SINGAPORE – In 1996, a skinny kid from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania entered the league wide-eyed and naïve, with hopes and dreams befit of a rookie.
He was a high school hotshot, and straight out of high school. Opting to skip a college education, he took to the pros in search of glory.
16 years later, Kobe Bryant stands tall, with 5 championship rings on his fingers, and a burning desire to capture that elusive 6th title, the one that would put him on par with the greatest to ever play the game.
In the wake of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s runaway victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 2 of their 2012 Western Conference semi-finals series, Kobe Bryant stands defiant in the face of adversity, like he always has in seasons past.
He’s been in this situation before, with his team’s back against the wall, in a seemingly impossible scenario.
Is the spark gone?
In Game 1, the Thunder shot an unbelievable 53% from the field. It seemed like every shot the Thunder threw up, from Serge Ibaka to Russell Westbrook to Kevin Durant, went in the basket like throwing rocks into the ocean.
The defeat matched the 12th largest defeat in Lakers postseason history and the 6th worst in Bryant’s career. It appeared, that the youth of Oklahoma City would run circles around the tired weary legs of the Purple and Gold.
Fans and critics alike were hailing this as a sign of the end for the Lakers, and for Kobe Bryant.
Yet it’s his championship drive, his never-say-die mentality, his shoot-the-lights-out-of-the-building approach that at times seems to will his team to victory, to push forward against all odds. At 34 years of age, battle-worn, the legs aren’t as fresh as they used to be.
Gone are the days when he’d swoop down the lane, soaring high above defenders for a spectacular finish around the rim. At 34 years old, Bryant is more of a cerebral assassin, making the game more mental than it is physical.
“These young guys are playing checkers. I’m out there playing chess” said Kobe Bryant, borrowing a quote from his father.
Game 2 of the Thunder-Lakers 2012 playoff series was a point made in that direction, with the Lakers unable to answer with a basket of their own in the final 2 minutes of play.
The Lakers had Game 2 in their pocket, but their 7-point lead, the largest lead they’ve held in the series, they let slip away with a couple of questionable plays. It seemed as if, youth, or the lack of it, was once again the culprit.
The spring from Bryant’s legs is gone, that 38” vertical leap is virtually non-existent. But what it has been replaced with is an unparalleled knowledge of the game that can’t be taught, that can only be learned through experience.
He has seen everything there is to see in his 16-year professional career, he’s seen every situation play out on the court or in his mind.
He’s been on the mountain top, battling complacency as much as he’s been down in the trenches, clawing his way back up inch by painstaking inch.
The complete player
Once again the Lakers find themselves in a similar situation, against all odds, against a team that is physically and mentally, to all extents, a better team than they are.
Look back to the Western Conference Finals, circa 2002, when the Los Angeles Lakers battled the Sacramento Kings for the right to move on to the NBA Finals.
The Sacramento Kings, were by all accounts, the better team – a younger, more potent team against the aging Lakers who were hobbled by veteran legs Robert Horry and Rick Fox and an out-of-shape Shaquille O’Neal who had, for all intents and purposes, been content with playing only half of the regular season and only started to ‘get serious’ in the playoffs.
The Lakers upset the Kings in 7 games, winning in Sacramento, on the Kings’ home floor in front of rabid, screaming Kings fans.
Bryant finished with 31 points in a virtuoso performance that perhaps saved the Lakers’ season, and catapulted them into that year’s finals series with the confidence they needed to clinch another world title.
If the Lakers have any hopes of winning Game 3 against the Thunder, Kobe Bryant might have to will them to it. Regardless, Bryant always finds a way to play through it, no matter how impossible things may seem.
When his career is all said and done, when the smoke has cleared and all the bright lights have faded away, he will be compared, as he always has been, to the one and only Michael Jordan.
It comes with the territory, for players of his kind.
All those before him have yielded to the challenge of filling the huge void left by basketball’s demi-god. Penny Hardaway, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill – all names of players post the Jordan-era who have succumbed to the enormous pressure.
Undoubtedly, after Jordan left the NBA, the league, as did the world, yearned for another player similar to his airness – and many players have surfaced, with superhuman leaping ability, an unequalled scoring prowess and that you-can’t-guard-me swag, but none of them, none of them were as complete as Kobe Bryant.
Apart from that you-can’t-guard-me swag, Bryant has that championship-swag, that tear-your-heart-out-from-your-chest swag that’s not present in today’s hoop heroes.
There’s Kevin Durant, the long and prolific scorer who hit the game winning floater Thursday night, May 16 who enabled the raging Thunder to run away with a 2-0 lead heading to Los Angeles.
There’s Derrick Rose, arguably the fastest guard in the league today, capable of reaching zero to a hundred in less than 0.5 seconds.
And then there’s LeBron James, a strong, physical specimen of unparalleled court vision and god-given natural basketball gifts. All players of amazing skill and talent, but none of them possess the all-around complete game of Kobe Bryant.
Durant can score a hundred, if he made enough 3-pointers. Derrick Rose may be able to lead the Bulls to a championship with his uncanny quickness, if he manages to stay healthy long enough. And it’s only a matter of time before LeBron James wins his first one, this year being the perfect opportunity, yet he seems perfectly fine with passing the responsibility of carrying the Heat to teammate Dwayne Wade.
James was never one to shoulder the weight of being “the man.” He doesn’t seem to be able to handle pressure very well – the very reason he left Cleveland for the star-studded Miami Heat.
Bryant stares pressure in the face and defies it.
Once in a lifetime
The basketball gods have been kind to Kobe, blessing him with physical gifts and an off-the-charts basketball IQ. He has that superstar quality that transcends the sport and magnifies it, something we may never be able to see again, ever.
As we wind down his long and glorious, 16 year NBA career, one that saw him win 5 NBA titles, 2 NBA Finals MVP’s, 2 scoring titles, a regular season MVP and a slam dunk contest — a career that included the 2nd best scoring performance in NBA history, scoring 81 points in a single game against the Toronto Raptors back in 2006, we reminisce at what once was.
That skinny kid out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania turned out to be just fine after all.
Down 0-2 and heading back to Los Angeles, a city that never turned its back on him even through the tough and turmoil, we have to keep in mind that Kobe Bryant has been here before.
Maybe not in the same place, maybe not in the same venue, but somehow, somewhere, Kobe has seen what will unfold on Saturday when the Lakers look to defend home court in Game 3 against the potent offense of the Thunder.
And when everything’s over, win or lose, Kobe Bryant will live on.
He may never win another championship, though that’s more speculation than fact – and don’t bet your house on it. But the fact of the matter is, we will never see another Kobe Bryant.
As Kobe goes, so goes the legend of the Black Mamba. We may have been lucky, our generation, to witness such amazing talent in a basketball era when everyone needed a hero – even luckier than our parents were with Michael Jordan. – Rappler.com
Click on the links below for more.
- NBA Preview: Eastern Conference Finals, Heat vs. Celtics
- NBA Preview: Western Conference Finals, Spurs vs. Thunder
- NBA: Celtics down Sixers, faces Miami
- Durant, Bryant, James make up All-NBA First Team