I used to hate Kobe Bryant.
During the late 90’s and early 2000’s I wasn’t a huge NBA fan. I pulled the “they don’t play defense” card whenever in sports discussions and it probably didn’t help that the Bullets/Wizards were the laughing stock of the league. Even so, I still hated that Lakers team that three-peated in 2000, 2001, 2002.
They were cocky, arrogant, and featured two of the NBA’s biggest stars in Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal and I rooted for them to lose every game. I mean here they were, forming a super team with arguably the two best players in the league at the time. Of course they were the villains to everyone not living in Southern California.
For some reason, Shaq was a more likeable player than Kobe. Was it because he threw down powerful dunks? Cause he could double as a TV character with his larger than life personality? Or maybe it was because Shaq didn’t seem as entitled as Kobe? Here Kobe was, 17 years old (His parents had to sign his first NBA contract) and on draft day; refused to play for the team that drafted him, the Charlotte Hornets. Who was he to have the audacity to tell an NBA team at 17 years old that he didn’t want to play for them? That takes some chops.
After the messy divorce between Kobe and Shaq during the 2004 season; something happened. I watched more Lakers basketball since nearly every one of their games was nationally televised and I started liking Kobe. I didn’t know what it was at the time but every time the Lakers played, I had to watch to see what Kobe was going to do.
On any given night he could drop 40 points, hell 50. I mean that isn’t too absurd considering in 2005-2006 he averaged 35.4 points a game and scored 27 40-point games that season. But still, the Lakers endured early exits in the playoffs as it was Kobe and a cast of average to subpar role players. The scoring was amazing; the entertainment factor was there; but I still couldn’t put my finger on why I was fascinated with a basketball player that I loathed just years ago.
And then he changed his jersey number from 8 to 24 at the start of the 2006-2007 season and it all made sense. Yes Kobe initially wore 24 in high school and yes he said he was “dedicating himself to basketball 24/7” which is a cute cover-up but no.
He changed his number to 24 to one-up Michael Jordan who wore 23. He was making a national declaration that he would be better than Jordan; he wasn’t afraid.
It was rumored that Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson sat Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant down to have a meeting during the mid-2000’s when the Lakers were underachieving in the playoffs. Jackson thought Jordan would be able to give Kobe some pointers to help his team get over the hump. Kobe looked Jordan in the eye and said: “You know I can kick your ass one-on-one.”
Excuse me? You have half as many rings as Jordan (at the time) and here you are telling the greatest player to ever play the game of basketball that you’d kick his ass one-on-one? Remember that statement about having chops?
Michael and Kobe are the two most competitive players to ever play the game of basketball. And Kobe was coming for Michael.
That was it. That’s why I liked him. Kobe looked the best basketball player to ever play the game in the eye and essentially said: “You don’t scare me, I’m coming for you.”
Yes Kobe was elite. Yes Kobe was great. But on top of all that, he had a work ethic that put him in a different stratosphere from other players. In a recent interview on Good Morning America, Kobe said that he makes 500 jump shots before and 500 jump shot after every single practice. He doesn’t simply take 500 jumpers before and after, he must MAKE them.
On top of that, there’s the infamous story of Kobe waking up his trainer at 4 in the morning during the Olympic practices to get some extra cardio in. When his trainer got to the gym, he said Kobe was so drenched in sweat that it looked like he just got out of a pool. After the workout, his trainer went back to bed. Kobe? He kept practicing until the official team practice started later that morning. Umm what?
Kobe epitomized greatness. He was extremely talented but his work ethic was that of a different breed. He took no short cuts and carried some of the weakest supporting casts deep into the playoffs. He took a team with one borderline All-Star and a bunch of role players to the finals three straight years where they repeated in the last two.
He’s won five championships, Olympic Gold medals, MVPs, scoring titles, you name it. But when you mix a once in a lifetime talent with a sickening work ethic, you get greatness.
That’s how I’ll remember Kobe Bryant: Greatness.