Eighty-one points in his prime and 60 on his way into retirement. Five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, 18 All-Star appearances representing them, 15 All-NBA honors, two jerseys hanging in the Staples Center rafters — No. 8 and No. 24
And the number that will haunt Los Angeles and the world — only 41 years old.
A future Hall of Famer, an all-time great, the second-best shooting guard ever and the closest thing to Michael Jordan people have seen, Kobe Bryant died Sunday morning, one of nine who perished in a helicopter crash in Calabasas.
The loss was mourned in all corners of the world. Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama both tweeted tributes. NFL greats Tom Brady and Peyton Manning expressed their sadness. Paris Saint-Germain soccer star Neymar scored a goal off a penalty kick and held up two fingers on his right hand and four on his left.
“Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling,” Jordan said in a statement. “I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force.”
While not without his on- and off-court controversies, Bryant’s combination of skill, hard work and relentless pursuit of winning resonated in Los Angeles and with basketball fans worldwide. His willingness to sprint toward big moments and big shots endeared him to fans and sometimes enraged his critics. But when things mattered most, you could count on Bryant always being a part of it.
His death sent a wave of grief through the basketball world Sunday, with eight games across the NBA played while teams and players offered tributes and couldn’t contain their emotions.
Veteran center and Angeleno Tyson Chandler, now a backup center on the Rockets, stared onto the court early in Houston’s game against Denver and shook his head in disbelief. Tears welled in the eyes of his teammates, including Austin Rivers, who idolized Bryant’s game.
Toronto players embraced their former teammate, San Antonio guard DeMar DeRozan, who grew up in Los Angeles trying his best to mimic every Bryant mannerism. DeRozan’s coach, Gregg Popovich, consoled him before the game began with a tribute — both teams taking 24-second violations.
“Everything I learned came from Kobe. Everything,” DeRozan told reporters. “Take Kobe away, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have love. I wouldn’t have the passion, the drive.”
After LeBron James passed Bryant for No. 3 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list on Saturday night, Lakers teammate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was asked about his favorite Bryant performance, and without hesitation he mentioned the 81-point game.
Seven years after that performance, while recovering from a knee fracture, Bryant re-watched that game from Jan. 22, 2006, and tweeted along, providing a type of director’s commentary. He would do the same in retirement on an ESPN show called “Detail.”
“Watching the game now, the easy shots I missed, I could of had 100 pts!” Bryant tweeted in 2013, ending his comments with, “I felt like I was looking at a Salvador Dali painting #masterpiece.”
It’s still the second-highest-scoring game in NBA history.
Bryant also is revered as a winner and, ironically, a lot of that reverence began with a high-profile loss.
During his first trip to the playoffs as a rookie, Bryant tried to extend a first-round series with the Utah Jazz in the final seconds of regulation. Like he would so many times in his career, he pushed into the mid-range, stopped and rose to make the big shot — except this one fell way short and the Lakers eventually lost in overtime.
That airball, though, became part of Bryant’s legacy, a moment when he was still a teenager that helped build the framework of what was to come.
“There will never be another Kobe, man. He had the confidence and the swagger even at 17 and 18,” Magic Johnson remembered Sunday. “When he missed that shot that was an airball in Utah and he knew he was coming back. That says a lot about that dude. He was like, ‘OK, I’ll be back. Don’t worry about me. I’ll take it again.’ This dude here is a different cat. But he loved being a Laker, that’s one thing he always loved. He and I shared that.”
Bryant earned accolades for his toughness — both physical and mental.
His “Mamba Mentality” slogan was as much about Bryant’s ability to block out immeasurable pain as it was anything else.
In the 2000 NBA Finals, Bryant missed most of Game 2 and all of Game 3 because of a sore ankle only to bail out the Lakers with 47 minutes of grinding play that they desperately needed with Shaquille O’Neal fouling out. Bryant sealed the game with three baskets in the clutch against the Indiana Pacers to help erase any memories from the Utah failure.
Then near the end of the 2012-13 season, Bryant ruptured an Achilles tendon, limped off the court and returned to make two free throws before exiting. You can still hear fans at Staples Center murmur, “Well, Kobe made two without an Achilles” when a Laker misses a pair of free throws.
His tenure with the Lakers was far from perfect. He wasn’t always a popular teammate, sometimes near impossible to play alongside because his drive for excellence was too hard for others to match. He was viewed as being responsible for breaking up the pairing with O’Neal (and, to his credit, starting again with Pau Gasol). He and Dwight Howard weren’t able to coexist and push the Lakers to the title people expected.
He and O’Neal reconciled, with the former Lakers big man tweeting Sunday that he’s “sick” right now.
Late in his career, the Lakers struck out when trying to pair an aging Bryant with a top free agent. Making things even tougher, the team gave Bryant a $48.5 million extension after he tore his Achilles, eating up a big chunk of the Lakers’ salary-cap room.
The contract, combined with a game that had been diminished because of injuries and age, helped push the Lakers into the worst stretch in franchise history — a streak of six consecutive seasons without a postseason appearance.
Still, peers admired him.
Throughout the NBA on Sunday, they tweeted tributes, posted photos and wrote messages on their sneakers.
“The day I earned your respect was a day I’ll never forget,” veteran forward Jae Crowder said.
Bryant’s final season before retirement provided him an opportunity to reinvent himself once again, this time as a gracious veteran open to reflection about his career and legacy as he made stops around the NBA. While the celebrations (and the flood of shot attempts) weren’t always popular with his team, Bryant left the game in a perfect way — taking 50 shots and scoring 60 points against the Jazz.
In retirement, Bryant became the father to an heir — his daughter Gianna. They went to WNBA games and he proudly posted videos of her posting up players and making fadeaway jumpers just like him.
He’d become a basketball dad and an AAU coach.
Now, he’s a memory and the world is grieving.
“Kobe was one of the fiercest competitors the NBA has ever known,” former Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. “Who will ever forget his Game 7 performance in the 2010 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics? Despite his own and our entire team’s shooting struggles, he willed us to win with 23 points — 10 coming in the fourth quarter — and 15 rebounds. That game epitomized his drive, his passion and his desire to win. Although the game was close throughout, I always felt that one way or another he would not let us lose.
“… Kobe was a once-in-a-generation player who will forever be remembered for his competitive nature and his will to win. They threw away the mold when Kobe Bryant was born. There will never be another like him.”
©2020 Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.