers lost to the Celtics in game six 92-131 and the monkey was still on Kobe back. One year later though, Kobe was back in the postseason with their first 60 win season since 2000 (when Kobe & Shaq won their first title), and back in the Finals to take on the Orlando Magic, who defeated LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. We wished that LeBron made it to the Finals but it didn’t matter to Kobe, he was on a mission for that 4th ring.
In game 1, Kobe dropped 40 points, 8 boards, and 8 dimes, setting a new career high for himself in the NBA Finals. At that point on, the world knew this was Kobe’s for the taking. The Lakers won in four games and Kobe captured his NBA Finals MVP. While his detractors still claimed him to be a “Fake Michael Jordan”, one couldn’t help but to acknowledge that he was the closest thing to his airness. He won a title as the first option and without Shaq, the Black Mamba era was complete and all the controversy that came between 2003-2005 was forgotten.
Kobe wasn’t finished though, that sixth ring was still on his mind.
The Lakers went to their third straight Finals to meet the “Big Three” and the Boston Celtics. Kobe and the Lakers took the Celtics to 7 games and claimed their 16th title, Kobe also becoming closer to MJ with his 5th ring. This would the last NBA Finals Kobe would play in, giving him a Finals record of 5-3. For the next three seasons, the Lakers would have embarrassing postseason exits, losing twice in the Western Conference Semi-finals and 1st round sweep. Kobe numbers didn’t decline though, averaging 25, 28, and 27 all over the age of 30, still guarding some of the top guards in the league. It’s a shame that the Lakers failed success overshadowed Kobe fight to beat father time because I’m not sure if we’ll see another player average those numbers at the age of 33.
Father time eventually caught up to Kobe, forcing him to miss 123 games between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons with an achilles injury and dislocated knee. He still managed to reach the 30,000 point pinnacle and passed Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list.
Now we have come to Kobe’s final season, unfortunately the Lakers are one of the worst teams in the NBA but for NBA fans all over, this season has been about paying homage to the Black Mamba. Kobe detractors are still prevalent throughout social media, but I’m sure even they know you can’t deny the legacy that is Kobe Bryant. Only three players in the history of the game have 30,000 points and 5+ NBA Championship; Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Michael Jordan, and The Black Mamba.