This is Part II of a series in which I share how my favorite athlete Kobe Bryant has inspired me both on and off the court of my career. You can read Part I of the series here.
At the end of the 2005 – 2006 season, Kobe’s year came to a close after an excruciating exit when the Phoenix Suns came back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Lakers in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Kobe’s mind-boggling season was one of the most dominant individual seasons for a shooting guard in league history (the 62 point game in 3 quarters vs Dallas, the 81 point game vs. Toronto, scored 45 points or more in 4 consecutive games, averaged 43.4 ppg for the month of January, and finished the season with 35.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1.8 spg). Yet despite a season filled with personal highlights, Kobe still finished 4th in MVP voting, behind Lebron James, Dirk Nowitzki, and MVP winner Steve Nash.
It was then that Kobe decided he needed to reinvent his image. He did so by switching from number 08 to 24.
Why was this a big deal? Kobe’s official response was that 24 was the number he first wore in high school (before switching to 33) and he wanted to wear it again. When Kobe first arrived at the Lakers in 1996, 24 was claimed by George McCloud and No. 33 was retired by the Lakers for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kobe now had the chance to switch to 24. But there are other theories out there that suggest the number change found its purpose on a deeper level. Some say it was Kobe’s attempt to be one greater than 23 which belonged to Michael Jordan (who many consider to be the greatest to ever play the game). Others say it was a marketing scheme to boost new jersey sales.
But there’s one theory that I am more inclined to believe:
Kobe switched numbers to leave his past behind and create the opportunity for he alone to cement his future legacy.
Why would Kobe do this?
To start, there was the 2003 adulterous sexual encounter in Colorado that, although was dropped after the accuser refused to testify at trial, tainted Bryant’s reputation (both on and off the court) and cost him significantly in terminated endorsement deals and decreased jersey sales.
In addition, while wearing No. 08, Kobe was part of one of the most dominant 1-2 punch duos in NBA history. Both he and Shaq led the Lakers to become only the 5th team in NBA history to Three-Peat (win three championships in a row) during their championship runs from 2000 – 2002. No other professional sports team (in any league) has accomplished that feat since the Kobe & Shaq years. But all was not perfect in Hollywood as Kobe and Shaq began to feud. Kobe was viewed as the “Little Brother”, the young guy, the second fiddle to Shaq’s dominant rule. Kobe wasn’t happy with these titles, and who can blame him? During the 2001 playoffs (not season, PLAYOFFS), Kobe filled the stat sheets with 29.4. ppg, 7.3 rpg, 6.1 apg, and 1.6 spg, while shooting almost 47% from the field. These stats rivaled the best postseason stats that even Michael Jordan was able to muster during his prime!
By switching numbers, Kobe was able to put a powerful reboot on his career by giving himself a fresh look and a new identity. Gone were the days and the talk of Shaq’s Lakers. Kobe was letting the world know that he was no longer a role player for the Los Angeles Lakers, but instead he was THE STAR and the Lakers were HIS team! And along with a new number came a new nickname that instilled fear into coaches, players, and opposing fans throughout the league.
Kobe was reborn as #24: The Black Mamba.
Did it work?
In 2007, Kobe’s game continued to elevate. He would win the first of another 3 NBA All-Star MVPs (adding 2 more in 2009 as Co-MVP with former teammate Shaq and again in 2011). That year, Kobe also had a four game stretch where he scored 65 points, 50 points, 60 points, and 50 points, becoming only the 2nd player in NBA history to have 4 consecutive 50+ point games (second only to Wilt Chamberlain) and only the second Laker to score 50+ points in three straight games (which was also a feat that had not been accomplished in the NBA since Michael Jordan did it in 1987). Kobe would end the year with ten 50+ point games. TEN!
In 2008, the highlight reel dunks kept coming:
Kobe also became one of the first athletes to go viral when a video surfaced of him reportedly jumping over an Aston Martin:
In the middle of the season, the Lakers pulled off the greatest coup in NBA History by trading center Kwame Brown to the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol.
Pau Gasol was the missing piece to complete the Lakers quest to contend for the NBA Championship. By the end of the regular season, Kobe (FINALLY) won the League MVP. The Lakers would make a deep playoff run, but ultimately, they fell short in the NBA Finals, losing to their arch-rivals the Boston Celtics in 6 Games.
That summer, Kobe then became the undisputed leader of the 2008 USA “Redeem Team” and led the USA to a Gold Medal over Spain.
Back home, Kobe would continue on with (then) record setting performances, such as his 61 point performance at Madison Square Gardens (check out his spin move at 5:17):
Kobe and Pau together would lead the Lakers to back to back championships in 2009 & 2010, during which Kobe would be named the NBA Finals MVP for both years.
Check out Kobe’s circus shot around Dwight Howard in Game 5 of the 2009 NBA Finals (at 4:45):
Lakers fans will remember the stress we endured while watching Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals play out in Los Angeles as the Lakers sought revenge over the Celtics for their 2009 Finals humiliation. (And who can forget Metta’s clutch 3 or his post-game presser “Kobe Passed me the ball!” line). Even after coming back from a 13 point deficit, the most iconic moment from the night was when Kobe ended up standing above the scorer’s table, flexing, and screaming with the roar of the crowd as confetti fell from the rafters and Kobe was again named Finals MVP (see 12:54 in this clip).
