Game 7 of the 1999-2000 Western Conference Finals was responsible for turning me into not only a Los Angeles Lakers fan, but also a sports fan in general. After being down by as much as 15 in the fourth quarter, Kobe Bryant tossed an alley-oop to Shaquille O’Neal that sealed the game and kickstarted a dynasty. That happened when I was seven years old. On Sunday I opened my eyes out of a sleepy haze, and woke up to a flurry of text messages. It was the first time I woke up to a world without Kobe Bryant in it. It’s not a sentence I’d expected to type at only 28 years old.
Kobe’s Wide-Ranging Impact
The wide range of people that reached out to me about Kobe’s death spoke volumes about the Mamba’s true impact. Before he retired, we knew he transcended the NBA. But today’s events bring an even clearer lens to the picture. People who weren’t even fans of basketball, or sports in general, felt this story on a different level. To the people of Los Angeles, only Magic Johnson could be in the conversation for a sports figure more beloved. He was the equivalent of our Derek Jeter to New York, our Michael Jackson, our John Lennon.
As I’ve come to grips with fate’s unbelievable twist, I’ve started to ponder what Kobe meant to me as an athlete, a Laker fan, but also as a human being. His death on January 26th brought tears of sorrow in me and countless others. Right now I’m going to focus on the times times that his play brought me tears of joy and inspiration.
Game 7, 2010 NBA Finals, Lakers vs. Celtics
The first one was unexpected. When the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals I bursted into tears of joy. Never has a game been so poorly played, yet so powerfully gripping. Boston held a ten point lead for what felt like the whole game, and the Laker offense was just the worst version of itself in every facet. Each side played with complete desperation, and all that pent up stress came pouring out when Lamar Odom threw the ball downcourt as time expired. Kobe, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, and Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace). The whole Laker team cried with us in that moment.
After the emotions settled down, the thought dawned on me that this may very well end up being my peak as a sports fan. What future situation could be better than seeing this core group of players redeem themselves against the Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA Finals? If this was going to be my fan apex at the ripe age of eighteen years old, then I was totally fine with it.
Bryant’s main detractors used that game as evidence against his greatness. He shot 6 of 24 from the field in a do or die game. He wanted the win so bad, that it led to him forcing the issue. But one thing that often gets lost is that the 6’6 shooting guard channeled that desperate energy into pulling down fifteen rebounds against board-hounding forces the likes of Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, and the block of muscle that was Glen Davis. We’d also be remiss to ignore the fact that Kobe’s season-long brilliance was the reason we were in that position in the first place.
Kobe’s Awe-Inspiring Final Game
The second time I cried was when Kobe scored 60 in the final game of his career. It wasn’t as overwhelming as 2010, but I was hit with an explosion of inspiration as I saw him give more than what I thought possible in his final NBA game. My friend and I didn’t have tickets to the game, but we wanted to be enveloped in the scene at a bar around Staples Center. Turns out, we weren’t the only ones with that idea.
We waited in aimless lines for hours before the game started, only to be told the venues were at capacity. Throughout the night, we made a mad dash through the streets of downtown, grouping up with random squads of Lakers fans, as we just looked for a bar that would either let us in or give us a glimpse of the TV from the outside. We never got in any, but we did manage to find some who graciously set up TVs outside. When the hell ever did you see bars setting up TVs outside? Only for momentous occasions like Super Bowls, World Series, or Kobe’s last game.
The game didn’t start well. Kobe ended up getting buckets in the first half, but the Utah Jazz were a clearly superior playoff team. As a result, the Jazz held firm to a 10ish point lead. If Utah won this last game of the season they’d sneak into the playoff picture. That team was fighting with their season on the line. The Lakers were fighting for pride.
Kobe Bryant’s Final Crunch Time Stand
With less than two minutes remaining the Lakers were down eight, 96-88. Kobe already had 49 points. It’s unfathomably hard to deliver on the hype that comes with Kobe’s name, plus it was his final game ever. Couple that with the fact that he was doing it in his 20th season. After he broke the fifty point mark, everyone in and outside of Staples went into a Kobe-induced frenzy. Not only did he already set a mark for most points ever scored in a final career game, but there was still time for more! On top of that, we we still had a chance to win, and it was coming in a vintage Kobe scoring performance.
Every basket that followed after 50 was a crescendo of basketball euphoria. Another Kobe bucket and the team was only down six….then four….then only down one with under a minute to play. The man who gave every bit of himself to the game was leaving even more out on the floor than we even expected. Not only that, but it was the last chance he’d get to do so.
Forty seconds to go, game on the line and Kobe curls around a screen with the ball in his hand. He steps just inside the three point line, and NAILS a 20-footer for point number 58 and the lead! Two more free throws sealed the 60-piece. He tallied 23 points in the fourth quarter, including 17 straight. Utah tried getting a quick layup with fourteen seconds remaining, but it was no good. Kobe ended up gaining possession of the miss, and tossing a long pass to Jordan Clarkson at the other end for an ice-the-game dunk. For all of the polarizing scoring that he provided, the final stat of his career was an assist.
My friend, me, and the rest of this impromptu Laker gang were jumping up and down in a frenzied street mob. It was almost as if our team won the championship. It’s hard to explain what exactly brought me to tears. I wasn’t alone though. The infamous Maya Angelou quote rings true, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Keeping the Memory of Kobe Bryant Alive
When people pass away, they never really leave us. Their memory lives on in our minds and hearts. Their spirit never dies if those who remain carry on what they stood for. For many, Kobe’s defining trait was his work ethic. He was gifted with talent, but talent without hard work is meaningless.
As an everyday person, hearing the no-excuses way Kobe Bryant spoke about mindset couldn’t help but make you want to work harder and be the best version of yourself. That mentality rubbed off on his contemporaries and mentees alike such as Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kyrie Irving. His post-retirement academies and time spent in USA Basketball showed what them lengths one has to go to hit that next level. We don’t know what exactly he taught them, but on some level we have Kobe to thank for helping today’s stars hone their extra gear.
Everyone experiences self-doubt. Oftentimes it’s the greatest enemy of achievement. Self-doubt is like an ominous phantom standing in your way. You have a choice tough. You can choose to ignore it, downplay it, or confront it head-on. Kobe was the type of person to walk up to that self-doubt, look it right in the eye, and utter a stern, “F— you” as he’d walk on by.
We can honor Kobe’s memory by confronting our fears, pushing through the pain of growth, and challenging ourselves to achieve more than we ever thought possible in our respective crafts. Sport, art, science, or whatever it is. Attack it with Kobe-like focus and resilience. It will not only lead to personal results, but it’ll keep the spirit of Kobe alive in us all.