I’ve been alive to witness six of the Los Angeles Lakers’ 16 NBA championships. Kobe Bean Bryant played a pivotal role in each of the five that I actually remember. So, earlier this season when news broke revealing that Bryant would miss the remainder of the entire season I was disappointed, but not surprised. If anything it just meant that I finally had to accept the notion that Kobe doubters have had for a few seasons now: Kobe is breaking down. Exactly one year after tearing his Achilles, the Lakers are on their way to completing the worst season in L.A. franchise history and the Black Mamba is two seasons away from surrendering to injury and old age.
Kobe doesn’t have to look far to see an example of another legend who is currently at the mercy of Father Time. On Nov. 4, 1996, Derek Jeter (another childhood sports hero of mine) was named the AL Rookie of the Year. The day before that, Kobe made his NBA debut, going 0-1 from the field, posting one board, one block, and one turnover in six minutes played. Ten championships, 29 All-Star appearances, $532 million in career earnings, and nearly 18 years later, both have become legends in their respective sports but are clearly shells of their former selves. Although both the Lakers and Yankees will always be two of the most storied franchises in sports, both teams are in rebuilding phases as their respective stars hobble toward the finish line. Bryant and Jeter—two of the biggest names in sports in the late ‘90s and throughout the 2000s are now just symbols of how there’s a changing of the guard. It was all good about two decades ago.
At this point, what are fans of the Kobe generation like myself to do? Do we latch onto one of the the new kings of the league? Do we take a page from the book of MJ stans and exclaim, “Five rings, b*tch!” anytime someone suggests that LeBron or KD will likely eclipse Kobe’s legacy?
Prior to ever having a favorite player, I had a favorite duo—Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway. I favored Penny because as a skinny elementary student, it was much easier for me to imitate a quick guard than a 7’1”, 325-pound beast during recess. When Shaq came to L.A. in the summer of ‘96, the sports buzz in southern California was unreal. My dad and his friends were ready to put Shaq in the company of great big men like Kareem and Wilt whose dominance helped bring titles to The Forum. In the most dominant big man in the L not named Hakeem Olajuwon, the Lakers finally had their first superstar since Magic Johnson retired in 1991. Think Dwight Howard in 2012 minus the bitchassness and 24-hour media cycle. As a Laker fan growing up in Santa Barbara I was excited for my “hometown” team despite the fact that my favorite duo was no more. Who would be Shaq’s “sidekick” now? Who would connect with him on alley-oops? Though my best guess was Nick Van Exel, it ended up being the kid from Lower Merion whom Jerry West had traded for just a couple weeks earlier.
Kobe’s first major look came when he won the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest at the tender age of 18. As a bald-headed teen, he mean-mugged for fans sitting courtside, including his senior prom date, Brandy. After Bryant took home the Dunk Contest crown, the nine-year-old me was in my backyard the very next day attempting to complete his between-the-legs dunk on a lowered Huffy hoop.
The brash youngster, who only started in six games and averaged just 7.6 PPG that season, didn’t hold back in the playoffs. Bryant put on one of his most infamous early performances in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals vs. the Utah Jazz. The Lakers were eliminated as Bryant shot 4-14 from the field. Of course, my selective stanish memory doesn’t allow me to remember much about lackluster performances. Part of me likes to think that Bryant has a similar outlook on such games.
The cockiness displayed in his “Air Bryant” performance has been as integral a part of his career as any other aspects of his game or personality. Bryant was “the bad guy” from day one. He thumbed his nose at Duke and North Carolina and signed a six-year, $48 million contract with adidas before every setting foot on NBA hardwood. That idea of doing what was best for him translated to his play on the court and although recklessly narcissistic performances like that Game 5 branded him selfish by some, I looked at those moments as a testament to the confidence Bryant had in himself. Bryant has never been the type to just jack up shots for the hell of it, numerous former teammates and coaches have suggested that for every jumper you see him take during game time, he’s done the same motion countless times during practice. That dedication and desire to win by any means necessary is what makes Bryant one of the most loved and loathed athletes of his generation. As someone who successfully argued with their parents over wearing a Kobe Bryant No. 8 throwback jersey to my high school while his sexual assault trial was going on, I’m obviously part of the former group.
Cocky players come and go though. Not since the days of Michael Jordan have we had a player with that arrogance who could back it up regularly for more than a decade. Other players like Allen Iverson became cultural icons for brief periods of time, but what separated Bryant from the A.I.s and T-Macs of his generation is the fact that he wasn’t hot for just a couple seasons. From the moment he donned sunglasses and a baggy suit to announce he was skipping college to go straight to the L, right up until he tore his Achilles last April, Bryant has been a constant point of discussion for NBA fans. Whether it was about his play on the court, beef with teammates or coaches, or comparison to greats like His Airness, Bryant has always remained in the discussion. That was until this season.
For the first time since Bill Clinton was courting his intern side piece in the Oval Office, Kobe Bryant wasn’t in the NBA spotlight this season. The only time NBA fans heard any talk of Bryant was when he signed his colossal contract extension, the Kobe 9s dropped, and how the rehab with his injuries was coming along. The spotlight, in 2014, belongs to LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Two players who were in high school and middle school, respectively, when Bryant won his first title in 2000.
As someone who blasted Chief Keef “Kobe” on the Southern State Parkway in Long Island and felt genuine sadness after seeing Bryant suffer the first major injury of his career last season, the time has come to admit that Father Time has caught up with the Black Mamba. Nearly four years ago, when I had just finished singing an a capella rendition of “We Are the Champions” in a living room full of friends after the 2010 NBA Finals (this wasn’t caught on tape, TYBG), I would’ve scoffed at the idea of Bryant falling off by 2014. Prior to tearing his Achilles tendon Bryant was busy willing a disappointing Laker squad to the eighth seed in the West by averaging 27.3 PPG while shooting .463 percent from the field, his highest percentage since 2006-07. But one year later no amount of determination can will Bryant back to being the baller many loved, many hated, but everyone noticed.
At this point, what are fans of the Kobe generation like myself to do? Do we latch onto one of the the new kings of the league? Do we take a page from the book of MJ stans and exclaim, “Five rings, bitch!” anytime someone suggests that LeBron or KD will likely eclipse Kobe’s legacy? I’m not sure, but watching my favorite athlete fade into NBA lore is going to take some getting used to.