With Kobe Bryant's final game just days away, we take a look back at the various phases of his career.
In the summer of 2003, the Lakers were coming off a second-round loss to the Spurs that ended their bid at a fourth consecutive championship. Shaquille O'Neal had delayed his toe surgery until just before training camp at the start of the 2002-03 season, famously saying, "I got hurt on company time, so I'll rehab on company time." The Lakers started the season 11-19 and needed to rally just to make the playoffs. It was, in hindsight, the beginning of the end of the Shaq-Kobe era.
But basketball took a backseat when Kobe was arrested and accused of sexual assault in Eagle, Colo., in July. His mugshot landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. There were reports that Kobe had referred to Shaq paying women hush money to go away when he talked to the police. The picture-perfect image that Kobe had projected to the public had been tarnished. There was a settlement with the accuser out of court and the charges were eventually dropped, but not before Kobe's character was put on trial in the public sphere.
Before the start of the season, Kobe held a press conference with his wife Vanessa by his side, and apologized for adultery. We all had to reconcile the way we looked at Kobe, and in a larger sense, how we separate the players we watch and root for on the court from the human beings they are off it.
The conversations about Kobe during that season -- when he would often fly to and from Colorado to attend court dates on game days -- were often disturbing. As happens many times in cases such as these, there was the narrative of an athlete overcoming distractions, but then you remember how those distractions came about in the first place. And then there was just the outright ugly talk, as one ESPN column questioned whether Kobe's brush with the law would "raise his street cred."
Aside from Kobe's personal life, the Lakers already had enough drama to deal with, having added Gary Payton and Karl Malone in the offseason to replenish a roster in quest of a fourth championship. Shaq and Kobe also no longer held back their feelings to the media. In training camp, Shaq went out of his way several times to mention other teammates but exclude Kobe. Frustrated, Kobe fired back and called Shaq "fat, and out of shape." This would go back and forth until both vowed to put their differences aside in pursuit of another title.
It wouldn't be so easy this time. The team started 18-3, but a knee injury sidelined Malone for three months, which slowed the team down. At the same time, Shaq demanded an extension from owner Jerry Buss, but contract talks broke off during the season. Phil Jackson's contract was expiring as well, which added to the looming feeling that this might be the last run for the Lakers.
With three games left in the season, the Lakers trailed the Kings for the Pacific Division title and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. In a blowout loss to Sacramento late in the season, Kobe appeared to respond to the criticism that he was taking over too much on offense by refusing to shoot the ball in the first half, finishing 3-for-13 from the field. Feeling like he had made his point, Kobe proceeded to score a season-high 45 points the next game, in a win over the Warriors.
On the final night of the season, after the Kings had lost earlier in the evening, there was an opening for the Lakers to win the division and enter the playoffs as the No. 2 seed, provided they could beat the Blazers in Portland.
With eight seconds left and the Lakers trailing by three, Kobe picked up his dribble at the top of the key while being guarded by Ruben Patterson, and still managed to uncork an off-balance three-pointer to send the game to overtime. In double overtime, with the Lakers trailing by two and just a second left on the clock, Kobe caught an inbounds pass from Payton and in one motion, turned around and swished a three-pointer at the buzzer for the victory. The first person to embrace him as Kobe raced to the bench to celebrate was Shaq.
(Sidenote: The best part about this game is afterwards, Patterson asked Kobe for a pair of signed sneakers. "You've got to give me your shoes for that one," the self-appointed Kobe stopper explained afterward.)
After winning, the Lakers vowed that they were in playoff mode, but the team would eventually fall to the Pistons in the Finals and changes came quickly. Shaq was traded to Miami, and Phil Jackson retired. This season was the final chapter in the Shaq-Kobe era. But just as importantly, it was also a re-examination of how fans viewed Kobe both on and off the court.