LOOKBACK: The day Kobe Bryant decided to ‘be like Mike’

JR Isaga
LOOKBACK: The day Kobe Bryant decided to ‘be like Mike’
Kobe Bryant carved out a decorated career he could call his own – one that Michael Jordan, his idol, ultimately respected

MANILA, Philippines –The docuseries The Last Dance took a sharp emotional turn at the start of Episode 5 when it flashed the words “In Memory of Kobe Bryant.”

After 4 adrenaline-filled episodes featuring the seemingly immortal Michael Jordan, those words at the start of the fifth became a quick reminder that even the most seemingly untouchable icons are just human, and they can be taken away in an instant.

Bryant, who was interviewed for the docuseries just a week before his tragic death, clarified that there was no doubt on who was the better player between him and Jordan.

It was Jordan. It always has and it always will be.

Ever since he was little, Bryant idolized “His Airness” and worked harder than anyone else to literally imitate everything Jordan did on the court.

Everyone knows now that his career transformation to the “Black Mamba” had been a complete and tremendous success, but it always had to start somewhere.

And indeed, there was one particular day in history where Bryant decided to stop fooling around and start working to be one of the greatest of all time.

It didn’t really start in Philadelphia where he was born, nor in Italy where he grew up.

It started in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Future up in the air

The year was 1997. The Los Angeles Lakers were facing the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Semifinals while Jordan’s Chicago Bulls were terrorizing the East on their way back for another title repeat.

The Jazz, led by the legendary duo of Karl Malone and John Stockton, were up 3-1 in the best-of-seven series heading to the May 12 matchup, one win away from eliminating the Lakers featuring the dominant Shaquille O’Neal and a rookie Bryant.

With the game tied at 89, a young Bryant brimming with confidence held the ball for the last shot and pulled up from deep at the buzzer.

Airball.

Overtime in Utah with the series on the line for the visiting Lakers.

At the beginning of the extra period, Lakers guard Nick Van Exel found Bryant wide open near the corner for a tone-setting three.

Airball.

“The Mailman” Malone then responded by delivering a pair of mid-range jumpers to bring the Jazz up 3 points, 96-93. Time was winding down, but the Jazz were not out of the woods yet. Bryant again pulled up from downtown with 43 seconds left.

Airball.

At this point, the Jazz fans, bewildered and amused at the mess unfolding for their visitors, had risen to a crescendo of jeers and applause.

Utah’s Jeff Hornacek then fumbled what would have been a dagger layup, but Bryant decided to drive it home himself. With 7 seconds left, the 18-year-old former high school star fired one last triple for the tie.

Airball.

And that was it. The Jazz handed the Lakers a 4-1 gentleman’s sweep on their way to facing the Bulls in that year’s finals.

Humiliated and dejected, Bryant knew that he could only go too far with idolatry and imitation. Believing he was clutch like Jordan was obviously not enough. He had to work even harder than ever before to even get close to the level his idol was at.

And sure enough, Bryant dedicated his life to perfecting his craft in Jordan’s mold. Safe to say, the results were more than satisfactory.

Creating his own legend

In 1998, Bryant’s flashy style of play earned him his first All-Star nod at the tender age of 19 despite starting only one game out of 79 appearances for the team that season.

In his sophomore season, he took full advantage of the 26 minutes a night given to him and doubled his scoring average to 15.4 points from 7.6 in his rookie year.

For comparison, starting shooting guard and fellow All-Star Eddie Jones normed 16.9 markers with a much longer leeway of 36.4 minutes per game.

It was during that year’s All-Star Game where the upstart Bryant finally caught the attention of the legendary Jordan, who made it a point to give the youngster the game of a lifetime, as told by the man himself in Episode 5.

Bryant took the challenge well and finished the game with 18 points in 22 minutes on 7-of-16 shooting. The veteran Jordan, meanwhile, gave a standard performance with 23 markers and 8 assists en route to winning All-Star Game MVP.

From there, Bryant continued his stratospheric rise as Jordan, with 6 championships and nothing else to prove, faded away from the spotlight.

With the torch passed on to him, Bryant won his first-ever championship at the turn of the new millennium with O’Neal, establishing the next big superstar duo after Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

By the time Jordan made a brief comeback with the Washington Wizards in 2001, it was clear that it was no longer his league, but Bryant’s.

Being the greatest of all time, however, Jordan was not going to just roll over and let the new kid on the block walk all over him whenever they met. His body may have been a step slower or two, but his fire burned just as hot as ever.

And so it came to pass that on March 28, 2003, a 40-year-old Jordan led the Wizards with 23 points on the road against the Lakers.

Bryant, in true Kobe fashion, responded with a season-high 55.

The Lakers won 108-94, and that was the last time the two stars crossed paths on the court as Jordan played for the final time just 10 games later in Philadelphia, Bryant’s birthplace.