In 2011, Kobe was on a personal vendetta to prove his haters wrong and win not only his second Three-Peat, but his 6th NBA Championship. Although the quest would fall short, the year was still filled with many vintage Black Mamba moments:
In 2012, Kobe would score 30+ points in seven consecutive games, a feat that would become the longest streak in NBA history for players 34 and older. As the season wore on, the number of games where Kobe had 10+ assists a game increased, which led to a modified nickname of “Magic Mamba” in tribute to Lakers legend Magic Johnson.
In that same year, Nike also created a series of commercials entitled “Kobe System” as a promotional campaign for Kobe’s latest shoe release. The commercials featured celebrities from various industries across the world. Kobe truly had gone global:
During the summer of 2012, Kobe rejoined the USA Men’s Olympic Team and again led the team to another Gold Medal victory over Spain.
By 2013, the voice of the critics continued to grow louder, citing that Kobe was past his prime and the glory days of the Lakers had passed. Kobe had other ideas, and he began to carry the team on his shoulders towards the playoffs.
Feb 5, 2013: Kobe sends a message to the league that he not only will still take on a team’s center, but he’ll still posterize not one but TWO players simultaneously!
On March 3, 2013: Kobe again served up another posterizing slam dunk, this time over former Slam Dunk Champion Josh Smith:
March 6, 2013, Kobe led the charge as the Lakers overcame a 22 point deficit on the road to defeat the New Orleans Hornets. Kobe provided the exclamation point as the Lakers embarrassed the Hornets on a final inbounds pass, leading to a Kobe breakaway dunk (see 6:06):
A few days later on March 9, 2013, after once again falling into a major deficit and needing a win to keep their playoff hopes alive, Kobe could not be stopped.
And then it happened.
April 12, 2013
At home against the Golden State Warriors, with 3:08 left in the game, Kobe’s body finally gave way. After a season of extensive minutes and years of playing through the pain, while driving to the basket, Kobe’s left Achilles Tendon snapped. He immediately crumpled.
While many feared a torn achilles, no official diagnosis was given immediately during the game. Instead, Kobe had another Hall of Fame moment as he hobbled back to the free throw line and sank two free throws.
After the game and once the official diagnosis was released, the sports world was stunned. Not only because Kobe had experienced an injury that for many was career ending, but also because Kobe blew us away with his toughness. Who else in the world could tear their achilles and still sink two free throws like it’s no big deal!?
As the sports world began to rally around Kobe and offer him encouragement, Nike released a powerful ad entitled “You Showed Us”.
Kobe would shock the sports world by returning from his achilles injury on December 8, 2013, less than 8 months after the initial injury. However a few games later, Kobe would fracture his knee which again side-lined him. Kobe would be plagued by injuries over the next year, including a torn rotator-cuff.
After announcing his retirement at the end of the 2015 season, Kobe’s farewell tour began. Stadiums around the nation were packed, crowds sold out, all to see No. 24 play for one last time during his Hall of Fame Career.
Then on March 22, 2016, in one of his final post-game interviews with Inside The NBA, Shaq managed to shock Kobe one more time.
After commenting on his 20 point game that night, Shaq then turned the conversation to the Lakers’ final game of the season, a home game against the Utah Jazz. It was then when Shaq said (starting at 2:38):
“Kobe… Can you promise me one thing: I need 50 (from you) that night”.
To which Kobe just about falls out of his chair, laughs, and responds “No, absolutely not!”
And then, on April 13, 2016, in the final game of his illustrious Hall of Fame career, Kobe again proved Shaq wrong and put on one of the greatest farewell performances in the history of sports.
Kobe dropped 60:
He willed the Lakers to one final victory;
Kobe dropped 60 and walked away from the game as a winner, a legend, one of the greatest to ever play the game. In a fitting way, Kobe left the league the same way he entered it: at the free throw line.
Between the bookends of his career, Kobe went from the kid from Philly to the NBA’s 3rd All Time Leading Scorer. He won just about every title imaginable, and he rewrote many of the record books. More importantly, he defied the critics, even through his last game.
So what does Kobe’s career have to do with me?
Kobe taught me work ethic. He taught me age is only a number. He taught me how to be obsessive in the pursuit of my goals. He taught me having haters probably meant I was doing something right. He taught us how to be both a villain and a hero. He taught me what an incredible feeling it is to prove others wrong. Kobe taught me that excellence isn’t a phase, it’s daily habit. He taught me how to not shy away from pressure. He taught me how to never stop learning and instead demand perfection from myself. He taught me to stand up to demons: both my own and ones others try to throw my way. Kobe taught me that while others may count us out, nothing is over until the final whistle sounds. He taught me how to fall, but most importantly, how to get back up and continue fighting. He taught me the value in living in attack mode. He taught me that even in the most agonizing pain, every moment is a must-win. Kobe taught me that greatness is born from one thing: being relentless. Day in and day out, always be relentless.
Thank you Kobe for all that you have inspired me to become! The journey is not over. It is only beginning.
P.S. Think I left something out regarding Kobe’s career? Comment and let me know!