I grew up a Lakers fan — well, sort of.
I knew who Kobe Bryant was, I watched every playoff game with my family and I was happy when they won. However, it seemed like that was everyone I grew up with, being from Southern California and all. It was almost like the Lakers were a religion, and whether or not you were practicing, you’d show your face a few times a year to maintain that relationship.
In this case, Bryant was the Messiah.
Truth be told, I didn’t start watching the Lakers on a regular basis until 2012, when they acquired my favorite player, Steve Nash, in a sign-and-trade with the Phoenix Suns. Again, I didn’t watch a ton of basketball prior to that — and I definitely didn’t watch a lot of Suns basketball — but I did obsessively watch soccer, and Nash, who would often play keepy ups at halfcourt with a basketball, was my bridge between the two sports.
That trade is widely regarded as one of the worst in Lakers history, and the corresponding season was just as disappointing, at least compared to the lofty expectations that were set for a team that featured Nash, Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard.
But that season was also the season I fell in love with Lakers basketball, and it’s my favorite Kobe Bryant season to this day.
In his 17th season, Bryant — at the age of 34 — finished the campaign ranked third in points per game, averaging 27.3 on a career-high 50.4% effective field goal percentage. The top three was rounded out by Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, the latter of whom was 10 years younger than Bryant.
Bryant also averaged 6 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game. The only other players to average at least 25 points, 5 assists, 5 rebonds and a steal per game were Durant, LeBron James and James Harden. James, 28, was the second-oldest player of that group.
But as impressive as his raw scoring numbers are even in hindsight, they don’t do justice to the type of season Bryant had, which can only be described as heroic.
Due to a mix of injuries to key players, locker room drama and the natural growing pains that come with trying to build a contender overnight, the Lakers struggled for most of the season. In fact, their record didn’t eclipse .500 until their 63rd game against the Toronto Raptors on March 8. That game was a bit of a turning point for them, though, and it all started with Bryant.
The Raptors weren’t a good team, but they were young and they played hard, and those were the teams the veteran-heavy Lakers struggled against the most that season. The fact that Pau Gasol was hurt only made things more difficult for them.
Bryant made a conscious effort to get his teammates involved in the first half, particularly Howard, who had been hot and cold for most of the season. While Bryant was able to help Howard rack up 16 points in the first half with his 7 assists, he nearly had as many turnovers as he did assists (6:5) in the first quarter and the Raptors were able to capitalize off of those giveaways. As a result, the Lakers had to play catch up for most of the game.
But with the help of Howard and Nash, the Lakers slowly cut into the deficit, and with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, they got within five points. Luckily for them, those were the situations Bryant lived for.
Following a block from Howard on the other end, Steve Nash dribbled the ball to midcourt and handed the ball off to Bryant, who surveyed the floor for the best shot possible. His first instinct was to call for a pick from Howard, but the help defense from Rudy Gay cut off Howard’s roll to the basket and Alan Anderson was blocking Bryant’s passing lane to Metta World Peace.
With the shot clock winding down, Bryant pump faked the ball to get Anderson in the air, but to no avail. That forced him to throw up a prayer from behind the arc over the extended arms of Anderson, and somehow it found the bottom of the net.
Lakers 103, Raptors 105.
The Lakers needed a stop on the other end, but they couldn’t get one, forcing Mike D’Antoni to call a timeout. By this time, there was just 31.7 seconds left on the clock and four points separating the Lakers and Raptors. Even for Bryant, getting out of this one was going to be a tall task because the next possession had to be a quick 3-pointer out of the inbounds so that they’d have time left on the clock for one last possession even if the Raptors used the full 24-second shot clock. Anything else would have been game over for Los Angeles.
So he did it, bringing the Lakers within one point with 29.3 seconds left.
Still, the Lakers need one more stop to take the lead with their final possession, and once again they couldn’t get one. With 8.4 seconds left on the shot lock, Los Angeles was down three points.
The Raptors knew that there was only one player that was going to take the last shot, and that was Bryant, so when Steve Blake inbounded the ball, Bryant already had two guys on him. It didn’t matter.
One pump fake got Amir Johnson in the air, which is apparently all Bryant needed to get his shot off. Lakers 109, Raptors 109. Suddenly, the 20” TV that I was mounted in front of felt like an arena.
The Lakers went on to win the game in overtime 118-116. Bryant didn’t turn the ball over once in the final two frames. He ended the night with 41 points on 50% shooting from the field, 12 assists and 6 rebounds.
Through the final 15 games of that season, Bryant averaged 25.4 points per game, 7.1 assists and 6 rebounds, and the Lakers went 13-6 in the homestretch of the season. The Lakers were going to make the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season, and Bryant was going to be the reason. At the age of 34, Bryant was going to do it again.
Then, disaster struck.
In the midst of another dominant performance from Bryant, he went to the floor and grabbed his ankle. Bryant had played through ankle injuries in the past, and with where the Lakers were in the standings, he likely would have done it again. But, as we’d later find out, it wasn’t an ankle injury — it was a full rupture of the Achilles tendon, which makes this next part sound unbelievable.
Bryant was owed two free throws upon re-entering the game, but there was no guarantee that he would be able to shoot them. With the amount of pain that comes with the full rupture of the Achilles, he probably shouldn’t have — but he did. On the strength of his own two feet, Bryant limped to the free-throw line, drained two free throws for his 33rd and 34th points, and then walked back out to the sideline.
The Lakers won 118-116 and leapfrogged the Utah Jazz for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. They needed every second and every point from Bryant they could get, and he gave them all that he had left.
Now that he’s gone, that is how I will choose to remember Kobe Bryant.
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