When I was an elementary school kid in Minnesota, it was the end of Michael Jordan's reign as the first swingman to fully dominate the basketball mindset. Instead of being an unstoppable behemoth center, or a forward who can ball handle and shoot, but still have enough size to tussle with the big fellas – we wanted to be like Mike.
Everyone swaggered around, snarling, looking for a one-on-one, in-the-face play to send a dagger into someone's heart, looking to lock down someone so mercilessly on defense they lose the will to dribble, let alone look you in the eye. Kobe Bryant seemed His Airness' heir apparent in stature and style. Both men struck the basketball balance of sheer force and balletic ingenuity like few before, completing one possession with a delicate fadeaway, only to end the next using a series of complicated mid-range maneuvers, finished with the simplicity of a thunderous drive.
In my lifetime, no one has become so synonymous with individual basketball success, with an overall demeanor of excellence, as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
In basketball – in governance or literature, in just life – there are only so many figures who the entire field, anyone who plays or watches or cares about basketball (or that thing), emulates. And to genuinely emulate someone, to find comfort and direction in the aping of their mannerisms and priorities during moments of personal uncertainty, is a sort of spiritual support. In order to accomplish anything, we all need scaffolding propping us up, be it family or friends or like-minded colleagues. And all we really have to give in return is love, as often is the case when the support system is offering something you can never repay.
How many people in quiet moments, in loud, obnoxious moments, in moments of immense challenge and strife, closed their eyes and thought of Kobe? It does seem silly, laying bare the importance of the performance of an athlete in our day-to-day lives. But it's true. It's why we care, why we admire him like a deity. We truly, truly love him.
It's why Kobe's road to basketball vindication doubles as a journey countless fans took in finding another life-hero to summon spiritual support.
Kobe's journey of basketball vindication – winning a championship as the undisputed best player on the team – culminated in Orlando. His basketball reputation was on the brink after breaking up with Shaq, shortly after winning three consecutive championships together in 2003. In each of those championships, Shaq, who is older and much, much bigger than Kobe, was seen as the best player, even as Kobe, time and again, delivered game-saving, stat-stuffing performances in many playoff series during their run. Either way, they were broken up, and many saw Kobe as petulant and overrated.
In 2004, he was accused of rape. The criminal case was dismissed. Kobe agreed to a civil settlement with the accuser. This, unfortunately, happened before #MeToo, so everyone was quick to move on. Maybe his MeToo moment was, or is, still coming.
Still, back then, the Kobe experience was never going to come to fruition. Extra animosity was added because the anticipation of a new basketball hero dashed left a sour taste in the mouth of many.
But Kobe kept battling, missing the playoffs or dragging his team to a first-round playoff exit. He kept battling. In 2005, he averaged 35 points a game, the first to eclipse 35 a night since M.J. in 1987. In 2006, he scored 81 points in a single game, the second-highest total in one game, bested only by Wilt Chamberlin's 100. In 2008, he won his only regular-season MVP at age 29.
So tenacious and unwilling to stop training and bringing his best every night, even with bad teams, filling all who watched him with unbridled joy, forcing even opposing fans to their feet, Kobe's unique mentality began to truly stand out, and we gave it a name: "Mamba."
Excitement sparked back up at the prospect of a player, a swingman with some help, would pull an M.J. again and pull the hearts out of everyone in the league with devastating one-on-one offense and defense that was so masterful it made everyone on his team better by virtue of sharing the same uniform. A team, a franchise, a league, a nation – we all wanted to be swept up in that sort of basketball majesty again.
Sure enough, Kobe took that magic and made it his own. Where Michael yo-yo'd strength and speed, Kobe aged into an elbow finesse game so smooth, he lulled every defender to sleep, into deception, even though everyone in the world knew he was going to shoot. Simply exquisite.
With the addition of Pau Gasol, Kobe finally had a team in 2008 to take to the NBA finals. He lost to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and the Boston Celtics.
Come 2009, Kobe clawed his way back to the NBA Finals. Upon arriving in the championship round, there to meet him wasn't Garnett or LeBron James. It wasn't pedigreed Eastern Conference programs like the Detroit Pistons, or even early christened newcomers like the Miami Heat.
It was the Orlando Magic, led by Dwight Howard's stout defense at the rim and a futuristic, spread-out offense of three-point shooters like Hedo Türkoğlu, Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis.
The Magic were young and unprepared for the Kobe buzzsaw that had been sharpening since 2003. Kobe saw his legacy-making prey and pounced, defeating Orlando in five games – which meant the glorious moment of his release from his Shaq purgatory and into the light of basketball immortality happened at the old Amway Arena where the Creative Village is now in Orlando.
If you are in the City Beautiful, it's a place to make pilgrimage and remember the journey of the man who meant so much.
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