The court is empty, save for me and a childhood friend. Such solitude was rare, as this basketball court was known to be packed with runs every Sunday morning. Yet it captured a scene that represented the impact that Kobe Bryant had on us as two Southern California kids growing up with him throughout the years.
The rhythmic staccato of the basketball bouncing pierced the cold morning air and became the soundtrack for a scenario that I’m sure most of Bryant’s fans have done at least once in their lifetime.
I threw the ball up, mimicking a jump ball, caught it at mid-court and dribbled with purpose across the court to the right elbow.
“Oh you gotta get a shot here,” I said out loud, in my best Hubie Brown impersonation. I then switched to Mike Breen.
“Final seconds. Bryant for the win…”
The satisfying crunch of the net. The gooseneck wrist held in the air. Followed by the left fist thrust out in victorious conviction.
It was just like Kobe taught us back in the 2006 playoffs against the Phoenix Suns.
Fast forward almost ten years later and we all should have guessed how this whole tale would play out just by the way a brash 17-year-old kid preceded his would be decades long love affair with the city of Los Angeles.
Brandishing a cocksure smirk, sunglasses crowning this anointed basketball prince’s head, and a suit game that screamed every bit of Structure’s ’96 Collection, Kobe Bryant declared that he’d be taking his talents to the NBA. At this time, he had to have been at least a buck eighty soaking wet, with ego accounting for at least a third of that weight.
On the surface this all seemed to be a method ploy that can be attributed to his boyish charm and youthful zeal, but beneath the too wide lapel suit, toothy grin and car salesman’s wink, a unique duality incubated itself, nurturing a personality that would be one of the most polarizing in all of sports history.
And this very personality, one of equal parts despot and deliverer, venom and vanguard, would be the one that all of Los Angeles, and eventually a basketball universe, would both loathe and love within one shocked gasp for air after one of Bryant’s trademark daggers sent from seemingly any corner of the basketball court. But this whole process of endearing himself as the chosen son of Los Angeles has been twenty years in the making – a tenure no other NBA player has ever accomplished with one team.
The bookend to Kobe’s legendary sports career places itself on today April 13th, 2016, a day where his fans the world over, including myself, would deem as one of mourning. My ugly cry is ready, which I’m sure would seem bizarre and out of place, if not for the fact that I will be watching his last game right in the thick of the festivities at LA Live among fellow Lakers faithful, albeit without having to give up my whole life savings and my future child’s soul to watch the actual game inside Staples Center, where tickets range from $400.00 to upwards of $10,000.00 – prices only a Promethean hero who’s given light to a whole city in the form of five championship trophies could command.
Yet all of the championship banners, the parades, the conference titles, all of the winning, has simply been a byproduct of Bryant’s dogged personality and maniacal work ethic, which at the heart of things is why he’s captivated fans and especially Angelenos over the past two decades.
Yes, the glitz and glamour that goes hand in hand with the shiny trophies and wellspring of champagne is indicative of the city’s noted Hollywood facade, but the dedication and unshakable perseverance to attain such accolades is what makes his story so appealing. Because for every banner that’s hung in Staples Center, for every milestone reached, for every record broken, Kobe has laid himself bare to let all watch his growth to attain each and every one of them.
And it is within such growing pains we saw four air balls against the Utah Jazz in the closing moments of his first playoff series, a sexual assault case and infidelity play out to mar his once golden boy image, and open feuding with Shaquille O’Neal to stain his reputation of being a choice teammate.
We seemingly saw each other through to the other side of failure, him and a whole Laker Nation that connected and believed in one another that things will work their way out, knowing that there was the luxury of us having each other’s backs through it all.
Though Pluto was infamously once his preferred choice of destination to play basketball, we knew that it not even being considered a planet anymore and the gift-wrapped present of Pau Gasol sitting on his Newport Beach doorstep back in 2008 would change his mind. But I’m sure it was more of the latter rather than the former.
So tonight, as Bryant laces them up for one last game, he carries with him an Angeleno’s legacy that’s as authentic as the pupusas handmade in Pico-Union, a focus that’s as relentless and maddening as the 405’s traffic, a shrewdness for success that’s on par with the most flourishing studio execs, a love for the game that’s as enamoring as a Hollywood romance, a perseverance that’s as enduring as each wave crashing along PCH, and a legendary career that’s as rare as a parking spot in Koreatown.
Thank you, Kobe. Thank you for carrying that load, not for, but with us. The finality of your career ending – one that we all thought made up the unwavering trinity of death, taxes, and Kobe – will be tough to process. But just know that my level of appreciation for you runs as bone deep as the cumulative cold of all the ice baths you’ve ever taken in your career.
Damn that’s cold.
But not as cold as the ice that’s been in your veins for twenty years on the court.