Three years ago today, the world lost Kobe Bean Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and six others in a horrific accident. This is truly one of the “where were you when you heard the news" moments. I was a Resident Assistant in college at the time, and one of my residents came up to me looking absolutely sullen and knowing I was a sports fan came up to me and said “Kobe Bryant died”. My heart sunk. It couldn’t be true. No way. I looked it up and sure enough the news came pouring in from everywhere. My first instinct was to call my dad, the person who got me into sports fandom as a kid. All this time later, myself and countless others are still coming to terms with the loss of one of the most enigmatic and mythic figures to ever lace up.
A product of Lower Merion High School in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Kobe Bryant was a standout performer, eventually becoming known as one of the best high school hoopers not just of his generation, but of all time. At just 17 years old, Kobe decided to forego college, despite surely being a sought-after recruit by an endless amount of programs, and declare for the 1996 NBA draft. There, Kobe was the first guard ever to be drafted out of high school into the NBA, being selected with the 13th overall pick by the Charlotte Hornets and traded to the Los Angeles Lakers thereafter; and the rest is history.
For the next 20 years, Kobe Bryant captivated us. It is not hyperbole to say that his work ethic on and off the court is the stuff of madness. Working tirelessly during and between seasons, Kobe was determined to be the best basketball player on the planet. And for a time, you would have been hard pressed to defy him on that.
Following a volatile, yet extremely fruitful partnership with Shaquille O’Neal that netted three straight NBA championships, in 2004 the tandem was broken up for good, with Shaq being dealt to the Miami Heat for a package including Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and draft picks. Now, the Lakers solely belonged to Kobe. What followed next was a tremendous streak of individual excellence by Kobe Bryant. Over the next 6 seasons, Kobe would go on to average 29.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists on 45.5% shooting, missing just 32 regular season contests in 6 seasons. Memorable moments include 81 points, the second most in any NBA game ever, against the Toronto Raptors in 2006, and outscoring the entire Mavericks team over three quarters in 2005 just a few weeks prior. Kobe then ascended, capping off the end of that six-year stretch with back-to-back NBA championships that came with two Final’s MVP’s, thereby silencing any doubters who said he couldn’t do it without Shaq.
The twilight on Kobe Bryant’s career came sooner than most of us were likely expecting. Following his championship repeat, the Lakers were found to be scrambling for identity as Kobe entered his mid-30’s, trying desperately to put a roster around their aging legend for one more championship run. This era in the early 2010’s saw one of the NBA's biggest "What If?" moments as the Lakers attempted to net Chris Paul in a trade that was squashed by the Association for “basketball reasons”. The Laker’s final gambit in this regard was to assemble what could be one of the most eclectic “Big Three’s” in NBA history, with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard brought along as co-stars. Despite underperforming expectations in the 2012-2013 season, the Lakers were indeed playoff bound and this can be attributed to the Black Mamba’s absolute refusal to miss out on playoff basketball. Averaging 43 minutes a game for the final 11 games of the season to absolutely will his team to the postseason, with a 7-4 record in that span.
Unfortunately, playing at such a relentless rate at nearly 35 years old, it came to be known that Kobe was indeed human. A torn achilles ended Kobe Bryant’s season on April 12th, 2013 against the Golden State Warriors; just the third-to-last regular season game of the Lakers’ season. It is difficult to say, but this was the end of Kobe Bryant as we knew him. All this hype for the 2012-13 Lakers resulted in a lack of chemistry, especially between Kobe and Howard, the latter of whom would leave for the Houston Rockets following this season. This one-time combo of Kobe, Nash and Howard would result in a 45-37 record and, without Kobe, a first-round playoff exit in a clean sweep against the Spurs.
After returning from his knee injury, Kobe played just 6 games before fracturing his knee and missing the rest of the 2013-14 season. The last two seasons of Kobe’s career were unfortunate, to put it mildly. With a franchise in limbo and surrounded by a roster of players many of whom were 10 or more years his junior, the Lakers wallowed in mediocrity and posted the two worst records in franchise history. The writing was on the wall, but Kobe had one last Mamba moment in him and unleashed it on April 13th, 2016; three years and one day exactly since his career-altering achilles injury. What occurred on this night will live on as the stuff of legend so long as the NBA’s heart continues to beat. 60 points. Kobe started the night off cold but at a point reached deep inside to find one last beat to put up one of the most memorable game performances in NBA history. It should also be said that the Utah Jazz team the Lakers faced on this night were fighting for the eighth seed in the Western Conference on what would be the final game of the season and were certainly not phoning it in against Kobe and the Lakers. The Jazz lost this game, and missed out on the playoffs by one game.
I intentionally didn’t remark on one specific moment that happened on that night of April 12, 2013 to make one final point, to wrap up what Kobe Bryant was. After tearing his achilles, Kobe Bryant had to go up to the line for two free throws. He sunk both. In this moment, Kobe’s passion and sheer grit rolled off his fingers and into the net before he too had to accept that he was human. The Lakers won the game by two points.
There has perhaps never been a death in the world of sports that has been so unifying in grief and recognition than that of Kobe. The NBA stood still. Teams took 8 and 24 second violations to begin games to honor the man. Not a single dry eye existed in any of the arenas in which games took place in the immediate aftermath of Kobe’s death.
We will never truly accept that he is gone. Kobe Bryant in life was just as mythical and legendary as he is in death. I am thankful to have been able to witness Kobe’s career align with my growth as a sports fan. Nearly 13 years later, I still think of Kobe beating my Celtics in the 2010 finals. Maybe at the age of 12 Kobe was simply the enemy, but as an adult I can appreciate everything that Kobe was. Masterful, unyielding, tenacious; an evil genius. A top-10 player of all time, the second greatest shooting guard of all time, and perhaps the most iconic NBA player of the 21st century. An 18-time all star, two scoring titles, 2008 MVP, 11 All-NBA First Team selections, nine All-NBA Defensive First Team selections, and of course enough rings to fill every finger on his hand and a pair of Finals MVPs. One of the most complete careers any professional athlete can claim to.
We here at 4QWI remember Kobe Bryant today and will forever do so, for the moments he gave us and the indelible mark he has left on not just a generation of hoopers and its fans, but the entire world of sports and media.
I end this article with some quotes from the 4QWI team: "I still say "Kobe!" every time I shoot paper into a trash can. His legacy will live on forever" - 4QWI co-founder Brett Shevlin
"It doesn't feel like it's been three years. The raw emotions and details of the day still feel so real and powerful. The mamba mentality has continued and will continue to live on in the game" - 4QWI Contributor Jay Rooney