Thursday, April 14, 2016

Saying Goodbye to Kobe Bryant, the NBA's Last Great Villain

By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial)

A bricked three-pointer was followed by another missed jumper, a shanked layup, a botched floater, and a whole lot of groans from a crowd that was dying to cheer something.

They weren’t alone.

I sat there wincing, embarrassed.

Was this really how it was going to end?

Save for a few vintage performances, this Lakers season has been riddled with air balls, leaked cell-phone videos, horrible defending and the worst win-loss record of Kobe Bryant’s 20-year career.

Through it all, he just kept asking for the ball, leaning on defenders, arm stretched skyward demanding the entry pass. The defiance, his f**k you attitude, and his killer will, all of which may have been his most irritating personality traits, on full display. But those same traits are also what made him so damn good.

Eventually, the shots started falling, one after another.

He scored 15 of his team's final 17 points, including the go-ahead jumper with 31.6 seconds remaining, ending the night with yet another astonishing 60-point game. Granted, he took 50 shots to get there, but for Kobe, the destination always mattered more than the journey. 

He thanked the crowd over the backdrop of a standing ovation, a who’s-who list of celebrities there for the moment, in front of seats they so often vacate before the final horn sounds.

Kobe gave his last goodbyes and thanked them for all of their years of support.

“We’ve been through our ups and we’ve been through our downs," Bryant said. “I think the most important part is that we stayed together throughout.”

“Mamba out,” he finished, before placing his microphone on the center court logo, surrounded by 17 stars for Laker championships, five of them his.

Just like that it was over, and slowly, a piece of my childhood was as well.

Growing up I hated Kobe Bryant.

Hated that he beat my favorite player Allen Iverson in the NBA Finals.

Hated the way he scapegoated Shaq for his own infidelity, and lamented not just paying off his victim.

Hated his sheer disregard for teammates, jacking up contested jumpers over triple-teams, a style I loathed so much in teammates as a player myself.

He was my Michael Jordan.

Like MJ, he possessed a sheer, cutthroat desire to destroy everyone and everything in his path. Kobe had an obsessive nature you would be hard pressed to find in anyone else. Yes, he worked harder and longer. Smarter. The genius was in the details, always. Yet he always chased knowledge as a weapon – knowledge of everything, and everyone.

Each and every night my Heat played the Lakers, I knew talent wouldn’t be enough. His will had to be matched, even to the final second.

Sadly, they just don’t make them like this anymore.

Kobe was cut from a different cloth. That cloth of late-90s basketball, where fights were frequent, and friends were few.

He is, in many ways, the last player from my golden age of basketball. The age that made me fall in love with a sport that a person of my height and athletic ability had no business playing. He bridged the gap between the Magic’s and Jordan’s to the days of LeBron and Steph. He’s the last old-school basketball player in the NBA. Hate him or love him, everybody respects him.

One must respect his athletic accomplishments, of which there are many. That respect does not come from years of good behavior or morally superior decision-making. It comes from a mindset we hope to find in all of our athletes -- Playing the game as if it’s your last.

Now we must say goodbye.

All of that hatred and animosity leaves, with no villain worthy to replace him.

For one night, my admiration and respect wasn’t complicated or messy or confused or qualified. Love was just love. It was lurking there all along. I just didn’t want to admit it.

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