By Ivan Mateo
For as long as I can remember, my favorite team was the Los Angeles Lakers. My mom always told me stories about her cheering for the Lakers when I was still in her belly. I was too young to enjoy the Magic Johnson and Pat Riley-led “Showtime” Lakers in all of their glory. My earliest memories of the Lakers were in the mid 90s, when the likes of Nick “the Quick” Van Exel, Eddie Jones and Vlade Divac were the best players, with an older Magic Johnson on the tail end of his career. These days were competitive and entertaining (not as entertaining as Showtime when I looked back at old Laker games), but they unfortunately did not win any championships.
It wasn’t until 1996 did the Lakers’ road back to the championships begin. Shaquille O’Neal signed with the Lakers after some failed playoff runs with the Orlando Magic. The 1996 NBA Draft marked the day when the Lakers traded Vlade Divac for a young kid named Kobe Bryant who made the jump to the pros straight from high school. The plan was to pair the fearless rookie with the unstoppable force down on the block.
In 2000, 2001 and 2002, you and Shaquille O’Neal dominated the league to the tune of three straight championships. Your ego and Shaq’s ego could no longer coexist enough in harmony, so the Lakers chose you and let the big fellow go.
You were blamed for Shaq leaving. You almost left for another team. But the Lakers convinced you to stay. You carried the team when things looked bleak until the team found help. You and Pau Gasol brought the Lakers back to the pinnacle of the NBA in 2009 and 2010. For your final years, you gave Laker fans something to watch and cheer for despite only 27, 21 and 17 wins respectively.
You gave all you could to the Lakers, the NBA and the game of basketball again and again with your obsessive, insatiable desire to be the best player in NBA history. You are the closest player there ever was “and ever will be ” to the great Michael Jordan. You modeled your game after him to the point you shot like him, and even talked like him at times.
Fast forward to April 13, and for one last time, you expended all the energy you had left to give the fans the spectacle they wanted. No offense to the Laker players, but no one wanted to see Jordan Clarkson score, D’Angelo Russell pass or Julius Randle dunk. Everyone wanted to see you. You led the comeback against the Utah Jazz to win the game. You put the exclamation mark on a comeback performance for the ages. On a night where the Golden State Warriors broke the Chicago Bulls record of 72 wins and 10 losses with 73 wins, you stole the spotlight and hogged the headlines.
You exited the game of basketball the exact way you debuted in the NBA: as beloved, vehemently hated and ultimately respected. You were loved and hated for your incredible work ethic, relentless attitude, selfish nature and impossible-to-match demeanor. In your final game, you took all the shots you could (50 to be exact) and exploded for 60 points in your final swan song. For the final minutes of the game, vintage Kobe came out to play, hitting shot after shot to lead the team to victory one last time.
After the game, you comically mentioned in your final speech that “the thing that had me crackin’ up all night long was the fact that I go through 20 years of everybody screaming to pass the ball, then the last night they’re like, ‘don’t pass it!'” You ended with a smile and a “Mamba Out.”
You were loved. You were hated. There was never an in-between with you. Laker fans loved you. Fans of other teams hated you. After it is all said and done, everyone respected you because you commanded and earned it.
You gave us five championships. You achieved 15 All-Star appearances. You gave us 62 points in three quarters against Dallas. You dropped 81 points against Toronto. You came back to the court after tearing your Achilles to sink two free throws. You scored 60 points in your last game. You gave everything to the game night in and night out for 20 years.
Thank you, Kobe.
Courtesy of ESPN
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