Kobe

My favorite nickname of his was “Vino.”

While a lot of moments come to mind when I think of Kobe, one of my favorite moments came in Kobe’s 17th season, as he reinvented himself and began to show the world that he could indeed get better with age.

On March 30, 2013, the 37-36 Lakers traveled to Sacramento, clinging onto their playoff hopes after starting the year as one of the league’s title favorites. Season from hell notwithstanding, watching Kobe that year was a truly remarkable experience. After he was named to first-team all-defense as recently as 2011, Kobe didn’t play a lick of defense anymore. His legs were gone, but he still played heavy minutes and he was in the middle of his most efficient offensive season since 2009. At this point, his patented 15-foot fadeaway jumper from the left elbow had matured from a bail-out, gunslinger move to a true work of art.

That Laker team, however, was an absolute mess. They powered through three coaches and started a young gentleman by the name of Earl Clark ahead of Pau Gasol at the four for much of the season. By March, they had really mastered the art of losing to inferior opponents. I remember shattering a clipboard after a December loss to the moribund Cleveland Cavaliers. It was finals week. Notes were scattered everywhere, but Alonzo Gee played 40 minutes for that Cavs team. I was upset.

March 30 was no different, as the Kings closed the first quarter with a 37-25 lead. Steve Nash got hurt (again) and I could feel the playoff hopes slipping away. But even with how awful and annoying this team was, I had hope. Because of Kobe, obviously.

With about eight minutes left in the second quarter, Kobe passed half quart, crossed over to his left into what appeared to be an open lane to the hoop. As the entire defense (yes, he still had everyone’s attention at age 34) shifted their eyes to him, he pulled up, again from 15 feet. Good.

The Sacramento crowd, who had every reason to hate this mother fuc*%r, cheered. Kobe had just passed Wilt Chamberlain for fourth all-time on the NBA scoring list.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, right, shoots over Sacramento Kings forward John Salmons during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Saturday, March 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Now, I could write about how Kobe’s impact on the game traversed the borders of fandom, but if you’re reading this you already know that. Love him or hate him, he was relevant. He was as respected as any player in history, even with his complicated past. But that’s not why I remember this game.

I remember sitting in my college apartment watching this game on my laptop because of what Kobe did to bring this team back and win. He didn’t go on one of his usual scoring runs in this one. In fact, he shot 5-18 from the field and was largely inefficient, at least by today’s standards. With Nash out (and I emphasize, again), Kobe took over in a role that was not-so-typical of the scoring maestro: de‑facto point guard.

Kobe played all but 23 seconds of this game, playing through a painful bone spur in his left foot. Today, that would be nothing short of a cardinal sin when you consider the era of “load management” that we live in. He spent most of it visibly frustrated with his team’s lack of urgency. No other Laker hardly dribbled as he absolutely pounded the rock into the ground, patiently waiting for chances to set‑up his teammates.

For me, it was those little subtleties that set Kobe apart: the visible frustration, the competitiveness, how his jumper in the later years always barely made it over the outstretched hands of his much younger defenders, playing through injury, and how he always seemed to find a way to get the job done, ugly stat line and all. With 11 second-half assists, he and the much-maligned 2013 vintage of Dwight Howard willed the Lakers back in what would amount to be one of LA’s biggest road wins of the season. Vino had done it again.

The victory started a run of the Lakers winning eight of their last nine games to make the playoffs. Unfortunately, this run was interrupted with what many fans would remember about his 2013 season: The torn Achilles, followed by him staying in the game, limping to the free throw line and calmly (though obviously in pain, likely knowing his season is over) drilling the two free throws to tie a must-win game against the Warriors. No, not those Warriors, but they were getting there. That moment can only be described as Vintage Kobe. We all foolishly thought that would be his last great moment as a Laker. We all now know that it wasn’t.

Now that it’s all over, it is difficult to summarize Kobe’s accomplishments. His devotion to his family was well documented. It’s what makes the conclusion of his story the most heartbreaking as one could imagine, as he leaves three daughters and a wife behind while losing a 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, in the process. Even as someone who lost a parent this past year, I cannot imagine what his family and those close to him are feeling right now. I’m simply not close enough to the situation to elaborate further on it. My heart goes out to the families of those who lost their lives in this tragic helicopter crash.

Despite obviously not knowing Kobe on a personal level, he was a part of my life. I grew up watching him, thinking him and Shaq to be superhuman. I’m still not at all convinced that they weren’t back in the early 2000’s. His impact on my life can certainly be measured, but his impact on the game of basketball and the lives he touched cannot. On the court, he displayed a work ethic not seen before and never to be seen again. Off the court, he spent his retirement fully invested in his family while working on several projects in film and entertainment. As a friend of mine so aptly put yesterday, “He attacked life.”

Needless to say, I am going to spend the next few weeks running a few extra miles, studying a few extra hours and pushing myself a little harder to be better. Attacking life, because that’s what Kobe would want everyone to do. I don’t intend to let him down.

 

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