I remember the 1997 NBA Western Conference Semifinals between the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers very vividly. I was 15 at the time and it was just two years removed from the Houston Rockets winning the second of their back-to-back NBA Championships. Even though I was born and raised in San Antonio, I came to Houston in 1989, so, I was too young to be a Spurs fan like almost everybody is in the Alamo City. At the time, I was a hardcore Rockets fan. I was so much a Rockets’ fan that I my brother and I, who was just as hardcore a fan, cried when they lost to the Seattle Supersonics in the 1993 Western Conference Semifinals.
Those 1997 NBA Playoffs led me to thinking my adopted hometown team could possibly win 3 titles in a 4-year span. That hadn’t been done since the very same Lakers between 1985 and 1988. To do that, they had to beat either a Jazz team, that has always been a thorn in the Rockets’ collective side or the venerable and league dynastic Lakers. At the time, those Lakers were not the dynasty they had been in the 1980s with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy. Nor were they the dynasty that they were at the beginning of the 2000s with a Hall of Fame worthy Shaquille O’Neal and the superstar version of Kobe Bryant. This version of the Lakers was superstar Shaquille O’Neal and precocious rookie Kobe Bryant.
Kobe had played that rookie season and did not resemble the Hall of Famer or one of 5-Greatest Players to ever play the game of basketball. He had the same steely determination and nerves that us basketball fans came to know, love, and appreciate, but he hadn’t put together the whole package yet. So, when he entered Game 5 of those 1997 Western Conference Semifinals, he came in during the last few crucial minutes of the game and went 0-4. He was an 18-year old rookie and missing every shot in a situation against one of the best teams in the West, so this shouldn’t be held against him. Every miss was an air-ball. They weren’t even close air-balls either. They were air-balls that just made him looked over-matched. The Lakers lost that game and the series in that 5th game, which led to the Jazz playing and prevailing over the Rockets.
It was an inauspicious playoff experience for any rookie, but it was one of the two reasons why I remember these playoffs so vividly. Even though it wasn’t the best performance at any point of his young career at that point, Kobe still wasn’t intimidated nor overwhelmed. He might have been over-matched because of his youth and inexperience in the NBA, but what I remember more than anything, was the fact that he walked off the court with his head held up high and a look that he was going to make up for that moment. As we all know, he became a hero of my generation.
Every time one of us took a jumper, be it on the court, threw trash in the trashcan, or a sock in the laundry hamper, we yelled “Kobe!!!” He was even more revered than Michael Jordan was because he was OUR ERA!!! He had Sprite commercials, was a hip-hop artist, and everything he did, whether it was attending a hip-hop concert or hanging around hip-hop artists was our generation. We grew up with Tupac, Biggie, Snoop Dogg, and so on and Kobe embraced us with open arms. The fact that he became a Hall of Famer and arguably one of the five greatest basketball players of all-time was a matter of skill, determination, and steely nerves, but, his off-court persona was that he was one of us.
As I wrote this, I know there are some people thinking, “Why now?” It has been almost two months since Kobe, his daughter Gianna, and 7 other people tragically died on the helicopter flight to his daughter’s game and we are now dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic that has also tragically taken many lives. This is as good a time as any to reflect while the world has time to slow down and deal with this pandemic.
When lives are lost, it has become commonplace to accept death as normal. So much loss of life on this planet can lead a person to be jaded and nonchalant towards death. So, when someone dies, we sometimes don’t give it a second thought or really reflect on what that person means to us. He or she is just gone, and life goes on.
I wanted to reflect and truly give Kobe Bryant his “flowers,” so to speak. I’m not a celebrity, so, I wasn’t able to go to the memorial at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, or address the crowd like Lebron James did at the first game since his death against the Portland Trailblazers, or even get to seek his counsel like so many athletes did. What I have been able and blessed to do though is to pen my version of a eulogy to him. It took me these couple of months to truly put into words how he moved and influenced me.
Watching him play basketball with a “never say die” attitude, scoring 60 points in his last ever NBA game, or seeing him rap in a Sprite commercial with my one of my favorite players of all time in Tim Duncan, I was always a fan. When I play basketball to this day, whether in my head or out loud saying “Kobe” scoring after getting fouled or watching my brother parent my niece, I am reminded of my love and appreciation for him. He was truly one of a kind and I want to give my final farewell. I’m going to miss you Kobe Bean Bryant. You were a brother and a great loss.
I will always remember you.
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