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As the summer of '96 was approaching, I was finishing up the spring semester of the 6th grade. That summer, like all summers I can remember, began with the NBA Playoffs. About 300 miles away from my home town of St. Louis, MO, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls would go on to win their second straight championship against the Seattle Supersonics.
I always admired Michael Jordan growing up. How could you not? In the 90s the two biggest icons in my world were both named Michael; Jackson and Jordan respectively. A lot of my early basketball memories are tied to not only what Jordan did on the court, but possibly even more to what he meant off the court. Everything from the amazing “Be Like Mike” Gatorade commercials, the live-action/animated film Space Jam (also released in 1996), and of course, the sneakers.
However, as I grew older and I started forming my own opinions about sports, there was another player that would impact my life. A few months into the summer of 1996 the NBA Draft took place and the Los Angles Lakers traded picks with the Charlotte Hornets to select Kobe Bryant 13th overall. Shortly after, the Lakers acquired Shaquille O’Neal in free agency and the beginning of a new era in Los Angeles basketball began.
At the beginning of the 1997-1998 NBA season, I remember being all the way in on "my team", the Los Angeles Lakers. I spent the summer learning as much as I could about the Lakers roster, began collecting trading cards (I’m the proud owner of 9 rookie cards), and was fully invested in the new rookie, Kobe Bryant.
A lot of my adolescence and early adulthood are filled with memories watching Kobe Bryant play. I remember all the failed attempts to reach the Finals battling the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference, and finally getting over the hump with a win over the Portland Trailblazers in the 2000 NBA Playoffs. To this day, one of my favorite Kobe/Laker moments is the infamous lob to Shaq to clinch a trip to the Finals. Like most Laker fans, I remember exactly where I was when that happened. The next three years the Lakers would go on to dominate the league, and Kobe Bryant played a pivotal role in their success.
I also remember the years of struggle after Shaq's departure. Those years were enough to test the loyalty of any fan. There were a lot of lows, but there were moments before the next championship run that would live in infamy. One of them, would be Kobe Bryant dropping 81 points in a game (the second highest in league history). In his prime, he was one of the most lethal offensive weapons in the league.
Being a fan of Kobe has always required thick skin. There are just too many things for his naysayers to throw at you. Bryant fans have heard it all: the accusations of being a ball hog and a poor teammate, that he was the reason for Shaq leaving the team, that he was a Jordan clone (a compliment in my book), and the countless comparisons to his contemporaries that they claimed were better than him (Iverson, Hill, McGrady, Carter, etc).
Regardless of all the negativity thrown our way, Laker fans could always count on Kobe to quiet the crowd. It’s what he did best. On the court he was an assassin and played the game with more passion than anyone I’ve ever seen. His dedication to being the best basketball player on the planet was on display every time he stepped on the court. After 20 years in the game, the only one of his contemporaries that comes close to what he's accomplished is Tim Duncan. The rest, are not even in the discussion.
One of the best things about team sports, is its ability to bring people together. I have life long friendships that were born out of a shared connection to Kobe Bryant's career. We can go months without speaking, but when the Lakers are playing, and the Black Mamba is "doin' work", the connection can be immediately reestablished with a one word text: "Kobe!". Some of my fondest memories are watching Laker games with my sister. We've watched close to a hundred games together, if not more. In 2009, we had a chance to see him play live together; a memory I'll always cherish.
Every generation has a legend to call its own; that one player that stood out from the rest. Sometimes they were loved and sometimes they were hated. Yet they were always respected, and sometimes when they played your team, they put the fear of God in you. Kobe Bryant was one of those players; a legend.
As Kobe laces up his sneakers for the last time tonight, I’ll reflect on all the amazing memories I have tied to his career. I'll remember the late nights staying up to watch him play. All of the heated arguments with friends and family. Most of all, I’ll remember his love and respect for the game. That he took no shortcuts in his preparation. Watching him play, inspired me to attack life with the same passion.
"I have self-doubt. I have insecurity. I have fear of failure. I have nights when I show up at the arena and I'm like, 'My back hurts, my feet hurt, my knees hurt. I don't have it. I just want to chill.' We all have self-doubt. You don't deny it, but you also don't capitulate to it. You embrace it." - Kobe Bryant