“We’ve learned Kobe Bryant has been asked to run the Federal Reserve. The feeling is, he can do more with three quarters than most of us can do with a whole dollar.”
-Peter Vescey, NY Post
What are the makings of a Titan? In Greek mythology, a Titan is an immortal deity of great strength. Although their kind was eventually overthrown by the Olympians, individuals with seemingly celestial talent are birthed from the flesh of man. It’s easy to assume that there will be others who follow in their footsteps, but that is rarely the case. With the 1984 coming of Michael Jeffrey Jordan, the National Basketball Association witnessed what appeared to be a celestial anomaly like no other.
At the time of his second and final retirement in 1999, Michael Jordan left several clones in his wake. But none could compare. In the years since his retirement, there have been a battalion of young Jordan-lites who have been mentioned in a sentence with him. Vince Carter’s insane athleticism and North Carolina Tar Heel pedigree reminded many of MJ, as did Jerry Stackhouse’s competitive fire, and Tracy McGrady’s explosive scoring ability. With each year there were whispers of the coming of the “Next One,” yet each of the aforementioned shooting guards fell short on one attribute or another.
Some possessed Jordan’s penchant for scoring, but not his stalwart defensive effort. Others were as explosive athletically (more so in the case of Vince Carter), but not his indomitable will. Some, as was the case with Harold “Baby Jordan” Minor, were crushed for even being jokingly compared to him. For every god there is always a would-be usurper, and those who worship at the altar of that basketball deity are an unforgiving lot.
Let it not go unsaid that Kobe Bryant is at least the second-best shooting guard of all time, with MJ being the clear choice for No. 1. There are even those who would dare say that, skill-for-skill, Kobe Bryant is the better of the two. Like the Titan Prometheus of Greek mythology, Bryant is alleged to have stolen fire from one who sits at the zenith of basketball’s Mount Olympus, and is accused of using it to ignite the competitive fire deep in the belly of mere mortals.
What is it about Kobe Bryant that has allowed him to will himself into this conversation of greatest player ever?
Competition has been the very soil that has nurtured Kobe Bryant since he was a small child. The son of former professional basketball player and head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks, Joe “Bean” Bryant, and mother Pamela Cox Bryant, young Kobe’s fire was apparent at a very early age. As a small child living in Italy, Bryant’s grandfather would tape NBA basketball games and send them to the then 3-year-old child. He would study them ardently. As a four-year starter on the varsity basketball team at Philadelphia’s Lower Merion High School, Bryant would grow into an all-time great high school basketball player, averaging 30.8 points, 12 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 3.8 steals as a senior. He would lead the Aces to a 31-3 record and their first Pennsylvania State Championship in the school’s 53 year history.
Of course, McDonald’s All-American accolades were soon to follow. Yet even then, his attributes were being scouted and admired by the very best in the business. In the Sports Illustrated article, “Fire Inside,” writer Chris Ballard recounts a 1996 pre-draft workout at Inglewood High School gym. In a scene that could barely be fathomed by most high school players, Jerry West was in the building to watch Kobe play retired Los Angeles Lakers defensive stopper Michael Cooper one-on-one. According to eyewitness accounts, Coop got dragged all over the court.
“It was like Cooper was mesmerized by him,” said Raymond Ridder, now the Golden State Warriors’ executive director of public relations. After 10 minutes West stood up. “That’s it, I’ve seen enough,” Ridder remembers West saying. “He’s better than anyone we’ve got on the team right now. Let’s go.”
Former Lakers great Jerry West was already known as one of the preeminent talent evaluators in recent basketball memory at the time. For such accolades to be showered upon a teenager is, for some, beyond the realm of fathoming. Bryant would be drafted by the Charlotte Hornets with the 13th pick overall. However, they agreed to trade the pick to the Los Angeles Lakers prior to making the selection. The Hornets would end up getting center Vlade Divac and several draft picks in exchange for Bryant. If only they knew the type of player whose rights they briefly held, would they have balked at the pre-arranged swap?
Some youngsters may not recall, but Kobe Bryant’s career, though clearly enchanted from the very start, had its fair share of challenges. Nothing was ever handed to him. He was immediately a boy trying to navigate the politics of men early on. He started his career backing up three time NBA All-Star shooting guard and All-NBA defender Eddie Jones, along withhot-shooting combo guard Nick Van Exel. Bryant, only 18-years-old at the time, would ask coach Del Harris to feature him in certain sets. Harris would tell Kobe he simply wasn’t more efficient in the post as Shaquille O’Neal and would not even consider such a thing until Bryant was better.
Some spend a lifetime trying to figure out their place in the world; others are birthed into destiny. The sheer audacity of 18-year-old Kobe to even ask such a thing of a head coach has to be without equal. He seemingly was already aware what great things were in store for him. Though he didn’t get much playing time early on, Bryant practiced like a man possessed. It was clear that he would have to supplant Van Exel and Jones in order to get playing time as a rookie. He would average 15 minutes per game his rookie year. The following season would see Bryant’s average minutes-per-game jump to 26 minutes per game, and his scoring average would more than double from 7.6 to 15.4 points per game during the ’97-’98 NBA season. Jones would start at shooting guard 80 out of 82 games that season.
