"This is my team."
Kobe Bryant stands at the entrance of the dark, dreary, cave that will be his final expedition. The silence from within is deafening. The end of an amazing basketball career awaits him inside, and as the Lakers take part in this journey, it is clear the immortal Kobe Bryant has never been more mortal than he is now. This isn't about German knee procedures, twisted and tormented fingers, or Father Time. This is about the realization that there will be a day when he can no longer step out onto the floor of Staples Center to the cheers of the crowd. The fans who will forever reminisce over the kid out of Lower Merion High School that changed the purple and gold franchise forever are now watching the final chapter unfold. From the moment Steve Nash and Dwight Howard became Lakers a new chance was born.
The chance to write history for the Los Angeles Lakers.
His torch is already lit as he walks into the cave; a fire that's been burning long before he was a high school star and a draft day gamble. No end can be seen through the depths of the abyss into which he will depart. All that stares back is pitch black uncertainty beyond the luminescence of the flame he carries, but as the first steps on this journey are taken, it becomes clear that the cumulation of his career has prepared him for this moment. This moment. Life works in peculiar ways, and playing alongside Steve Nash couldn't be a more curious thing for Kobe. All those years of battling and being thrashed by Nash while the Lakers tried to recuperate from trading Shaquille O'Neal. Watching the MVP honors slip out of his grasp and into the hands of Nash and others while his prime years in Los Angeles slipped away. But accepting Nash and his gift for being the gear that creates life for his teammates is something that Kobe Bryant has already come to terms with. In fact, it's exactly what he's needed.
Somebody must guide the team while Bryant embarks on this descent. All the years Kobe spent being the chaperone for Los Angeles, and now, finally, he can simply enjoy the ride. There is no "good cop" in Kobe's approach to basketball and the Lakers. The moments filled with smiles and jubilation are few and far between, and generally are only seen as he's hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy. The last two seasons Kobe has been whittled down to second round exits and disappointments. With two years remaining on his contract, the Lakers have already secured their future without Bryant's presence. But, in the process, they have also given Kobe all of the tools he needs to bring this final curtain down in stunning fashion. The prestige.
"It's a joy for me. I've had to facilitate and score my entire career. I don't have to do that now and I'm pretty happy about it," Kobe said after the first game of the Nash-Bryant backcourt era ended. It was preseason. The minutes were minimal, but it was clear watching Nash probe the defense and move the ball around that he will be the linchpin in directing an organic, fluid offense. The two guards combined for six assists in this small stretch, the infancy of a relationship and offense that will blossom with familiarity. Despite the criticisms and critical analysis, Kobe loves the game of basketball and, above all else, he loves winning. Giving Nash free reign will give Kobe the freedom to enjoy doing both again. Bryant is no natural facilitator, but even so has always managed to maintain respectable assist averages throughout his career as a shooting guard who primarily played within the triangle offense. Now, he can focus on maximizing his natural talents. Yes, Kobe will defer to Nash in the offense. Yes, the time of possession in which Kobe dominates the ball will dramatically decrease. Yes, this is a change he welcomes.
Deeper into the cave Kobe Bryant goes and the silence at the entrance has now disappeared. The basketball life he has lived over the last sixteen, going on seventeen, years echoes off the cave walls and reverberates in his ears with each step taken. The lessons he has learned, growing from an 18-year-old kid handpicked by Jerry West, to the 34-year-old "has been" in a LeBron James and Kevin Durant world are numerous. Los Angeles is filled with distractions, and early in his career, Bryant learned that his stardom stretched much wider than the City of Angels, and the pitfalls that come with being rich, young, and successful. Still, each year, he did everything in his power to navigate his way to peak physical form, a quality that Shaq lacked, leading to feelings of contempt towards his one time compadre. However, Bryant wasn't perfect through his career; he had his own shortcomings.
Temptation led him away from his very stringent path, and to this day remains a point of debate amongst those who detest Kobe Bryant the man. Still, wife Vanessa sat by his side during the press conference, while the world ostracized him, and accepted responsibility for his actions. He was a married man, and the public was given an open forum to stare at a wayward young man who broke the vow between husband and wife. No $4MM "apology" ring can change the humiliation. He went from courtroom, to basketball court, and didn't complain. Kobe wasn't holding a city hostage (though he did keep Los Angeles on pins and needles at one point), and he wasn't on ESPN tearing out a team's or city's hearts. He was fighting accusations that he was a criminal, a true villain, not just a "bad guy" built up through sports tabloids and cheap headlines.
And he survived. He drudged through the down years on teams that either missed the playoffs, or were bounced in the first round. While the darling stories of Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, and Dirk Nowitzki dominated the headlines, the new duo of Shaq and newcomer Dwyane Wade succeeded, and the rest of the 2003 draft's talent grew stronger, he worked in the trenches with the Lakers. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't easy, and it wasn't always done right. But he kept at it. The Lakers are one of the most overly exposed teams in all of franchise sports, and when things go awry in Los Angeles, the magnifying glasses come out. Still, in those years that lacked success, Kobe learned he required much more than being a 30 PPG scorer. He needed a team, needed players around him that were beyond the talents of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown. He needed more than the promise that this 17-year-old upstart named Andrew Bynum would be a key in restoring prominence to his basketball life. And he rebuilt his image from the ground up.
"This is my team."
Yes, the Lakers are still Kobe Bryant's team, but more than that, he is the most lauded adopted son since Magic Johnson, and Los Angeles is his city. With that has come great scrutiny, but only rarely has Kobe left himself vulnerable off the basketball court. The lessons he has learned while being the face of a legendary franchise are ones that need to be passed on to the next Lakers great. That's a luxury that Kobe never had, being left with a franchise covered in the smoldering ashes left in Shaq's wake. From Jerry West, to Wilt Chamberlain, to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Magic Johnson, to Shaquille O'Neal, to Kobe Bryant, there have been two glaring gaps of obscurity. The first being the post-Magic Lakers, which no one in the organization could have been prepared for. The second? The post-Shaq Lakers.
As the whispers in the cave fades away, and the silence returns, there is still no end in sight. Just a lone man walking through the tunnel, left with the memories of a life on the court and a game to which he has given everything. How fitting for him to be alone; he wouldn't want it any other way. His approach the last few seasons, last year in particular, has shown that no wolf is more lone than he. No one could cap the legacy of Kobe but Kobe himself, the talents of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol notwithstanding. Sure, Pau has had his fair share of ups and downs, but his skills didn't disappear. As for Bynum, his desire to be greater than great was lacking. The nonchalance spoke volumes of how little he cared about legacies and all that nonsense. Andrew likes playing basketball just as much as he likes deconstructing and reconstructing computer hardware. Kobe loves competing in the game of basketball, and nothing else comes remotely close. How could Kobe ever trust an Andrew Bynum to help write this final chapter, help traverse the depths of this cave? And this is precisely the turning point for Bryant, as he no longer stands alone in this rocky formation.
He stops in his tracks and looks at the figure standing before him: a familiar person, as if the two had met in a prior life. Dwight Howard waits, ready to finish this trek with Kobe Bryant, and somewhere deep inside, the 20-year-old Kobe breaks into a smile. Make no mistake, despite the personal differences, playing with Shaq was the most exciting period in Kobe's basketball life. There was joy to be found there. Three straight titles, four NBA finals total, and moments in Lakers history that are still fresh in so many minds. A face of the franchise that was exuberant enough to take all the media spotlight while Kobe didn't have to worry about any of that. All he had to worry about was his own game, both on and off the court. But today, in this new pairing, Kobe Bryant needs Dwight Howard just as much as Dwight Howard needs Kobe Bryant.
"This is my team, but I want to make sure that Dwight, when I retire, this is going to be his," Bryant told Dave McMenamin and the many reporters at Lakers media day. "I want to teach him everything I possibly know, so that when I step away, this organization can ride on as if I never left."
The lessons that swirled about Kobe as he became more enveloped in this cave are lessons that must be passed on to Dwight. "I know he's going to be tough on me. I expect that. I want him to do that. I want to be that guy. So I'll take all the heat that he's going to give me, because I know that at the end of the day it's going to make me a better player, a better person, and it's going to make this team better," Howard said as captured by Kevin Ding of The OC Register. These are lessons and ideals that Howard must latch on to in order to face his own demons. He may never approach the game of basketball with the cold frame of mind that exists within Kobe, but to be the face and leader of a franchise like the Los Angeles Lakers, Dwight must understand the dynamics involved. To be able to maintain composure if the franchise fails to deliver him all-star talent for a stretch of time. To find trust that the front office isn't going to leave him stranded on a salary-capped team lacking talent for the majority of his career. While Kobe may have had his own growing pains learning this lesson, the franchise remained patient, and pulled off three miracles since the infamous Bynum tirade years ago. The Gasol Acquisition, The Nash Hail Mary, and The Howard Heist. Luck o' the Lakers, no four-leaf clovers or leprechauns necessary.
The critique of Kobe Bryant as a basketball player never stops. Every time he hits the court the world waits to tell the story they see while he graces the hardwood. A chance to highlight his selfishness, or his brilliance. An opportunity to berate his ego, or exalt his drive and determination. You can't make everybody happy, and this is a fact that Kobe has never struggled to understand; a lesson that young Dwight is just beginning to understand. While Howard may have had the responsibility of being the leader for the Orlando Magic, it pales in comparison to being the mightiest sports figure in Los Angeles. The chance to be larger than life is within reach for Howard; now, he has to win. He must to take a page out of Bryant's book and put aside the negative criticism, deserved or undeserved, and go out on the court and dominate. Take no prisoners. Leave no doubts about his basketball abilities. Winning heals all wounds. Kobe can show Howard to path to redemption; the path to greatness that he seeks so fervently. The payment? Two more championships. Play your heart out, Dwight Howard. Give it one hundred and fifty percent. And understand these four simple words...
"This is my team."
As Kobe and Dwight continue along the treacherous path through this torch-lit cave, it becomes clear the end is still far, far away. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, only the stark reality that this may be too long of a trip for Kobe to finish. The knees are aching. Exhaustion is setting in. How much more can a man give? As they stop in place, it becomes clear for the duo. This is Kobe Bryant's last stop. This cave? It isn't only about Kobe finding the end of his career, but the franchise of the Los Angeles Lakers moving onwards. The path that must be taken to carry tradition forward; for a new generation filled with young fans, new faces, and new memories to be made. For so many years, Dwight pondered the future of trying to outgrow the shadow left behind by Shaq in Los Angeles. Now, in this moment of clarity, the only shadows he must fight are the ones ahead in the cave. Walking alongside Kobe, Howard has the chance to learn what it means to carry the Los Angeles Lakers. All that remains is the passing of the torch, from one generation to the next. As Dwight reaches out to take the embers from Kobe so he can continue his odyssey, Bryant shakes his head no.
"This is my team. This is my torch."
He then points down at the ground. There lies an unlit torch, waiting to be wielded by the next great, waiting to be carried in the hands of Dwight Howard. As the new face of the franchise picks it up, Kobe nods in approval.
"Now, it's your turn."
And he proceeds to light Howard's torch with his own. A seamless transition. A new beginning. As Dwight Howard turns his back and paves his own way through the cavern, Kobe Bryant stands in solitude. Alone again. His torch forever burning as a beacon of the past. Never to be lost in the tombs of greatness. Nothing to fear, and nothing to doubt.
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