Did you see Kobe Bryant's triple turn-around jumper against Portland? What'd he have that night? Sixty-something points? Man. That was amazing.
Kobe outscored the Mavericks... on his own? What does that mean? What?!?!? In three quarters? That's not possible.
The Mamba dropped that? In the Garden?
Kobe scored 40 again?
Kobe hit how many in a row?
Kobe did what?
Kobe did that?
From 1999 to 2013, this wasn't just the weekly discourse, it was a part of our basketball lives. Night after night, Kobe Bryant would give us memories that would last a lifetime. Pretty soon, it felt like an entire lifetime wasn't enough to contain the magic that KB was summoning on the hardwood. He was simply supernatural out there, hitting impossible shots and seemingly phasing through defenders while sailing to the rim, feats made all the more mystical when they were performed in succession. Over. And over. And over once more.
There were some nights where you felt Kobe couldn't miss. The basket appeared as a lacrosse net to the audience, but it must have appeared as football uprights to Bryant. He'd hit shot after shot, twisting in the lane past giants in the lane and over two... four... six... even eight outstretched arms.
But as fun as those nights with the permanent Mamba heat check were, the greatest games were the comebacks. The Lakers would be down big, with Shaquille in foul trouble or Gasol going cold early or Lamar being a ghost or Artest throwing the ball away. Kobe too would start slowly, struggling to get his shot off with double-teams being thrown against him in lieu of defense on his teammates. But then it would happen. Bryant would hit one. And then another. And another. He'd bare his gritted teeth slowly, like a samurai slowly drawing a katana out of its sheath. His opponents would quake, as if that metaphor was made real. As the shots kept falling, KB would start to snarl and shout, as the volume from within crept up with a visceral energy reflected by the thousands in the stands...home or away. The electricity would come darting from his eyes, with the ball as a conduit and his teammates the outlet. And that was that. Just another epic game from Kobe.
The craziest part? It got to the point where it felt unfair. Kobe would get so hot and become so utterly dominant, that it felt that in a game with dozens of rules and regulations, the Lakers were playing 6 on 5. Bryant's sheer physicality and athleticism was simply overwhelming to the opposition, with a perfect basketball body attuned to the skill of an expert marksman who had a penchant for getting hot. It felt like there was nothing that could stop Kobe. It felt like nothing the opposition did could slow him down. It felt genuinely, seriously unfair. And really, the only thing that made it unfair is that God only made one Kobe Bryant.
It was a unique feeling. Tracy McGrady had it at times, scoring points by the boatload and displaying the same type of playmaking dominance Kobe was capable of. Still, T-Mac's injury history kept his spurts of excellence limited to seasons, not decades. Allen Iverson was dominant all the same, but too streaky and too much of a volume shooter to hit the ceilings Bryant hit. Even LeBron James and Kevin Durant, still at the apexes of their scoring prowess, are too unselfish and have too great of teammates to ever consistently reach the ungodly point totals KB was throwing down.
What Kobe did, for such a long time, made him must-see viewing. With every game, there was a giddy excitement in the arena from watching such a conversely steely assassin on the court, coldly chewing his gum and putting up shots minutes before he'd eviscerate the 15 men on the opposite bench. Even in the days before League Pass, you'd log onto your computer or pick up the morning paper, needing to know what Kobe Bryant did last night. Did he drop 60? Did he drop 50? Did he drop 40...again? He was the league's most must-see player. If it were Bryant's prime today, he's the guy you'd open up Twitter for. He's the guy you'd whip out your phone for in the bar, with six of your friends peering over your shoulder anticipating every possession. It was incredible. It was different. It was unique. It was just Kobe Bryant.
Until now. Until Stephen Curry.
The reigning Most Valuable Player is now that guy. He's the guy that you check the box score for at the end of the night, regardless of whether the Warriors are your favorite team or your most hated foes. Steph is the guy who is most liable to suspend your disbelief, whether it's dropping 20-something in a quarter or nonchalantly hitting eight threes in a game. He's the player who is most capable of feats ranging from the extraordinary to the impossible. He is excitement personified. His charisma and skill are so uniquely refined and targeted that the grace and ease of his shots are enough to summon childlike wonder from an arena of paying adults. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Curry is the one player in the NBA who makes every night feel like an NCAA Tournament game.
Is there anything in my inspired description of Bryant that isn't applicable to the Golden State point guard right now? Has there been a player since Kobe that could set the world on fire with the same fervor as Curry? A man who has skills that so far overshadow his fellow hoopsters that it feels like it's just unfair that he has these gifts? That every time he takes the court, it's appointment viewing? Not just because he's great. There are a lot of great players in the NBA. It's because Stephen Curry is transcendent. You have to keep up with him because if you don't, you might miss out on one of the most historic nights in league history. And that could happen at any time.
It's fitting that the Golden State Warriors get the main event slot on this Christmas Day slate of games. Pitted against LeBron, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Champion Dubs have rightfully nabbed the coveted mid-afternoon game. In his 20th season and last Christmas Day game, Kobe Bryant won't come anywhere near the spot that seemed to be annually reserved for him. As the league's biggest draw and the Lakers dominating as one of its best teams, it made sense. Curry serving as the metaphorical center of the NBA universe on one of its most important days is all-too appropriate, especially with KB closing out the night.
Kobe held the mantle of "most must-see NBA player" for years. Even with the early onset of KD, Russell Westbrook, LeBron and Dwyane Wade, no one could quite match up to Bryant with such a unique combination of charisma, skill and performance. It was this precise alchemy that set him apart from the crowd. As Kobe has battled injury the past several years, it's felt at times like the throne has been vacant.
Now, with Stephen Curry soaring to inexplicable heights, its quite clear that the mantle has been reclaimed.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino