By Dan Love
I am going to preface what I am about to say by stating that I am in no means a Kobe Bryant fan.
From the day he announced he would be skipping college and “taking his talents” straight to the NBA, I did not like the guy. I detested Bryant’s meteoric rise to the top of the NBA as he, along with Shaquille O’Neal, catapulted the L.A. Lakers’ mini-dynasty to three consecutive NBA Championships from 2000-2002. I abhorred everything about The Mamba; from the goofy way he grew his hair his first couple of years in the league to his borderline-creepy Adidas commercials.
I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was the arrogant manner in which he carried himself; the way he openly compared himself to His Airness. Maybe it was the ’98 All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden, Michael Jordan’s final All-Star Game (’02 and ’03 with the Wizards never happened), where Kobe bent over backwards to steal the show on a night Jordan’s greatness was supposed to be celebrated, not challenged by a punk kid who couldn’t crack the starting lineup of his own team. On the other hand, maybe it is merely as simple as me having to wear #8 during that basketball season, because they did not have the numbers I wanted in my size. Either way, Kobe was front and center in Dan Love’s Burn Book.
Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the rapid fall of Kobe Bryant after the 2003 season. After the Lakers disintegrated in the ’03 playoffs, the wheels fell off shortly after Bryant underwent knee surgery in Colorado. We all know what happened there. On top of the rape charges against him, Kobe’s feud with Shaq O’Neal reached new levels as the two exchanged verbal blows in the media. Despite troubles off the court, Bryant’s Lakers loaded up, reached the NBA Finals and were heavily favored to win their fourth title in five years. The Lakers imploded during the Finals against the Pistons that year, however. Kobe and his ego, somehow, managed to make the most dominant force in the league, The Big Bitterstotle, a non-factor leading to a four games to one embarrassment at the hands of Detroit.
Kobe Bryant’s career and reputation continued to take a Tony Montana-like turn for the worse that off-season, as he strong-armed the Lakers organization into sending both Shaq and Coach Phil Jackson packing. Kobe had officially claimed his place as “The Man” in Los Angeles. Yet, with Phil Jackson in temporary retirement and Shaq in Miami leading the Heat to the Eastern Conference Finals, “The Man” failed to take the Lakers to the playoffs for the first time in his career. On top of that, the more likable and more popular LeBron James was challenging Kobe’s status as “The Next Jordan.” Some even wondered if Kobe was nothing more than just another Vince Carter or Tracy McGrady without Shaq at his side. Kobe Bryant’s career had hit a low point, and, you wanna know something? I loved every single millisecond of it.
That began to change January 22, 2006.
What Kobe did that night, scoring 81 (EIGHTY-FREAKING-ONE!) points against the Toronto Raptors, was, without a doubt, the sickest thing I have ever seen.
Seriously, the guy scored 81 points. That is not a typo; he really scored 81, including 55 in the second half. Does that even make sense? Kobe does realize that he was playing in the NBA against professional athletes, not 5’5” pimple-faced-high-school-sophomores, right? Kobe’s 81 points is the second highest single-game scoring output in NBA history— trailing only Wilt Chamberlain’s almost mythical 100-point game in 1962. Of course, the 7’1” Chamberlain, while immensely talented, played in an era in which Damon Stoudamire would be considered a legitimate NBA center. Meanwhile, Kobe is a perimeter player relying on 100% raw talent and skill to score his points.
The truly sick thing about the 81-point game is that I am not 100% convinced he can’t score 81 (or more) again. We will completely forget this now, but Kobe’s first 60-point game came a few weeks prior to 81 when he dropped 62 through three quarters against Dallas. Had he decided to play the fourth quarter of that night’s blowout win, does anyone doubt he would have scored 80 or more that night?
That’s the thing about The Black Mamba; you never quite know what to expect, but you are never quite shocked. Am I impressed that he has averaged over 58 per game in the past three? Darn skippy. Am I in the least bit surprised? Not at all.
It has become obvious that the Lakers can’t win a game unless Kobe chucks it up close to 40 times a game, so is there any reason 60, 70 or even 80 doesn’t happen again this season; especially down the stretch when the Lakers (and by “the Lakers”, I really just mean Kobe) will have to do everything in their power to stay in the playoff race? Am I the only one genuinely thrilled with the possibilities?
Ironically, Kobe’s 81-point outburst came just hours before my homeboy, Steve, and I argued over which player we would most want on our basketball team. Steve chose LeBron, and I think I went with Tony Parker, simply for the Eva Longoria Factor. I am kidding, of course (well… kind of). Anyway, Kobe was quickly dismissed as a headache who shoots too much, and someone who couldn’t lead a team from one side of a street to the other.
After that night’s epic performance, and performances that followed, however, my mind is made up. I would not take any player in the league over Kobe Bean Bryant. I don’t care if he is a ball hog, if he is egotistical, arrogant, somewhat insecure or more obsessed with his place in history than with winning another ring— and he is all of those things, by the way— if the Chicago Bulls somehow acquired him today, I would drive to Chicago and roll out the red carpet myself. Love him or hate him— and I still somewhat hate him— Kobe Bryant is the best player in basketball right now. Period. How do I know this? Just prior to last year’s Suns series, when it became evident that Steve Nash was probably going to beat out Kobe for league MVP, the aforementioned Steve (who’s claim to fame prior to this post was that he allegedly dunked on LeBron James during an AAU game only to have LeBron return the favor… three times… I digress…) dropped this text message beauty on me:
“If Kobe does not win MVP this year there is an 80% chance he goes for 90 in a game next year. Like if they vote Nash over Kobe I think he may just grows horns and snake fangs, and go off for 350 points in a 4-game series sweep of the Suns every year for the next three years. I don’t know about you, but I want to see 90. Steve Nash for MVP!”
The sad part is that I kinda’ sorta’ almost agreed. I knew that 90, while extremely unlikely, was not entirely out of the question. Now what player, other than 2011 Kevin Durant, can ignite legitimate thoughts of 9-0. As a basketball fan and appreciator of true greatness, I feel like Wes Mantooth at the end of “Anchorman”; I even considered giving Kobe a kiss on the forehead (OK, not really).
I did not realize this at the time, well, maybe I did, and simply chose not to acknowledge it, but maybe that All-Star Game in NYC was not a going away party; it was a passing of the torch.
And maybe, just maybe, in an All-Star Game a few years from now, we will look on as some other young punk attempts to rip the torch from the greatest player to ever lace up a pair of Nikes.
At this point, I am willing to believe anything.