With Kobe Bryant becoming the fifth and fastest player in NBA history to score 30,000 points, Dime is looking at all angles of the five-time champion’s career today. (Hey, we already called him the greatest player since 2000.) It’s equal parts celebration and examination of one of the NBA’s most polarizing and talented players in history.
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The first NBA jersey my Mom bought me was No. 8’s.
It was fifth grade and as the last of my friends on our elementary school’s basketball team in L.A. to get one, I knew it was mandatory. Over a decade later, you still see more people walking around SoCal wearing No. 8 rather than the more recent No. 24 jerseys.
That’s because we’ve been with Kobe from the beginning. Baby-face fresh out of high school and then the ‘fro, beginning. We watched him grow up, too. And like any parent, we went through different periods of pride, disappointment, admiration and frustration.
Even those who aren’t from here are greeted with a big picture of him upon first arriving at the baggage terminal at L.A. International Airport that says, “Welcome to L.A.”
And whether you wished that he would give up the ball more or demanded that he score every time he catches the ball, you know that Kobe Bryant is L.A. He’s ours.
People who love and hate him share common ground, however: They respect him. I spent my first year of college in Portland and remember watching a Lakers game with some guys who were die-hard Blazers fans and equally die-hard Kobe haters. We all fell for Kobe’s upfakes while sitting on the couch. One, two, three fakes — Kobe then ducked his shoulder into his defender and drew the foul at the elbow. The shot went in. After coming back down from the air, the defender shook his head because he knew it was coming.
We all knew it was coming. My friends begrudgingly shook their head too — all they could do was respect him.
Even when we don’t know what’s coming — like when Kobe switched the ball from his right to left hand in midair in Jordan-like fashion in 2009 against the Magic on a double-clutch runner in the lane, and still banked it in — we have no choice but to respect it.
In a league where a pinky sprain can keep a player out for a month, you can respect the way Kobe plays through injuries. And still drops 40.
He made 40 the new normal. If he scores a cool 22, people downtown worry: “What’s wrong with him?” He made us raise our standards, so much so that after every loss this year L.A. is ready to riot because the Lakers are not going to go 82-0 this season.
We’ve lost ourselves in Kobe’s fadeaway pullup jumpers for so many years now that we’ve forgotten that he was an incredibly polarizing figure midway through his career.
Colorado seems a distant memory. Chants of “ballhog” are faint. Shaq became a TNT analyst. Half of SoCal desperately wanted Phil Jackson back to coach this season after Mike Brown’s firing. Jackson was one of many people who called Kobe “uncoachable,” a label Kobe addressed in this 2005 Nike ad, the first since the sexual assault allegations:
“You failed.” 1,000 made jumpers.
“Selfish.” Curls 15 x 3.
“Uncoachable.” Triceps 15 x 4.
“No more rings.” Suicides x 3.
At a crossroads in his career, Kobe put the ball in the basket so many times not only to will his team to rings, but so you wouldn’t see anything else in his life but the net.
Not many high-profile players have been able to shift public opinion as quickly as Kobe did. Not even the way LeBron’s image is currently doing a 180. Kobe knew winning was the only thing that mattered.
L.A. fans mourned after 2008′s 131-92 Finals Game 6 loss to Boston for the title. It hurt. People still rode around in their cars the next day displaying their yellow and purple Laker flags and other team memorabilia on the antennas, but this city didn’t accept failure.
Two rings later, Figueroa Street is still waiting for a parade. Waiting, even, is too modest. L.A. expects it. Demands it. And won’t let Kobe retire until they get it.
What do you think of Kobe’s effect on L.A.?
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