Spearheaded by a recent interview (and an amazing highlight clip) captivating my brain over a long weekend (where I was subjected to cold meds, Kleenex tissues and hot tea), I felt like sharing a story about my one-time fixation with the man featured in the picture above. No, I won't begin to bore you with overzealous stats and accolades by one of the greatest players of our generation (okay, maybe I will), nor will I share my opinion on where I feel Mr. Bryant ranks on the G.OA.T. list. Quite frankly, if he doesn't care about where he's placed on an opinion-based list (where there is really no true way of finding out who the best are), why should I? But what I will share, is how I unequivocally convinced myself I'd become the second-coming of one Mr. Kobe Bean Bryant, as we gear up for what could be his induction into the basketball Hall of Fame this summer.
Let's be perfectly clear: I wasn't all the way sold on this guy. In fact, at the onset of Kobe's NBA career (and somewhere along the middle), I couldn't stand him. I'll admit, there was a bit of jealously sprinkled in there. I mean, here was a kid, only a couple of years older than me, about to take the league by storm, insisting on playing for the LOS ANGELES LAKERS (as legend would have it, his party demanded an immediate trade from the Charlotte Hornets - the team who would draft him with the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft - for the glitz and glamour of L.A.). The nerves of this guy!
Personally, I didn't think the Lakers needed Kobe or Shaquille O'Neal (a free agent at the time who also had his sights set on Hollywood). I'd grown fond of a young Lakers' team - dubbed 'The Lake Show' - led by the resurgence of the 1991 Slam Dunk champ Cedric Ceballos, the nifty Nick Van Exel, Vlade Divac and the ultra-talented Eddie Jones, who were all slowly making a name for themselves.
Why would they trade for some high school kid who could potentially steal minutes away from fan favorite, Eddie Jones, or worse, potentially hinder Kobe's growth?
Moreover, I didn't appreciate Bryant's blatant attempt at trying to become the next Michael Jordan (which he would vehemently deny); from his bald head (okay, so the bald head was quite stylish for black men during the early to mid 90s, but so what!), his on-court playing style (sprinkled in with a little streetball), the placement of his knee sleeve (even adding a slight fold to it like MJ), his mannerisms, down to sticking out his tongue when dunking the basketball... ala the one, the ONLY, the G.O.A.T., Michael Jordan!
Bryant had seemingly entered the league with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder, oozing a rare cockiness unseen from an unproven player. Who TF does this guy think he is? But my opinion of Kobe shifted following his '96-'97 rookie campaign, which ended with the Lower Merion H.S. product shooting multiple air balls down the stretch in a crucial playoff road game against the Utah Jazz; putting an end to the Lakers season. His critics grew overnight, unwilling to cut slack to a kid who carried the swagger of a 10-year vet, yet played like an 18 year-old when it mattered most. I genuinely felt bad for him, but the criticism had a reverse effect. During the summer of '97, he'd go through a transformation of sorts; growing out his hair (sporting a mini afro which I quickly gravitated towards), and despite being mocked, ridiculed and singled out as the player responsible for their loss to the Jazz in the prior season, he entered his 2nd season with a newfound confidence. Soon, he'd become the Lakers 6th man (first player typically called off of the bench), making an immediate impact. Fans at the old Great Western Forum- young and old, rose to their feet in unison upon Bryant's entrance into the game, as legendary Lakers P.A. announcer Lawrence Tanter announced his name with his familiar monotone voice. Excitement grew, with scores of fans anticipating Bryant's flashy play, making the Lakers must-see-TV. It was an amazing spectacle for the 16 year-old me, watching the NBA on NBC telecast over the weekend, pondering the thought of whether I'd make it to the pros someday.
As Bryant's playing time grew, so did the bevy of supporters. Before long, the Lakers had a future star on their hands. I quickly took heed, growing my hair out to resemble Kobe's, recording every interview conducted; from in-game to late-night talk shows, EVEN purchasing a pair of ADIDAS sneakers (his sneaker sponsor at the time) for the first time in my life. As a lifelong Nike fan, that was HUGE! All for the allure of mirroring a dude I thought was the greatest thing since sliced bread (I'd pull this stunt twice before with a couple of NBA childhood heroes - Penny Hardaway and Scottie Pippen, but I was closer in age to Kobe, and found some other silly detail about him to justify my claim that I was his long lost bro).
Surprisingly, I didn't want to 'be like Mike' or play like Kobe. Orlando's version of Penny Hardaway, the Bulls Scottie Pippen and Magic Johnson were the players I opted for anytime I stepped foot onto the court. However, 'rookie Kobe' was a clear underdog. I've always rooted for those types. Little did we know this "underdog" would go on to have an illustrious 20 year career which saw 5 NBA titles, a league MVP award, a couple of scoring titles and a crap load of All-Star appearances/All-Star MVP's. But the icing on the cake would have to be his candidacy into the Basketball Hall of Fame. We'll soon find out if he gets in (I would bet the house that he does), but here's to an amazing talent and an even amazing career, as I take a trip down memory lane.