Kobe Bryant first entered my life on a basketball card. Dressed in his Los Angeles Lakers uniform and propped up by a pair of black and white Adidas high tops, the only thing wider than Kobe's mouth in this particular photograph are his legs, the ball swooping under a tucked right knee on its way to clinching the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest. I wasn't even 10 years old at the time, an NBA obsessive-in-training, but this card grabbed my attention like a fire alarm.
Bryant was just an 18-year-old rookie then, still living with his parents. That night in Cleveland was miles from a coronation, but several great things still came from it, one being the public introduction to a now-infamous facial expression that would come to define the first half of Bryant's career, long before the jutted icy barracuda death stare. It's an orchestrated mash-up of self-seriousness and nonchalance that somehow emotes three feelings at the exact same time:
1) "I'm too good for this event, and this crowd, and this weak competition and, by my 21th birthday, I'll be too good for this whole damn league,"
2) "If I lose, I'll cry for two straight weeks without speaking to a soul. Until the day I die, not a year will pass without my meeting some form of physical contrition," and
3) "Be my friend?"
(A brief aside: Dwyane Wade has tried mimicking this look for the past seven years, but never got it down like Kobe. Instead, Wade often resembles an ax murderer who just got off on a technicality.)
My first reaction to the picture was something along the lines of "wow, I love you." Of course, looking back now, with the advantage of hindsight and known serious advancements in slam dunk science, it's safe to classify Bryant's performance as one of the least impressive in history.
His competitors were Ray Allen (seriously), Bob Sura, Michael Finley, Darvin Ham (respect) and Chris Carr (???). Kobe crawled into the round of three on the back of a few forgetful slams, finishing with a score of 37 out of 50. His first dunk of the finals was that between-the-legs/I-have-arrived exclamation point. Moments later, Bryant flexed his wiry arms and soaked in the crowd's roaring approval. On the broadcast, Doc Rivers said: "It's tough to look at him as a tough guy, though…"
(Gerald Green lost the 2008 Slam Dunk contest doing the exact same thing in his socks.)
The judges gifted Kobe a 49 meaning, unless Finley or Carr managed a perfect score, he had already won. This leads us to the meaningless and hilarious second dunk forgotten by all. As it begins, Bryant steadies himself in the corner and carefully lobs the ball towards the rim. The crowd chants his name ("Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!") as he races to catch it on a high bounce. But the toss is off line, too close to the baseline, forcing him to ascend directly beneath the net for an awkward finish. Bryant doesn't time it right, then hangs himself.
Knowing all we know now about how Bryant's life and career turned out, that night in Cleveland makes for great theatre. In a celebratory interview afterwards, Craig Sager asks Kobe if not being named MVP of the previous night's rookie game (despite scoring 31 points) had "psyched him up even more for [the dunk contest]." His response was honest and beautiful: "Sure. I mean, you want to win as much as you can. You know, coming into the NBA Dunk Contest I was psyched up as it is, so, you know, it just pumped me up a little bit more."
The word "sure" slithered out the corner of Bryant's mouth with confidence and condescension. Why wouldn't I be more psyched up? I deserved that MVP, and every MVP in every game/season until the day I retire. GTFO, Craig!
In light of the likely possibility we never see Kobe as "Kobe" ever again -- especially on a Lakers organization that's dissolving into an icky puddle -- I decided to re-watch that dunk contest (you should too; Rivers is one of its broadcasters, with vocal chords yet to be scratched up from years of screaming at Glen Davis; it's all sorts of glorious) and reflect on one of the most iconic, dazzling and successful players in basketball history.
Now feels like a good time to reveal that I was born and raised 10 minutes outside of Boston. The Celtics were an abomination through my formative years, but apart from a four-year span -- 2nd to 5th grade -- when David Robinson became my idol for no other reason than he always smiled, I loved them a lot, and still do to this day. The memorable postseason battles Boston had against Bryant's Lakers in the late 2000s will never leave my memory, for better or worse. But (most of) the words that precede and follow are separated from my fandom, and instead written as an objective observer and empirical analyst.
Kobe turns 36 on Aug. 23. He's about to cannonball into a 19th season, but not a second more of service is necessary to correctly affirm his place as one of the 10 greatest players in NBA history. Only three players ever have scored more points in the regular season (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan). Only two players ever have scored more points in the playoffs (Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan).
