On a night when the world was watching, Kobe Bryant gave us one last snapshot of his athletic brilliance. He twisted and turned, contorted his body, soared – somewhat, grimaced, winked and even smiled. And he played like the legend he is - the ‘Black Mamba.’ He ignored a slow start, most likely the adrenalin of a night when he was showered with love by the adoring faithful in the Staples Center. He caught fire and kept shooting; himself laughing at how his teammates encouraged him to put up shots after a career in which he was sometimes criticized for being a ball hog. He shot, and shot – ending with an improbable 60 points in his last game and by hitting the winning basket; reminding us that we have witnessed greatness for 20 years.
The guaranteed future basketball Hall of Fame inductee will leave the sport he has dedicated his life to as one of the top three scorers in NBA history, a 5-time champion and having scored the third most points in a league game; trailing Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Karl Malone. And Bryant came straight into the league from high school as a 17 year-old determined to replicate the feats of his idol Michael Jordan, who unbeknownst to many, had also dreamed of wearing a Laker uniform as a young player.
For full disclosure, I have been a Lakers fan since childhood. I had a fascination with the west coast, an area in the 1960s that seemed exotic for a Black child growing up in New Jersey. The Lakers were my favorite basketball team and the Rams ranked just behind the New York Giants in my football rankings. The transplanted basketball team from Minneapolis while not immediately winning championships on the court, had assembled three of the greatest players in NBA history – Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor – the first ‘Dream Team.’ The 1973 Lakers put together a magical season, winning a still league record 33 games in a row and winning their first championship in Los Angeles and finally breaking the Boston Celtics stranglehold over their destiny.
Kobe Bryant continued the winning tradition of the Los Angeles Lakers, first pairing up with Shaquille O’Neal for three titles and then winning two more with teammates Pau Gasol, Derrick Fisher and Lamar Odom. While his drive and determination, and insistence on excellence on the court has been admirable, what I have admired most about the ‘Black Mamba’ is his fearlessness in exercising power. For a young Black male to come into a fairly conservative industry such as professional sports and impose his will upon a franchise and league is what sets Kobe Bryant apart from his peers in my eyes.
Bryant’s arrival in Los Angeles was no accident. Many people forget that Bryant was drafted by the Charlotte NBA franchise but Lakers great and then general manager Jerry West pegged the high school phenom as the missing link to another Los Angeles championship run. Kobe Bryant made clear that the only team he would play for was the Lakers and would not suit up for any other team. He had the benefit of understanding the league as the son of a former NBA player, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant and knew that the one thing he desired most – championships – was not guaranteed. First and foremost, Bryant wanted to win and did not accept that he had to wait his turn for the brass ring. And win he did; to the point that even Laker great Magic Johnson has tagged Bryant ‘the greatest Laker,” an unbelievable show of respect given Johnson’s stellar Laker career, and the likes of West, Baylor and Chamberlain wearing the purple and gold.
In many ways Kobe Bryant was more Jim Brown than Kareem or Magic. Bryant felt no need to apologize for his demanding ways. He wanted to win and demanded team management not only make him the focal point of the team but surround him with like-minded players. In retrospect, his very public spat with O’Neal was a fallout between two very talented basketball ‘brothers’ who were too young to truly appreciate their good fortune of being teammates. And while O’Neal is often given more of the credit for winning those early championships, the big man did not win one until paired with the young kid from Lower Merion PA upon their arrival at the Fabulous Forum.
Bryant understands power and has used it to his and his team’s advantage throughout his career. When he threatened to leave the team his only demand was to put strong players on the court. Management knew he was right and obliged by bringing in Gasol and Odom. Soon after, the team was again holding championship parades in Los Angeles. When he became a free agent he could have bolted the west coast as Bryant always expressed his love of playing in Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Knicks. He could have cashed in just like many of his peers. Instead, he quietly renegotiated his contract and became what he always desired – a Laker for life. Even with his skills diminished after suffering injuries that would have kept basketball mortals off the court, Bryant willed himself back into a Laker uniform; acknowledging that he was no longer the same player but offering that he can be a teacher to the next generation. What many forget in this twilight of his career is that prior to his injuries two years ago Bryant was at the top of his game and indisputably the king of the court.
His much publicized personal indiscretion also demonstrated a man who understood that having power meant demonstrating humility and acknowledging one’s vulnerability. In the post-OJ era the idea that a Black athlete sexually assaulted a white female is a career killer except when the accused is Bryant, who did not simply offer a defense but apologized publicly to his wife, team and fans. At that moment I believe Kobe Bryant came into his own and fully understood his power as a Black male, superstar athlete and sports brand. There is probably no better picture of that power than seeing Bryant’s wife and daughters in the stands during Lakers home games cheering him on.
What Kobe Bryant represents to me is the power of Black men and the Black male athlete. We saw that power exercised by young men on the University of Missouri football team. It was on display when the Miami Heat donned hoodies to stand in support of the family of Trayvon Martin. It’s the type of power some St. Louis Rams players showed when they came through the stadium tunnel during team introductions with their arms raised to show support for the family of Michael Brown. And it was evident when Bryant himself questioned the killing of young Black men by police. Bryant’s posture as a Black professional athlete, his no-nonsense demeanor and personality picked up where the likes of Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, baseball’s Bob Gibson, and Barry Sanders left off. He wasn’t trying to be liked. Bryant just wanted to be excellent.
It is Bryant’s willingness to exercise power that enrages critics and troubles naysayers who begrudgingly acknowledge his impact on the game. Kobe Bryant, like Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, is leaving professional sports on his own terms. He’s not making excuses for not being the same player; none of us can claim consistency over twenty years. And he’s not asking for anyone’s pity. He simply wanted to play, do the best he could and help his younger teammates understand the responsibility of playing for an iconic franchise.
Kobe Bryant didn’t win a sixth championship to match his idol Michael Jordan. However, his impact is clear. Despite not winning a title in years, the Lakers are one of the wealthiest franchises in all of professional sports. The Buss family, owners of the Lakers, knows what #24 is worth to the team; if they didn’t they would have never signed him to his final contract or ceded to most of his demands. The NBA and USA basketball also knows what Bryant has meant to the game. He stepped up in the post-Jordan era and saved the NBA from becoming a league of almost superstars, and his willingness to play in the Olympics kept the sport an American franchise and grew its international stature as social media became prominent.
Kobe Bryant came, saw and conquered. He left the NBA the same way he entered – a winner, exercising power and doing it his way.
Walter Fields is Executive Edfitor of NorthStarNews.com.