Column: Kobe Bryant, the most polarizing figure in the history of L.A. sports, was always true to himself
Twenty years, gone in the flash of a fadeaway swish.
Twenty years, crushed by a clenched fist, chewed by gritted teeth, disappeared beneath a solitary gloating march neither fueled by love nor slowed by hate.
He showed up on this city’s doorstep in the summer of 1996 as a teenage Laker with an adult prediction.
“Basketball is kind of like life, it can get rough at times,” said an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant. “You can get knocked on your butt … but what you have to do is get up and hold your head high and try again.”
Bryant, 37, had just finished a Lakers game on the bench with his worn body mummified in bags of ice. His eyes were heavy, his shoulders sagged, and when later he stepped off the interview stage, his aching knees knocked and he stumbled forward in pain.
“Man, isn’t this something?” he said with both embarrassment and wonder.
Yeah, this was something. This was many things. This was greatness and recklessness, history and histrionics, immortality and indiscretion, championships and chaos.
This was a maddening, memorable 20-year connection between basketball’s glamour star and its glamour city and, now that it’s finally ending, this is the realization that, for better or worse, we’ll never have a bond this long and enduring with an active sports superstar again.
Kobe Bryant will be playing his last game as a Laker on Wednesday, and you will not be alone if you weep. Or if you cheer. Or if you chant “M-V-P.” ’ Or if you just sigh with relief that the old ball hog is finally leaving the building.
He scored the third-most points in NBA history. He also missed more shots than anybody in NBA history.
He once scored 81 points, the second-highest single-game total in NBA history. Yet he also once scored only one point, while taking just three shots, in the second half of a deciding playoff game against Phoenix, and then saying the Lakers needed better players.
He helped lead the Lakers to five NBA championships, as many as Magic Johnson, who was considered the greatest Laker ever. Yet he’s also known for helping cost the Lakers as many as three more titles because of his inability to coexist with Shaquille O’Neal.
He was a league most valuable player once, an NBA Finals MVP twice, and an All-Star 18 times, second-most in NBA history. Yet because he was mostly known for his scoring, in recent rankings by ESPN and Sports Illustrated he didn’t make the NBA’s all-time top 10.
As the most polarizing figure in the history of Los Angeles sports, Bryant was different things to different people. But his greatest strength was that, hero or villain, he was always true to himself.
He never stopped working. He never stopped competing. He never gave up the fight. And he never gave up on Los Angeles, because Los Angeles — ultimately overlooking his flaws to fall in love with his glamour and grit — never gave up on him.
Bryant’s youthful intensity helped carry the team to three consecutive NBA championships from 2000 to 2002 even while he was openly bickering with fellow superstar O’Neal.
Shaq was traded, Kobe stayed.
Bryant was charged with sexual assault in 2003 after an admitted adulterous encounter with a 19-year-old hotel employee in Eagle Colo., but charges were later dropped when his accuser wouldn’t testify. He publicly apologized and settled a civil lawsuit while his endorsements dried up and his jersey sales dropped.
The headlines faded, and Kobe stayed.
In the summer of 2007, angry over being blamed for the O’Neal trade and upset with a depleted roster, Bryant spent the summer demanding a trade, saying famously, “At this point, I’ll go play on Pluto.”
Between 2008 and 2010, playing for the rejuvenated Phil Jackson, Bryant led the Lakers to three NBA Finals and two more championships while cementing his legacy as a leader.
Jackson wearily left, and Kobe stayed.
At the end of the 2013 season, Bryant at 34 suffered a tear of his Achilles tendon that seemed to signal the beginning of the end of his career. He would play just 41 games the next two seasons while his body was slowly breaking down.
Yet seven months after his injury, even before he returned to the floor, the Lakers gave him a two-year, $48.5-million contract extension as a reward for his service, and Kobe stayed.
Finally, on Nov. 29 of this season, when it became apparent his skills had declined to the point that some statistics measured him as the worst player in the game, Bryant used a poem and a letter to fans to announce what he had so long tried to elude.
The retirement sonnet, which appeared on the Players’ Tribune website of which Bryant is part owner, began “Dear Basketball” and detailed how Bryant was too worn down to continue playing the game he loved. The retirement letter, which was handed out at Staples Center that night, thanked the fans for their support.
“When we first met I was just a kid,” it began. “Some of you took me in. Some of you didn’t. But all of you helped me become the player and man in front of you today.”
So began a final act that, in typical Kobe Bryant fashion, was unlike any other in the history of American sports. Opening up to a world he never trusted, becoming accessible and embraceable after years of stony intensity, Bryant used the last five months to flip the narrative on his life and career, erasing the darkness of a villain and crystallizing the glow of a hero. A Lakers career that began with four airballs in the final minutes of his first playoff series against the Utah Jazz has ended in a brilliant swish.
Now he has one last stop, ending where he started, in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, in a game against Utah, and how will you remember him?
After a lifetime of gunning, the irony of Kobe Bryant is that his most compelling memories do not involve a particular shot.
Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant share a laugh before a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center on Nov. 9, 2010.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers star Kobe Bryant, left, speaks with Coach Byron Scott during a game against the San Antonio Spurs last December.(Eric Gay / Associated Press)
(Rob Carr / Getty Images)
Lakers star Kobe Bryant drives to the basket past Miami Heat guard Mario Chalmers during a game at Staples Center on Jan. 13, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers star Kobe Bryant, left, poses for photos with FC Barcelona captain Andrés Iniesta Luján before a training session at the StubHub Stadium in Carson on July 20, 2015.(Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images)
Kobe Bryant poses for a photo at the Beverly Hills Hilton on July 18, 2014. Bryant was limited to 35 games during the 2014-15 season because of injury.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant fields questions from reporters surrounding him during the Lakers’ media day in El Segundo.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant fields questions from television reporters during the Lakers’ media day in El Segundo.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is surrounded by reporters while doing a radio interview during the Lakers’ media day in El Segundo.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Kobe Bryant tries to steal the ball from Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried during a game at Staples Center on Nov. 3.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
There was the teamwork that began his run of greatness. Remember his alley-oop pass to Shaquille O’Neal that clinched the Western Conference finals comeback win against the Portland Trail Blazers in 2000?
There was his celebration that ended the run of greatness. Remember him standing on the Staples Center scorer’s table, his arms outstretched, basking in the clamor and confetti of the 2010 Finals victory over the Boston Celtics?
Maybe you’ll remember him biting his jersey in concentration. Or maybe biting his lip on that summer afternoon when he tearfully acknowledged his unfaithfulness to wife Vanessa. Or maybe biting his tongue in pain on that April night when he actually shot, and sank, two free throws after he tore his Achilles tendon in what were considered his toughest points ever.
He never wanted to win our hearts, he just wanted to win. Yet in the end, laying himself bare to Los Angeles for two decades as both basketball deity and flawed human, Kobe Bryant somehow did both.
Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @billplaschke
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