Time truly flies. Twenty-years ago the Los Angeles Lakers organization took a chance on a young high school athlete whom had aspirations of becoming the next legend to wear the purple and gold. It was considerably a bold move for the time. Now, in the aftermath of what has arguably become one of the greatest careers in NBA history, we are left with nothing but memories that have marched on into history waiting to become legendary lore.
In one of the boldest moves made in the NBA draft, the Lakers gave up 7’0″ Vlade Divac for the Charlotte Hornets pick from Lower Marion High School, Kobe Bryant. It did not seem like a prudent decision but we had grown to trust the high stake moves of our own general manager Jerry West. We had no clue that West would land Shaquille O’Neal from the Orlando Magic. The magnitude of this move has been lost through time as it was almost unfathomable to draft a player directly from high school especially if he was not at least 6’10”. However, West knew what he was doing. The rest of us learned as his career played out on national TV.
He became part of a mediocre core of athletes that had become tired of being compared to the championship teams of the 80’s. This team had become difficult to follow because of its inept performances but now there was hope. Then, in a move that did not inspire a lot of confidence, there was a meeting between Bryant (accompanied by his father) and Del Harris (Lakers coach at that time) to complain about starting and playing time. Then he broke his wrist playing pick up ball at Venice Beach, which had long become a shadow of basketball relevance. Before long, we were witness to four air balls against the Utah Jazz in the playoffs. The playoffs!! It was not a smooth transition at first to say the least.
Then came a proven winner as a coach in Phil Jackson. He proposed that the best way to utilize O’Neal is to make him the centerpiece of the triangle. This move would not sit well with Bryant. How dare he question the decisions of a proven winner? Even the great Earvin Magic Johnson made concessions when it came to playing with Kareem Abdul Jabbar. And so, the drama begins. Three championships later, Kobe would not sign that contract extension until O’Neal was gone which also lead to the sacrifice of Jackson’s tenure.
As a result, Bryant would have to face the entire league by himself. Needless to say, the Lakers did not make the playoffs that year. So, with a tremendous amount of begging from Jerry Buss, the Zen Master returns and magically we make the playoffs, with a new centerpiece of course. The evolution becomes a little more evident. No more straying from the plan. The moves become a little more premeditated. He begins to seek outward for advice for true development of mind, body, and soul. There has been an awakening. The venom has focus and purpose. The Mamba lashes out by defiantly demanding a trade! As a result, he forces management to keep their word about building a championship team around him. Enter the Spaniard Pau Gasol. After winning two more championships and the pinnacle of his career, beating Boston in the finals, the beginning of the end looms in the near future.
It has become a nebulous era of his once stellar career. Plagued with injuries and mediocre talent these last couple of years has been dismal to say the least. He could no longer be the man he once was. His body now betrays him. He has given all that he can. The parade of well-wishers and the spectacle that this season has become only further proves that he was revered from coast to coast. Bryant’s career is evidence that we all have our humble beginnings and that we stumble through our bad choices in an attempt to find out who we truly are and will become. It has been a pleasure to witness this first hand. The journey towards perfection is an arduous undertaking filled with pitfalls and moments of introspection well worth the cost of admission. In the words of the immortal “Godfather of Soul” Mr. James Brown, “You got to pay the cost to be the boss.”