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Kobe Bryant declared for the 1996 NBA Draft with utmost confidence, a smile on his face and sunglasses perched atop of his head, looking every bit the relaxed college kid he would never become. The flood of prep-to-pros wings that would follow—everyone from Tracy McGrady to DeShawn Stevenson—maybe obscured it, but in this, Kobe was first. Kevin Garnett had re-opened the pipeline the previous year, but a 6’6’’ guard skipping college? How was that going to work?
I’d seen him play in real life for the first time just weeks before, in the McDonald’s All-America Game in Pittsburgh. He was 17 going on 25, I felt 25 going on 17. He was dynamic and charismatic, but not the MVP—that went to Seton Hall-bound point guard Shaheen Holloway. He may not have even been the most NBA-ready player in his class: there was 6’9’’ New Jersey forward Tim Thomas, and 6’11’’ South Carolina center Jermaine O’Neal. Thomas went to Villanova. O’Neal, along with Bryant, declared for the draft.
Twenty years later, as Bryant prepares to play in his last game, things have worked out quite well. Five NBA championships, 11 First-Team All-NBA nods, nine First-Team All-Defensive selections, 18 All-Star appearances, two Finals MVPs, two scoring titles, and one MVP. Twenty seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, the team that acquired his rights on draft day from the Charlotte Hornets, who selected him 13th overall. Including the playoffs, that’s 1,565 games, 57,236 minutes, 39,223 points. Kobe may only be 37, but he’s an old 37. Like Indiana Jones said, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”
He entered the league a fresh-faced 18-year-old, one who stayed in his hotel room on road trips, scored zero points in his first game and one in his second—his first career points coming on a free throw at Madison Square Garden, a building he’d come to love (and one day light up to the tune of 61). That first game at MSG, he was outscored by Knicks rookie John Wallace, who had 12.
I have zero doubt that Kobe remembers that. Kobe remembers everything. Introducing one of his Nike signature shoes at alma mater Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania—this was the offseason when he changed his number to 24—he broke down tape of some of his plays to a rapt audience of high schoolers, and called out not only what he would do before it happened, but what opponents and teammates would do as well. He was never wrong. LeBron James is often cited for his seemingly supernatural ability to remember how plays played out. Kobe had it, too.
There were two on-court things Bryant never seemed to enjoy talking about much: being carried by Shaq to those first three titles and his emulation of Michael Jordan.
There were two on-court things Bryant never seemed to enjoy talking about much: Being carried by Shaq to those first three titles and his emulation of Michael Jordan. He was asked about both often. The first premise was absurd from the start. As a 21-year-old in the 2000 playoffs, he averaged 21.1 points, 4.5 assists and 4.4 rebounds per. The following year? 29.4 points, 6.6 assists, 7.3 rebounds. Yes, Shaq won Finals MVP all three years. But if Kobe doesn’t win without Shaq, Shaq doesn’t win without Kobe either. After the second championship, I asked Kobe what they would get engraved on the ring. “Shaq wants to go with ‘Can You Dig It?’” he said. “I told him I don’t care what it says, as long as we get eight more.” Winning was always the thing.
The Jordan comparison is trickier. Did Kobe take moves directly from Jordan? Of course he did. Who of his generation didn’t at least try? One of the smartest things Bryant ever did was adopting Jordan’s old-man low-post game long before he needed it—installing Kobe 2.0 while he was still athletic enough to do without it—ensuring that when he DID need it, it was ready to go. The comparisons came up long before then, of course, and Bryant would always deny them. I asked him about it later, in 2006, and he was a little more accepting by then: “I learned a lot from him,” he said about Jordan. “I owe a lot to him. But I just want people to appreciate this generation of basketball players.”
Bryant learned from Jordan, but he learned from others as well. The son of former Philadelphia 76ers guard Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe was around NBA players from the very beginning. When the family moved to Italy so Joe could continue his playing career, young Kobe was sent VHS tapes of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Upon his return to the Philadelphia area, he watched Jordan. Later in his career, he learned footwork from Hakeem Olajuwon. He asked Gary Payton detailed questions about playing defense when they were All-Star teammates. The same height as Jordan, Kobe was best built to ball like Mike, but he learned from everyone.
This is nothing out of the ordinary. The best learn from those who come before them. Jordan himself cited David Thompson (dating back to his time at North Carolina State) and Julius Erving as influences. Kobe’s attention to detail and level of intensity, though, that was original to him. It transcended basketball to his sneakers—Nike designer Eric Avar got used to taking countless calls from Kobe at all hours, whether it was about shaving millimeters of tread or, you know, the habits of sharks. “That’s how our sessions are,” Bryant said back in 2006, “we wild out, we talk about the Discovery Channel.”
Kobe was brilliant, Kobe was maddening, Kobe was unique. His single-mindedness bordered on the pathological, his ability to compartmentalize—in 2004, while under investigation for rape, he still continued to play at a high level, juggling court appearances and games en route to a fourth Finals. If this makes you uncomfortable, it should. In some ways, Kobe seemed like a Criminal Minds villain with a disturbingly complete game.
After the second championship, I asked Kobe what they would get engraved on the ring. “Shaq wants to go with ‘Can You Dig It?’” he said. “I told him I don’t care what it says, as long as we get eight more.”
Over the years, we crossed paths lots of times. I interviewed him in Teaneck, N.J. in the summers of 2000 and 2001 for SLAM’s KICKS issue cover stories, caught up with him at All-Star games and at the finals. At one All-Star game—2001 in Washington D.C.—we got so engrossed in a conversation at his locker that neither of us noticed the rest of the national media massing around, waiting to get a quote. In 2004, having not seen him in over a year, I arrived early for a game at Golden State—he was the only player on the court, and before I even emerged from the tunnel, he called out my name in greeting, and headed over to say hello.
More recently we’ve talked at sneaker launches, mostly about the design process. But 10 years ago in 2006, I spoke to him in depth at the Parker Meridian Hotel in New York for a SLAM cover story. Re-reading the interview transcript today, I saw that I asked him whether he saw himself still playing in 10 years. Here’s what he said:
“Know what? I don’t think about it much. What I do know, though, is that I remember playing in Philadelphia in the park and thinking about playing in the NBA, but me recollecting those moments is a lot further back than me thinking about retiring. You know what I’m sayin’? So it’s about appreciating every single day, you know? Every cheer, every boo, every negative or positive, just soak it all in. Because this is the dream I had when I was a kid! This is it! I just wanna swallow it all up as much as I possibly can, man, and just enjoy it, cause there’s gonna be a day…”
That day is finally here. Farewell, Kobe. You were one of a kind. I’m glad I got to see it all.