Greatest sports figures in L.A. history, No. 8: Kobe Bryant
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Continuing our countdown of the 20 greatest figures in L.A. sports history, as chosen in voting by our online readers, with No. 8, Kobe Bryant.
No. 8 Kobe Bryant (12 first-place votes, 2,657 points)
Arguably the greatest player of his generation, Kobe Bryant has played a leading role in helping the Lakers carry their winning tradition into the 21st century. Regarded as a fierce competitor who is capable on excelling both offensively and defensively, Bryant transformed from high school phenomenon to NBA superstar while wearing the purple and gold, helping lead the team to five NBA titles.
Bryant excelled at Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa., near Philadelphia, winning numerous national awards as a senior before announcing his intention to skip college and enter the NBA draft. He was selected 13th overall by Charlotte in 1996, but the Lakers had already worked out a deal with the Hornets to acquire Bryant prior to his selection. Bryant impressed Lakers General Manager Jerry West during a pre-draft workout session in Los Angeles. Less three weeks later, the Lakers traded starting center Vlade Divac to the Hornets in exchange for Bryant’s rights. Bryant, whose favorite team growing up was the Lakers, had to have his parents co-sign his NBA contract because he was 17 years old.
The 6-foot-6 guard made his pro debut in the 1996-97 season opener against Minnesota; at the time he was the youngest player ever to appear in an NBA game. He started in only a handful of games during his rookie season, coming off the bench in support of Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones. However, Coach Del Harris played him more as the season progressed, allowing Bryant to showcase the skills that made him a top candidate for rookie of the year. Those skills were also on display when Bryant won the 1997 NBA slam dunk competition.
Bryant continued to improve during his sophomore season in the league, averaging 15.4 points per game. However, his breakout came in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season when he started in all 50 games after the Lakers traded away Van Exel and Jones.
Bryant and leading scorer Shaquille O’Neal quickly morphed into one of the most lethal scoring and defensive combinations in the league. Together, with Coach Phil Jackson guiding them, they led the Lakers to three consecutive championships (2000-2002) as Bryant began to cement his place as the game’s top player.
Despite coming together to win some of the most closely-fought playoff series in Lakers history, friction started to develop between Bryant and O’Neal. Tension between the two stars continued to build during the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons as the Lakers failed to capitalize on their status as top contenders for the NBA title. Making matters worse, Bryant was arrested in July 2003 on allegations of sexual assault.
The charges were eventually dropped, but Bryant’s reputation took a hit.
After the Lakers lost to Detroit in the NBA Finals with a star-studded team that included Karl Malone and Gary Payton, O’Neal was traded to Miami and Jackson’s coaching contract was not renewed. As the team’s undisputed leader, Bryant signed a seven-year contract to remain with the team.
Bryant summed up the tensions between him and O’Neal after the Lakers won the NBA title in 2009: “We’re great as individuals, but . . . it’s probably the first dynamic duo that had two alpha males on one team. We managed to make it work for three championships.”
Bryant posted some of the best offensive numbers of his career over the next three seasons, but the team struggled, failing to make the playoffs in 2005 before suffering consecutive first-round defeats to Phoenix in ’06 and ’07. Jackson returned to the team for the 2005-06 season, and Bryant went on to lead the league in scoring that season with a career-best 35.4 average. He scored 40 points or more in 27 games and became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1964 to finish with 45 points or more in four consecutive games. His biggest single-game achievement came Jan. 22, 2006, against Toronto when he scored a career-high 81 points, second most in NBA history. Earlier that season, on Dec. 20, 2005, he scored 62 points in 33 minutes through three quarters of a game against Dallas; he had outscored the entire Mavericks team, 62-61, entering the final quarter, in which Bryant did not play. Bryant continued to impress during the 2006-07 season, scoring 50 or more points in a team-record 10 games and averaging 31.6 points a game to capture his second NBA scoring title.
“He is the No. 1 player in the league, by far,” Washington gaurd Gilbert Arenas said in 2006. “With a player like him, he just wants that challenge. He’s just that fierce competitor. He doesn’t want to get out-showed. He’s the one who everybody’s afraid of.”
Bryant’s 2007-08 NBA MVP season got off to a tumultuous start after he reportedly demanded to be traded. He was reportedly unhappy with Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak and Jackson.
“I would like to be traded,” Bryant said during a radio interview. “Tough as it is to come to that conclusion, there’s no other alternative. It’s rough, man, but I don’t see how you can rebuild that trust. I just don’t know how you can move forward in that type of situation.”
Bryant eventually backtracked on his trade demands and posted perhaps his best all-around season, leading a team re-energized by Pau Gasol’s arrival from Memphis in February 2008 to a first-place finish in the Western Conference. The Lakers embarked on a memorable playoff run before losing to Boston in the Finals. Later that year Bryant went on to win a gold medal with the U.S. team at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.
With Bryant pleased about the direction the team was heading, he guided the Lakers to back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. He was named the NBA Finals MVP both years as the team once again ascended to the top of the NBA.
Ongoing soreness in Bryant’s knee and ankle coupled with the team’s heavy reliance in him played a role in the Lakers’ championship run coming to an end in 2011. Bryant posted his lowest points per game totals since the 2003-04 season as he dealt with the aftereffects of offseason arthroscopic knee surgery. He went on to win his fourth NBA All-Star Game most-valuable-player award but fell short of his ultimate goal of winning a sixth NBA title.
“I’m here. I’m not going anywhere,” Bryant said in an interview with Yahoo Sports in regard to finishing the second half of his career with the Lakers. “I’m going to be the same player I’ve always been. I’ll figure it out. I’ll make some tweaks, some changes, but I’m still coming.”
— Austin Knoblauch