The Lakers then won two more championships, nabbing the first title three-peat since Jordan and the Bulls completed it 5 years prior.

Nearly two decades later, no team has yet to achieve that elusive feat.

Coming full circle

After a controversial split with O’Neal in 2004 following a disastrous campaign, Bryant fought through multiple mediocre seasons where he carried an impossibly heavy load as the team’s lone superstar.

However, Bryant soon gained a new lease on his championship aspirations after the Lakers pulled off a brilliant trade in 2009 to acquire Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies.

Surrounded by battle-hardened veterans, Bryant then earned two more rings in 2009 and 2010, cementing a Hall of Fame resume for the ages. Although Bryant never succeeded in tying Jordan for ring No. 6, it was not due to a lack of trying.

After leading the Lakers to 3 more playoff appearances, Bryant’s body gave up on him as he tore his Achilles tendon on April 12, 2013, unceremoniously ending his season.

He then spent the next two seasons trying to get back to form, but unfortunately never did as the Lakers missed the playoffs each year with Bryant largely absent from the team.

Their fortunes did not change much the following season as the Lakers started with a horrendous 2-12 record by November 24, 2015.

Five days later, Bryant made the inevitable announcement that had been looming ever since he tore his Achilles tendon two years prior: he was retiring at the end of the season.

Immediately after the announcement, home courts everywhere, from Sacramento to Boston, went out of their way to give the retiring legend a proper send-off whenever he visited their turf.

As fate would have it, Bryant played his final game against none other than the Utah Jazz, the same team whose home court bore witness to his airball atrocity nearly 20 years prior.

No longer a wide-eyed youngster, a weary Bryant carried his broken body up and down the court, hitting shot after shot after shot like the game actually mattered for a Lakers squad just avoiding their 66th and final loss of the season.

With the game on the line one more time like back in Utah, Bryant pulled up from the same spots and drew nothing but net this time instead of air. He had long learned from his failures and was merely feeding off adrenaline and championship pedigree.

When the dust settled, the Lakers had gutted out one last win for their home fans.

Bryant dropped an unprecedented season-high 60 points in his final career game, leaving no doubt that he left everything he had on the court for good.

He then said goodbye to the game with the best line he could have ever said: “What can I say? Mamba out.”

The little brother

Life was all good for Bryant outside basketball, until that day arrived.

Last January 26, the sports world was shaken to its core after Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash with 8 other people, including his 13-year-old daughter Gigi, while en route to a routine basketball clinic at his Mamba Academy.

Immense shock and grief gripped every sports fan’s heart for nearly a month before it all culminated in a heartbreaking memorial last February 24 at the Staples Center, Bryant’s basketball home for two legendary decades of basketball excellence.

There, for the first time in a long while, the spotlight was thrust back to Jordan.

But this time, the fans saw Jordan not as the basketball god he once was, but as an aging man openly weeping following the loss of a dear friend and competitor.

“Kobe was my dear friend. He was like a little brother,” he said. “Everyone always wanted to talk about the comparisons between him and I. I just wanted to talk about Kobe.”

“All of us have little brothers and little sisters who, for whatever reason, always tend to get in your stuff. It was a nuisance, if I can say that word. But that nuisance turned into love over a period of time just because of the admiration that they had for you as big brothers or big sisters.”

Indeed, for the short amount of time when their careers intertwined, Bryant always sought Jordan’s advice on how to improve his game while at the same time viewed him as a benchmark he needed to clear for himself.

Instead, Bryant, in his own way, carved out a career he could call his own that Jordan ultimately respected. The fire of competition turned into a warmth of brotherly love.

“When Kobe Bryant died, a piece of me died,” Jordan continued through free-flowing tears. “And as I look in this arena and across the globe, a piece of you died, or else you wouldn’t be here. Those are the memories that we have to live with and we learn from.”

“I promise you, from this day forward, I will live with the memories of knowing the little brother that I tried to help in every way I could. Please rest in peace, little brother,” he concluded.

Bryant lived out his early life trying to, as the Gatorade commercial said, “be like Mike.” In the end, he did that and more.

He did not surpass Jordan in his accolades nor in many of his records, but he created another path for others to follow, a path for the less gifted but more determined.

“Mamba Mentality” seeped past the sports world and became a model of determination for the common man to persevere until he no longer could.

Bryant did exactly that. He pushed himself to the utmost limit and gained the respect of everyone around him, including the man he always looked up to.

He described this perseverance best in his poem-turned-Oscar-winning-short film Dear Basketball back in 2015, when he was battling numerous injuries that eventually ended his career.

“My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye. And that’s okay. I’m ready to let you go,” the poem read.

“I want you to know now, so we both can savor every moment we have left together. The good and the bad. We have given each other all that we have.”

Bryant always wanted to be like Mike, and he got more than that. He became Kobe. – Rappler.com

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