Image compiled from The LA Times' amazing graphic.
I knew Wednesday night was the last game of Kobe Bryant's career, but I didn't really care that much when the Lakers v Jazz game started that evening. I didn't care that much because the Warriors were playing at the same time and were trying to beat my Bulls' record of 72 wins in a season, which seemed like a bigger storyline. Also, Kobe was never "my guy" in basketball. He played for the Los Angeles Lakers and I was fiercely loyal to the Chicago Bulls.
And yet I found myself absolutely riveted by Kobe's last game. The Lakers had the worst season of their franchise's history (17-65 is pretty atrocious) and it's put a bit of a damper on this final season. There has been a lot of talk about him being just a shadow of his former self all year long. This is by no means going out with a bang.
But things changed on Wednesday where Kobe Bryant put on an absolute show for his fans. The Laker's game plan was 100% "get the ball to Kobe" all night, and he did not play like an old man who was past his prime. He gave us "the hits" and they were amazing. Fadeaways, threes, charging the net, we got it all and it was a true champion's finale. The Staples Center was electric the entire night, losing their minds every time Kobe drained another basket. I'm not a very emotional guy, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't moved by the amazing performance.
I loved Michael Jordan as a kid, but he was a known quantity growing up. He'd simply always been around, so I didn't know that the world was like without Jordan. He was in the league since before I was born, and he lead the Bulls to their amazing run in the 90s when I was ages 5-10. Jordan was just always there and he was always "the greatest player of all time." That's just how the world was, so success was expected.
Photo credit: Garrett Ellwood / Getty Images (2010)
But I remember a world before Kobe Bryant. I remember when he came into the league when I was 9 years old, and yes he was amazing, but we didn't know if he was going to the the next big thing. He was 18 when he played his first NBA game, which is insanely young, and maybe he was going to be just a flash in the pan. In time he proved to be one of the greats, and he won't just be remembered for being a wondered drafted out of high school. He was the real deal.
Kobe Bryant during the 1996 NBA Draft
And it was watching Kobe play his absolute heart out in his final game, a game that ultimately didn't matter for either of the teams involved. Kobe Bryant has had a successful 20 years in the league because he has a fire in him to be great. He had some raw talent yes, but the only reason he had such a long career with so many accomplishments along the way was because he worked his ass off day after day, year after year. He got out of bed and did the hard work needed to stay at the top of the game. He played 20 seasons in Los Angeles and lead them to 5 championships, was selected for the All Star game 18 times, and scored the 3rd most points of any player ever in that time. Damn.
I'm not an NBA All Star (or even close to being a bench warmer, if I'm honest), but reflecting on Kobe Bryant's career has me completely amped up to walk into work today and be the freaking best I can be there. The odds of me ever giving a teary-eyed goodbye speech to a packed sports arena is pretty low, but I want to do something that lets me leave a mark. That doesn't come easy, and it takes a lot of hard work over a long, long time to make it.
Many NBA players have come and gone since Kobe's start in 1996, and I would argue no one has had a more accomplished career in that time. I want to be the Kobe Bryant of everything I do, which means waking up every day ready to do the hard stuff. It's so easy to think you don't have to do that and it's great to have people like Kobe Bryant set an example.
Photo credit: Robert Hanashiro / Reuters (2016)