Kobe Bryant is officially calling it a career. Seen by many during his 20-year tenure in the NBA as an extension of Michael Jordan’s dominance in the ’90s, Bryant continued a legacy that His Airness had cultivated which relied on tenaciousness, a will-to-win unknown to most people, and above all, a killer-instinct that made him one of the game’s all-time greats.
But like other superstars, when the cracks start to show – and the flaws are magnified by a new crop of upstarts who run and jump with a youthful exuberance – the decision to fade into the background doesn’t always come with the grace and self-deprecation that Bryant has displayed.
“But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer,” Bryant wrote in his official goodbye to basketball. “This season is all I have left to give. My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind but my body knows it’s time to say goodbye. And that’s OK. I’m ready to let you go.”
Although Bryant is shooting a career worst field-goal percentage and has played 12 consecutive games scoring fewer than 25 points while shooting worse than 50 percent – the longest such streak of his career – there won’t be a single NBA fan that will look at Kobe’s twilight years and think that they tarnished his career. Sure, his last few years were riddled by injuries and a continuous rehabilitation process from achilles and shoulder ailments. But that wasn’t Kobe. That was just the price Kobe Bryant payed for NBA immortality.
Bryant was only 17 years old when he signed his contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. When he hangs ’em up, he will be 37. If there were such a thing as a Mount Rushmore of basketball, an artisan would be looking for his hammer and chisel and a portrait taken by Andy Bernstein as a reference for his likeness.
With a multitude of achievements in the NBA, here are Kobe Bryant’s five greatest.
61 points at Madison Square Garden
What Kobe said: “It’s a blessing to do what you love and to have moments like this.”
What Phil Jackson said: “He was on fire from the start and finished the game almost the same way. That was a remarkable performance.”
On February 2, 2009, Kobe Bryant passed Michael Jordan for the record for the most points ever scored at historic Madison Square Garden when he put up 61 points en route to a 126-117 victory against the Knicks.
Although the record would later be broken when Carmelo Anthony scored 62 in 2014, Bryant’s record still stands in terms of an opponent’s output.
What Kobe said: “My daughter is outside waiting for me, and I’m sure she doesn’t give a damn about what just happened. She just wants to watch Care Bears. I’m just happy we won. We needed to get this one. We just had to win this game and get back on track, just for a morale standpoint. We’re at a point now where everybody’s a little beat up.”
What Phil Jackson said: “At one point, we got the offensive rebound and (had) a whole new 24-second (shot clock) left. Lamar (Odom) gave the ball right back to him and Kobe went right back at them. He just smells blood in the water and he’s going to go after you.”
Between March 16-March 23, 2007, Kobe Bryant went on a historic stretch where he scored 50+ points in four straight games. Against the Portland Trail Blazers, Bryant went for 65 – including three consecutive 3s in the last two minutes to bring the Lakers back from down seven and send the game into overtime. In the fourth quarter and overtime alone, he went for 33.
Two days later, Kobe went for 50 against the Kevin Garnett-lead Minnesota Timberwolves. Not one to be satisfied, Bryant notched 60 against the Memphis Grizzlies – becoming only one of four players with three 50-point games in a row (Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan). As a curtain call, he concluded the streak with 50 against the New Orleans Hornets.
What LeBron James said: “I’m hyped because I wish I played in the Western Conference right then and there, man. This is top-of-the-line ball-playing.”
What Phil Jackson said: “Game 7s are very interesting, but I’ve never seen any quite like that one before.”
What Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn said: “Kobe’s down the middle, he’s in deep, he throws to Shaq, slam dunk! The Lakers lead by six! The Los Angeles Lakers, with 40 seconds left. Portland can put champagne away and get out the bottled water, because that’s all they’re going to drink on their way home. They’re down 85-79. A perfect pass to Shaq from Kobe!”
One of the biggest criticisms that Kobe Bryant has faced during his career is that he was always hesitant to share the ball with his teammates. Whether it was his own stubbornness or his lack of trust for others to excel in the spotlight, Bryant will be best remembered for his scoring prowess.
On June 4, 2000 during Game 7 of the Western Conference finals vs. Portland, the Lakers were attempting to win the first of what would be three consecutive championships with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal as cornerstones of the franchise.
After taking a commanding 3-1 series lead, the Lakers were on the verge of an epic meltdown after Portland had won two straight and put them on the verge of becoming just the seventh team to blow a 3-1 series lead.
Trailing 75-60 with 10:28 remaining in the game, the Lakers mounted their iconic comeback which was punctuated by an alley-oop from Bryant to O’Neal which was the biggest fourth-quarter rally in a Game 7 in league history.
Kobe Bryant finished the deciding game with 25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and four blocked shots.
Bryant 62, Dallas 61
What Kobe said: “I was so frustrated by the loss the other night I was going to will us to victory. I was very angry, I felt like I wanted to come out and send a message, that we’re going to dominate at home. We’re going to hit you, we’re going to bring it to you. I wanted to send that message.”
What Phil Jackson said: “I’ve seen a few 60-point ballgames in my time, but none of them had been done by the third quarter. His 30-point third quarter was incredible.”
We should have known that Kobe Bryant was due for a historic performance a month later after he absolutely shredded the Dallas Mavericks on December 20, 2005. Through three quarters, Bryant outscored the Dallas Mavericks by himself. Despite sitting out the entire 4th quarter, the Black Mamba still poured in 62 points.
What Kobe said: “It really hasn’t, like, set in for me. It’s about the `W,’ that’s why I turned it on. It turned into something special. To sit here and say I grasp what happened, that would be lying.”
What Phil Jackson said: “That was something to behold. It was another level. I’ve seen some remarkable games, but I’ve never seen one like that before.”
Kobe Bryant’s basketball achievements all had purpose in his quest toward winning. In the case of his now legendary performance on January 23, 2006, the Lakers were actually trailing 71-53 at halftime despite Kobe having already scored 51 points. The Lakers outscored the Toronto Raptors by 32 points in the second half to secure a victory.
By the time Bryant was subbed out 4.2 seconds remaining, he had gone 28-of-46 from the floor, including 7-of-13 from 3-point range, and 18-of-20 from the foul line.