Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: Of all the things that I dislike in this world, hindsight bias might just be my single biggest pet peeve, especially in sports. I hate when fans use what they know now to ridicule decisions from the past, like when they criticize the Portland Trail Blazers for taking Greg Oden first overall in the 2007 NBA Draft, or when they laugh at the Washington Wizards because they took Kwame Brown first in the 2001 Draft.
Why does it bother me so much? Well, at the time, those were just the right picks to make. In 2007, for example, the Trail Blazers were in desperate need of a center and Oden was widely-believed to be the best all-around player in the draft, making him a no-brainer at No. 1 overall. Nobody could have possibly known that he would need approximately 827 knee operations while Kevin Durant would be busy winning three consecutive scoring titles, quickly becoming one of the game’s best young talents.
Similarly, when remembering the 1996 NBA Draft and realizing that 12 players were drafted before Kobe Bryant, it’s hard to really rip into the teams and general managers that passed on him. However, just for the heck of it, let’s take a look at the guys who made up those first 12 picks: Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, Antoine Walker, Lorenzen Wright, Kerry Kittles, Samaki Walker, Erick Dampier, Todd Fuller, and Vitaly Potapenko, in that order. Iverson and Ray Allen each had great careers for the most part, but it’s almost impossible to believe that Kobe Bean Bryant was overlooked for those 12 players.
But, really, could it have happened any other way? I, for one, think it was so fitting that he fell into the middle of the first round. Kobe has always been someone to use every doubter as extra motivation, and I guarantee that the 1996 NBA Draft has fueled him during his time in the league.
After those 12 picks, the Los Angeles Lakers traded Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the 13th pick, the one that was used to draft Bryant. Kobe Bryant for Vlade Divac? Forget calling that a steal, it was flat out highway robbery. As we all know, Kobe would go on to become one of the 10 best players in league history, stockpiling accolade after accolade and helping lead the Lakers to five NBA championships. Oh, and as he turns 35 years old today, he still isn’t done. During this past season—his 17th in the league—Kobe was nothing short of vintage Kobe, averaging 27 points and six assists per game throughout the year.
And, despite the fact that Bryant tore his Achilles against the Warriors in April, it probably wouldn’t be too smart to bet against him coming back as strong as ever in his 18th NBA season. It would just be one more accomplishment for him to add to his laundry list of moments that have defined him as a basketball player and as an athlete.
Speaking of that list, let’s dive right into it and take a look at the top 20 of his career-defining moments since he entered the league in 1996. Here we go:
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20. April 12, 2013: Bryant makes two free throws moments after tearing his Achilles
I watched the entirety of this Lakers-Warriors game live, and seeing Kobe fall down and subsequently tear his Achilles in the fourth quarter was one of the worst things I’ve ever witnessed since I began following sports. And, no, that is in no way an engagement in hyperbole.
Sure, there have been plenty of other injuries to superstars, many much worse than a torn Achilles, but this was Kobe Bryant. It wasn’t supposed to happen to him.
Worst of all was seeing the look on his face—a look that showed everyone just how bad his injury was. Even though he has always been one of the best at disregarding injuries, he knew he couldn’t play through this one. It was a look that said knew he was done, done for a long time.
He could barely walk, but somehow he managed to stay in the game and knock down each of his two free throws, tying the score at 109 before slowly limping off the court.
Seeing Kobe make those free throws left me speechless. Granted, I was watching the game alone, but you get the idea. This was the ultimate competitor, and even on one leg he was able to help his team win the game.
To say that the free throws were inspirational wouldn’t even come close to capturing the level of emotions that could be felt in that instant. Kobe Bryant was just a fighter.
19. 2004: Performances on same day as court appearances
While fighting a sexual assault case against him during the 2003-04 NBA season, Bryant faced the difficult task of having to juggle playing basketball with making appearances in court.
It’s fair to say that most players in the NBA, and most athletes for that matter, would have seen a vast decline in the quality of their performances, but not Kobe Bryant, one of the mentally-toughest players that the sport has ever seen.
Even when he had court appearances and games on the same day, Bryant found ways to stay energized and put forth some of the most memorable showings of his career.
On December 19, 2003, for instance, Bryant spent most of his day in a Colorado courtroom, only to return to Los Angeles that night for the Lakers game with the Denver Nuggets. He came off the bench in the second quarter and finished with subpar statistics of 13 points and five assists, but as fate would have it, the night saw the most fitting ending of all—a game-winner by Bryant himself.
With two seconds remaining, Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony hit two free throws to tie the game at 99, and on the ensuing Lakers’ possession, Kobe hit the fadeaway jumper at the buzzer to end it.
Over four months later, Bryant and the Lakers found themselves in the postseason as the second-seeded team in the Western Conference, but the embattled superstar was still attempting to balance basketball with his trial.
One court appearance even caused Kobe to arrive to Game 5 of the first round series between his Lakers and the Rockets just 30 minutes prior to the tipoff, but that didn’t stop him from being the typical Kobe Bryant; he scored 31 points and dished out 10 assists, helping Los Angeles win the game and clinch the series.
Before Game 4 of the following series with the defending-champion San Antonio Spurs, Bryant had yet another court appearance that resulted in him again showing up to Staples Center not long before the tip, but—like in Game 5 of the Houston series—he seemed unaffected by the brutal travel schedule and what most normal human beings would consider to be an immense distraction.
This time, Kobe had 42 points on 15-of-27 shooting, didn’t commit a single turnover, and led the Lakers to a decisive Game 4 win, evening the Western Conference Semifinals at 2-2.
To me, that 2003-04 campaign said as much about Kobe as any other season during his career. His ability to play through the distraction that was his sexual assault trial—and play at a high level, too—was just incredible. Say what you want about Kobe Bryant the man or Kobe Bryant the person, but it was impossible to not have respect for Kobe Bryant the professional during that season.
18. Entire month of February, 2003
It was over 10 years ago, but Kobe’s historic run that he embarked on in February of 2003 was so unforgettable that it almost feels like it was yesterday.
He averaged 40.6 points per game for the entire month and even had a streak spanning from February 9 through February 23 in which he scored at least 40 points in nine consecutive games.
During the streak, Bryant scored 46 points against the Knicks, 42 and 51 against the Nuggets on back-to-back nights, 46 against the Spurs, 40 against the Knicks the second time, 52 against the Rockets, 40 against the Jazz, 40 against the Trail Blazers, and 41 against the then Seattle Supersonics.
To realize how impressive he was during that streak, just think of it this way: Even on an average day, Kobe is a Hall of Famer, making a red-hot Kobe (which he was for that whole month) about as close to unstoppable as it gets.