It was 1996 and I was a five-year-old sitting on the living room floor watching the NBA on NBC. During commercials, my brothers and I played “knee basketball” in the living room of our apartment in Pasadena, CA. There were no hoops, just two laundry baskets on top of chairs. Jon was Nick Van Exel, Mike was Eddie Jones, Sam was Grant Hill, and I had to be Penny Hardaway. None of us got to be MJ, and that kept us from fighting. I had never heard of you before, none of us had. But our home was a “Laker home” nonetheless, and ’96 was the beginning. It was the end of one season and the beginning of another—Magic’s last game, and your first. It was in 1996 that my parents signed me up to play church-league basketball. It was in 1996 that my love for basketball was birthed.
Ten years later, I had grown and so had you. I had graduated from playing church league in the six- to eight-year-old group, to trying out for varsity basketball in high school. You moved out of the rookie rotation and into the limelight, breaking the hearts of whatever team you faced with game winning jumpers, dagger threes, and highlight dunks. But no matter what feats you accomplished, you faced criticism. It was the 2006 season that you scored 81 points against the Raptors and still didn’t win the MVP. Critics said you didn’t pass the ball enough. As for me, I didn’t make varsity. The coaches said I needed to limit my turnovers and improve my left hand.
So I worked. I watched videos of Allen Iverson, Tim Hardaway, and Baron Davis over and over. And over. And over. I studied the mechanics of the crossover, from footwork to body movement, and integrated it into my game. I practiced using my left hand with dribbling exercises and “left-hand-only-scrimmages.” I watched videos of you and Michael Jordan to find my shooting form. I was a man obsessed, constantly considering the mechanics of my shooting. I spent post-homework time working on my game. I hit the weight room after school. I worked in the gym from morning to evening during my summers, and I improved.
My junior year, in 2008, I made varsity as the starting point guard. As for you, you won the MVP that year. I’ll never forget playing on the blacktop during lunch as kids would scream your name, KOBEEEEE, while attempting fade-away jumpers. We wanted to play like you so bad. You were no longer “Kobe,” or even number 8 for that matter—you were now Black Mamba. Wikipedia says that this is “A snake whose venom is highly toxic, potentially causing collapse in humans within 45 minutes or less from a single bite.” It was scary what you could do to a team over the course of a game; that year you averaged 28.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, and 5.4 apg. You took us to the finals, but we lost to Boston’s newly formed Big 3.
When my senior year finally came in 2009, I was ready. I had put in the work, and I knew that my team had what it would take to win the league. As a high school senior, I watched you break the scoring record at Madison Square garden scoring 61. That same year I too broke a record at my school for most 3s in a game (6), scoring 28 points (measly after mentioning 61 points). Unfortunately for me, because of medical reasons, this would be the last organized basketball game I would ever play. I never became the player I always believed I would be.
In 2010 I entered college, and did my best to avert my eyes from hoops. In between classes at lunch and dinner, “Kobe vs. Lebron” was a regular topic of discussion. I defended you relentlessly, and you proved me right by winning your fifth championship. Each consecutive year during these debates, my defense of you made me the “irrational laker fanatic” that they “couldn’t stand.” Apparently Lebron was clearly better than you, and I just didn’t see it. Soon LeBron had won his first championship. You had just finished an amazing season (2012-2013) averaging 27 ppg, 6 apg, and 5.6 reb, but you were injured six games in to the 2013-2014 season. By now I had just graduated from college and began working at a boarding high school. It was there that the students talked about you as if you were old news. “Kobe’s boring.” “Oh my gosh he is so overrated.” “He’s not that great.” “I’m more of a Lebron fan.” They were kids. At this moment I realized they literally had not seen what I had seen. I felt old.
At 24 years old, I watch with a lump in my throat as you complete your 20th and final season. What is worse than seeing you retire, and watching us get blown out every other night is seeing you smiling and joking with teammates. It just doesn’t sit right. The Kobe I knew treated his teammates terribly. The Kobe I will remember didn’t care how his teammates felt. The Kobe I will remember didn’t do entertaining handshakes with his teammates. The Kobe I remember wasn’t very likeable or very sociable. The Kobe I won’t forget is the Kobe that doesn’t have time for friends. I will remember the selfish, obsessive, cocky Kobe–the villain. If players were being honest during this farewell tour, they would have said “I want to blowout the Lakers tonight because I hate that guy. I hate that guy because he scored 50 points on us; because he dunked on me as a rookie; because he talked so much trash, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Many hoop fans might hate you, but every basketball lover respects you. I respect you because you would go 0 for 30 before you go 0 for 9. As for me, I will love you because you will make me reminisce.
When I think of you, I will think of my childhood watching my brothers play ball and wishing I was big enough to play. When I think of you, I will think of middle school lunch games on the blacktop. You will remind me of my high school basketball days and the fun I had playing the game that I love. You will remind me of evenings spent with my family, huddled around the television. I will think of my mothers cooking and Christmas day specials on TNT. You will remind me of college, and the friends I made because of silly “Kobe vs. Lebron” debates at the dinner table. When I think of you, I will think of my days coaching and the connection that I made with my players. When I think of you, I will remember why I love the game.
Your legacy on the court is a part of my existence. Basketball brought me and so many of the people I care about together. The game helped shape who I am today. My basketball experience is inseparable from who you were on the hardwood. So Kobe, thank you man. Thank you for the memories.
Forever a fan.