After reaching the level of a legitimate superstar in just his fourth season, the eventual five-time champion kept getting better, continuously improving new parts of his game each summer. In a way, Kobe sort of lacks a true prime. That's not a bad thing. His game never stopped evolving, and before his Achilles' heel popped in 2013, it was perfectly reasonable to equate Bryant with immortality. Of course, he is not immortal. For six of his seven Finals appearances, he wasn't even the best player on his own team. (Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol were.)
Bryant's 2005-06 campaign stands as his finest statistical season and one of the most impressive years any player has ever had, averaging 35.4 points per game, making 45 percent of his shots and scoring at least 50 points six times. Only two players (Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain) ever totaled more points in one year. Despite zero help (Lamar Odom was the team's second-best player, with a three-way tie going to Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and the unbreakable Chris Mihm for third fiddle), the Lakers still won 45 games and finished with the eighth-best offense in the league. Kobe: Miracle worker.
But the season ended beneath an epic dumpster fire. In the first round, the Lakers ran into league MVP Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns. In Game 7, Bryant attempted (and missed) just three shots in the second half. It was really strange, and right around this time his career could have easily veered off course. The following season, at 28, Bryant averaged an outrageous 33/5/4 stat line in the first round, but once again his Lakers were eliminated by Phoenix, this time in five games.
What happens if Gasol doesn't get traded to the Lakers in February 2008? Well, there wouldn't be two more rings and six more years of superb, relevant contribution on a title contender. There's a fair chance the instinctive, psychotic determination that makes Bryant so unique would eventually crumble under the strain of carrying a fatally flawed roster to the playoffs year after year with virtually no shot at winning it all. That level of hopelessness would crush anyone, and doing everything every night could've caused his body to wear down more quickly than it has. But who knows.
Kobe is a seminal figure in NBA history and American culture, but a cynic could sum up his life's work as "80 percent of Michael Jordan." There's no shame in that, and I sometimes think about an alternate universe where Jordan doesn't exist and Kobe is able to mold himself with no outside inspiration. He had such technical skill, unreal athleticism and intelligence. With no mentor (for lack of a better word), would he be even greater, worse or the same?
The league never "belonged" to Kobe in the same way it did to Jordan or does today with LeBron James. He never was unquestionably the best player in the world, and his game lacked any transcendent quality. (Tim Duncan, O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson and a few others bridged the league from Jordan to LeBron. Kobe never stood alone.) The 81-point performance in 2006 is impressive, but holds no real meaning apart from showing us Sam Mitchell isn't an NBA head coach. Is that number unattainable by the game's current stars? Or is it ludicrous for them to even try and match it? Sometimes points are just points; Kobe's legend is about so much more.
Championships in 2000, 2001 and 2002 guaranteed access to a different level of historical recognition before his 24th birthday. He averaged 25.3 points, 4.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds throughout that historic run, playing just a hair over 2300 minutes in 57 games. He was efficient, smart, invincible, and it was around this time Bryant's ability to create for others began to expand; he'd will passing lanes open and make every defense bend with his mind (particularly the stunningly feeble David Robinson/Tim Duncan tandem that was crushed by L.A. in 2001). Maddening shots jacked up with two defenders in his face weren't stricken from the playbook, but more than a few sensational dimes were sprinkled in, turning his game into a potential perfect storm. So young at the time, one might argue Kobe could have become an excellent pass-first playmaker. But, of course, he didn't. Bryant was born a shoot-first misanthrope. Teammates have felt the urge to knock him unconscious. Kobe exudes no outward need to be loved, and once said "I really don't believe in happiness."
Bryant is unrepentant, solipsistic and admirable. Only one or two careers in league history feel more deserving of a 1,600-page novel than a categorized list of accomplishments, records and statistics. He deserves that. But, right now, it's just too difficult to separate Kobe from the nonsensical two-year, $48.5 million contract extension he signed last Thanksgiving. The one that, fair or not, will definitively prevent him from winning a sixth championship with the Lakers.
Regardless, from a distance -- no stars actually want to be his teammate anymore -- he's still revered by just about every player in the league. As colleagues and fraternity brothers, they still see in him something most fans, reporters and bloggers can't: Kobe's reputation and by-any-means-necessary dedication to the sport levitates him above the ephemeral criticism his undeserved status as the league's highest-paid player has brought, and that's sort of the way it should be.
For too many reasons to cite here, there will never be another Kobe Bryant, or even another player who willingly attempts to follow his footsteps the way Bryant himself did Jordan. Some will always love him. Some will always hate him. Thankfully, he still entertains us all.