Kobe would only start one of the 79 games in which he was available to play, but would get the lion’s share of minutes at small forward when L.A. went small. While he had not yet completely replaced Jones as the second best Laker on the roster, the writing was as apparent as neon lights in Times Square. This kid was the future and clearly the real deal. He was already cutting into Van Exel’s minutes and would swing over to play shooting guard at times. Nick’s minutes and shot attempts per game were both down compared to where they were during Kobe’s rookie year. While the usually even-keeled Eddie Jones appeared to take Bryant’s rapid ascension in stride, Van Exel at times seemed repulsed by the very idea of being supplanted by the young phenom. But it wasn’t just Nick, it was Shaq as well.
“I’m not gonna be babysitting,” said Shaq when asked about Bryant following the draft. O’Neal appeared to never have any qualms about throwing players under the proverbial bus, and he would do so to Bryant multiple times during their time together in Los Angeles.
The following season, Van Exel and his hater ways were sent packing, making room for the steadily improving Bryant to finally make his mark on the league in a big way. He would up his average to 19.5 points per game and remain the second best player on the Lakers, even after three-time NBA All Star Glen Rice was acquired from the Charlotte Hornets for Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell. It was yet another example of a time where Bryant proved that he was a better player than an established NBA veteran who was held in high regard in the league. Rice had won MVP honors at the 1997 NBA All Star game, but it was clear that Kobe wasn’t trying to take a back seat to anyone else and was simply waiting for his chance to supplant O’Neal. It was also apparent that Van Exel would not be the last teammate that would feel the need to speak out against Kobe.
Bryant was initially shunned by O’Neal upon being drafted. In 1998, Kobe would be chosen for the first of 15 NBA All-Star games and would score 18 points, leading the West in scoring. However, it was the Michael Jordan-led Eastern Conference that would emerge victorious by a score of 132-120.
The game brought increased infamy to Bryant, as many pegged him as being selfish and representing all that was wrong with the NBA. He was considered too young, too brash, and an unwilling passer. It was also the year in which Bryant infamously waved off a screen from Karl Malone to take Jordan one-on-one. “When young guys tell me to get out of the way,” said Malone after the game, “that’s a game I don’t need to be in.”
After the All-Star break the Lakers took a bit of a nose dive. Kobe’s shot selection was quickly blamed for Los Angeles’ struggles. Coach Del Harris would even say that broadcasters like NBC, and even the NBA, were over promoting young Kobe and this was part of the reason for Bryant’s increasingly bad shot selection.
In the 1997-98 playoffs, Harris would make the rookie Bryant the focal point of his offense after O’Neal fouled out against a veteran Utah Jazz team with two minutes left in the game. He responded by shooting four consecutive airballs with the game on the line. However, Bryant is a special breed. This monumental failure could have stripped him of his confidence forever, but it propelled him to unimaginable greatness instead. Shaq went on to embarrass Bryant after the loss, but the strain of their on-court relationship would only become an even bigger distraction. Coach Harris was sent packing after the Western Conference finals loss to the Utah Jazz.
During the 2000 Western Conference Finals versus the Portland Trail Blazers, the true lethality of the duo of Shaq and Kobe was finally realized as they would win a heated seven game series versus a Portland team that featured the talents of Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, J.R. Rider, Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis and Damon Stoudamire.
Under the watchful eye of head coach Phil Jackson, and with Glen Rice acting as the third option on offense, the Lakers would storm through the NBA Finals and win a convincing series versus the Indiana Pacers by a margin of 4-2 in 2001.
Though Kobe did not play at 100 percent during the bulk of the games after suffering a sprained ankle in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, he would average 21 points per game in the playoffs that post season and win his first NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers. Shaq was truly dominant while averaging 30.7 points and 15.4 rebounds per game. Though it was becoming increasingly clear that Kobe Bryant was one of the best one-on-one players in the NBA, he still was not considered an all-time great player in the league. At least not yet.
And not everyone thought Kobe’s increased confidence was a positive thing. Shaq could see the writing on the wall as Phil Jackson began running the ball through Kobe instead of Shaq, who had entered the season largely out of shape early on.
“When it was clear that everything went through me, the outcome of it was (a record of) 6715, playing with enthusiasm, the city jumping up and down and a parade. And now we’re 2311. You figure it out… I don’t know why anybody else would want to change other than selfish reasons,” O’Neal told reporters.
At an early crossroads in his career, Bryant was now in the throes of growing pains. Shaquille O’Neal was already being mentioned as an all-time great. But even he could see that Bryant wasn’t just going to be a regular All-Star ala Penny Hardaway, but an all-time great like himself. Perhaps it was too much to bear as their relationship would continue to implode.
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