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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Kobe Bryant's Journey

In March 2020, I received an email from Japanese journalist/editor Takeshi Shibata asking me to contribute an article for a Kobe Bryant Tribute magazine that he would be publishing. I submitted the article in English, he translated it into Japanese, and the magazine was published in April 2020. Due to COVID-19, the delivery of my copy of the magazine was delayed for well over a year, and I just received it yesterday. The magazine is beautiful, as you can see by looking at the front and back cover photos:

I would like to publicly thank Roland Lazenby for recommending me to Takeshi Shibata. I hope that my contribution is worthy of that recommendation, and that it will help people to remember and appreciate what made Kobe Bryant so great and so beloved. I am not fluent in Japanese, and I assume that most of my readers are not, either, but here is the English text of my contribution, entitled "Kobe Bryant's Journey":

Kobe Bryant followed an improbable and unusual path to becoming an all-time NBA great. Kobe's father Joe "Jellybean" Bryant played eight seasons in the NBA before finishing his professional basketball career in Italy. Therefore, Kobe learned the game in a different environment than most American players; he played for a youth team in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and he felt a lifelong bond with that city. In a 2016 interview, Bryant said—in Italian—"My story began here," referring to Reggio Emilia.

After Joe Bryant's playing career ended, he and his family moved back to the United States. Kobe attended Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia. "Lower Merion and everything associated with it made me who I am," Kobe declared during his final NBA season. 

As a senior, Bryant led Lower Merion to 30 straight wins, a 31-3 overall record, and the school's first state championship since 1943. Bryant scored 2823 points during his high school career, breaking Wilt Chamberlain's Southeast Pennsylvania state record that had stood since the 1950s. 

Bryant jumped straight from high school to the NBA. The Lakers' Jerry West moved up in the draft to take Bryant after he saw Bryant destroy former NBA Defensive Player of the Year Michael Cooper in a workout. West also traded for Shaquille O'Neal, thus acquiring the two superstars who would soon lead the Lakers to three straight championships. 

However, the road to glory was not smooth. The Lakers lost 4-1 to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 1997 playoffs, and they were swept 4-0 in 1998 and 1999. 

Bryant won the Slam Dunk Contest as a rookie in 1997, and he became the youngest NBA All-Star starter ever in 1998. Bryant's scoring average climbed from 7.6 ppg to 15.4 ppg to 19.9 ppg during his first three seasons, but the hiring of Phil Jackson as head coach in 1999 signified the beginning of a new era. In Jackson's first year with the Lakers, Bryant averaged 22.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, and 4.9 apg while earning his first selections to the All-NBA Second Team and the All-Defensive First Team. 

Bryant played a major role in the 2000 playoffs as the Lakers captured their first championship since 1988; he had 25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, and four blocked shots—leading the Lakers in all four categories--in an 89-84 game seven win over Portland in the Western Conference Finals. 

O'Neal and Bryant led the Lakers to the next two titles, joining George Mikan's Lakers (1952-54), Bill Russell's Boston Celtics (1959-66) and the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen Bulls (1991-93; 1996-98) as the only NBA teams to win at least three championships in a row. 

The Lakers fell short of the NBA Finals in 2003. The 2004 season was challenging for Bryant and the Lakers in many ways, and the final chapter of the O'Neal-Bryant partnership ended with a loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals. Prior to the next season, the Lakers traded O'Neal to the Miami Heat. 

The Lakers did not make the playoffs in 2005, but Bryant led the team to the playoffs each of the next two seasons despite playing alongside a very weak supporting cast. 

Those seasons were very frustrating for Bryant, but from an individual, statistical standpoint he reached a level that few other players in pro basketball history ever approached. 

The words "not since Wilt Chamberlain" or "not since Michael Jordan" appeared regularly in game recaps describing Bryant's incredible scoring feats. Phil Jackson summarized one of those games by writing "Kobe 62, Dallas 61" on his clipboard: in just three quarters of a December 20, 2005 game, Bryant singlehandedly outscored the eventual Western Conference champions! 

On January 22, 2006, Bryant torched the Toronto Raptors for 81 points, the NBA single-game scoring record for everyone not named Wilt Chamberlain. Bryant's January 2006 production earned a place in the record books as he averaged 43.4 ppg. That was the highest scoring calendar month by an NBA player since Chamberlain averaged 45.8 ppg in March 1963. 

On November 30, 2006, Bryant scored 52 points in a 132-102 win against the Utah Jazz, and he had a perfect third quarter; he tied his team record by scoring 30 points, and he did not miss a shot: 9-9 from the field, 10-10 from the free throw line. 

In the wake of this astounding performance, ESPN's Ric Bucher wrote: "How many times must Kobe demonstrate that no one in the league--and I mean no one--has his combination of skill, tenacity, understanding of time and score, killer instinct and ability to control the game at both ends? And how many times must I be the one taking the flag and waving it? Trust me, if you're sick of me sticking up for Kobe, I'm equally sick of having to do it. It shouldn't be this difficult to have the man recognized as the league's all-around best player. OK, so you don't like him. I'm good with that. But not respect him? Not give him his due? Anoint anyone who hasn't accomplished half of what he has as The King or The One or The Whatever?" 

After first round playoff losses in 2006 and 2007, the Lakers started the 2008 season 30-16 before acquiring Pau Gasol. The Lakers finished with the best record in the Western Conference, 57-25. Bryant won his first and only regular season MVP before leading the Lakers to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics. 

That summer, Bryant led Team USA—the "Redeem Team"—to an Olympic gold medal, a tremendous turnaround from the squad's disappointing performances in recent FIBA events. Bryant scored 13 points and dished for two assists in the fourth quarter of the gold medal game as Team USA defeated Spain, 118-107. 

Bryant led the Lakers to back to back titles in 2009-10, earning two Finals MVPs. The game seven victory against the Boston Celtics in the 2010 Finals probably meant more to Bryant than any other game. 

The Lakers lost in the second round of the playoffs in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, Bryant ruptured his Achilles late in the season as he tried to singlehandedly push, pull, and drag the Lakers into the playoffs—the Lakers made it, but Bryant missed the postseason due to the injury. He was never completely healthy during the final three seasons of his career, playing in just 107 of 242 possible games. 

Bryant’s 60 point outburst versus Utah in the final game of his career would have been a remarkable accomplishment under any circumstances, but his age (37), his physical struggles, and his limitations at that stage of his career further elevate that performance. 

Many athletes struggle mentally, emotionally, and even financially after they stop playing sports, but Bryant thrived in what turned out to be a short but very meaningful post-NBA life: he won an Academy Award in 2018 for producing the autobiographical animated short film "Dear Basketball," he served as a mentor to many young NBA players, he became an outspoken advocate for women’s sports, and—most significantly—he fully embraced his role as a father to his four daughters.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM



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