Wednesday 14 April —a night for the history books? Whilst the Warriors surpassing the 1995-96 Bulls NBA win record, securing a 73 game winning streak (and accruing only 9 losses), was truly momentous, it was eclipsed by someone and something else. It trended on social media with the simple statement #MambaOut. Kobe Bryant concluded his 20 year NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers by defeating Utah Jazz. Yes. He defeated Utah. In 42:09 minutes of playing time he notched 60 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists. No player has ever scored more than 50 points in their final game in the league. Despite the Lakers going 17-65 this season, this game celebrated a man who epitomises the very essence of that purple and gold jersey. It was Kobe’s game, Kobe’s night— one that will certainly endure in basketball history.
So what of his legacy? Already, NBA and ESPN have published numerous reels: replaying Kobe’s first (as a 18 year old rookie from high school) and final shots, his 10 greatest NBA plays and the 36 different jerseys he suited up in throughout his playing career. Yet why (as Los Angeles Times Columnist Bill Plaschke puts it), is he deemed to be ‘the most polarising figure in the history of sports’. Personal life aside, on court, statistical debates persist over his efficiency and production. But, as Bryant has laced up his boots and stepped onto the court for the final time, isn’t it time to accept that he was unique and brought his own philosophy to the game?
Whether the regular season, play-offs or finals, Kobe exemplified a persistency, drive and undying commitment that is characteristic of so many elite athletes. He never gave up. He wanted to be better (probably to be the best). He demanded everything and more from his teammates. In a recent exit interview he reflected on his path: “I’m thankful. I’m not sad at all. I left no stone unturned, I gave everything to the game for 20 years in the NBA and more before that. So I feel very thankful to be able to play this game this long.” How can we criticise this man’s determination? The duality of Kobe’s stats is heavily scrutinised by media and even some basketball fans. For some he was the hero, for significant others, the villain.
But let’s give credit where credit is due. He pledged his allegiance to Los Angeles Lakers for the entirety of his NBA career. He guided the team to the euphoric heights of championship glory (five times) and remained equally committed throughout the tumultuous periods, when the playoffs remained that distant speck on the horizon. The rings were not solely his defining feature. He was Season MVP once, NBA Finals MVP twice and an NBA All-star 18-times. He even surpassed Michael Jordan, taking third place for the most career points amassed in NBA History (33,464). Despite this, people continue to feed off his dark side. They stress that he, out of all NBA players, has tallied the highest number of missed shots. He was berated for the feud which saw Shaquille O’Neal traded to Miami Heat in 2004, whilst he was re-signed as a free agent. And his statement in summer 2007 demanding a trade—“At this point, I’ll go play on Pluto”— was not taken as a sign of his frustration at the Laker’s subpar season, but his desire to excel somewhere else. It’s time we move on from this narrative.
As Plaschke stated: ‘As the most polarising figure in the history of Los Angeles sport, Bryant was different things to different people. But his greatest strength was that, hero or villain, he was always true to himself’. Bryant can serve as a sporting inspiration for people around the globe. He taught us that there are no limits for the love of the game. His retirement poem (yes he announced it by verse), on November 29, 2015 epitomises this. ‘Dear Basketball,’ he wrote. ‘I played through the sweat and hurt Not because challenge called me, but because YOU called me. I did everything for YOU, because that’s what you do. When someone makes you feel as alive as you’ve made me feel’ For many, Kobe’s career looked so certain to draw to an abrupt close, when in 2013, he tore his achilles against the Golden State Warriors. He dropped 34 points that game, but that’s beside the point. With 3.08 on the clock, Bryant dropped to the floor mid-dribble. Timeout was called. Kobe accepted Pau Gasol’s help to the sideline, but refused to heed his trainer or coaches warnings. When that buzzer went, he limped to the free throw line, put two points on the board and walked to the locker room unassisted. What, I hear your say? He had just completely torn his achilles tendon. Yet, even through extreme physical pain, basketball still came first.
That was the situation on April 12, 2013. Now on April 13 2016, his legacy has been set in stone. As Magic Johnson stated in the pregame address: “He’s the greatest to wear the purple and gold”. So what can we make of a Kobe’s illustrious career. Perhaps we can concede that the good most definitely outweighed the bad. In Nike’s Farewell Tribute Advert, Kobe is seen to be conducting a ‘Symphony of Haters’. The resounding message, what he wants the world to know, is that… you’ve got to ‘Always love the hate’. On April 13 Kobe had the final say. He commandeered his own triumphs. I wish to conclude with a statement issued by the NBA, which admires everything that Kobe brought to the court: “Thank you. Thank you for showing us that 24 is not just the number on your jersey, but the number of hours in a day you must devote to basketball to be the best. Thank you for giving and giving. Thank you for your endless drive. For competing with ruthless ambition, and playing with reverence and respect. Thank you for making us smile, laugh, yell, cry, jump out of our seats, and chew on our jerseys. Thank you for playing the game the way it was meant to be played.’ It seems to me like there may be some lessons to learn from no. 24.