Sean Beckwith: An unforgettable foe falls too soon
The word I would use to describe Kobe Bryant — the NBA icon, Lakers legend and player so ruthless that he would try to fire a contested 20 footer into even the smallest chink in an opponents’ armor who died in a helicopter crash Sunday — is indelible.
Yes, I know it seems like the most basic way to describe him, as a man who left a permanent mark, but as a Trail Blazers fan I’ve been trying to scrub out Kobe memories from my brain for at least a decade.
I hate the Lakers. If I ever have a child, one of the first phrases he/she will learn is “F— the Lakers.” For the majority of his 20-year career, I rooted against Kobe. From THAT oop to Shaq in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to eliminating the Blazers from playoff contention on a 34-foot fadeaway buzzer beater, he was the Ernst Stavro Blofeld to my James Bond only more times than not we couldn’t escape the overtly painful death he laid out for us.
Death by a thousand piranha? More like death by a thousand mid-range jumpers. From the Kobe-Shaq Lakers to the Kobe-Pau Lakers, I took pleasure in every loss. During the period between Shaq and Pau, I reveled in Kobe trying to shoot his way out of the hole he dug himself. And he damn nearly did.
To me, that was the most impressive stretch of his career. There was no floor spacing like there is now to allow people like James Harden to go iso against little help defense. Kobe was out there getting triple and quadruple teamed because everyone knew he trusted his contested jumper more than Smush Parker’s open one and it didn’t matter.
I’ll always remember seeing the 81-point game scroll by on the bottom of the ESPN ticker. It was one of the most surreal moments of my lifelong NBA fandom. I’m stealing this from my friend but I’m sure he’s not the only one to make this observation: Kobe took and made the most difficult shots of any player I’ve ever seen.
“Haters” called him a ball hog, but even his own fans thought he could distribute more. My favorite scene in the sparsely watched LA-based comedy “The Wash” starring Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, is a one-off where Snoop is watching a Lakers game while waiting for someone to move the plot along, and says, “Damn Kobe, pass the ball.”
Then something weird happened. After Team USA got smacked in the 2004 Olympics, there was a push to get the U.S. back on top of the podium. The 2008 Redeem Team roster featured few reliable big men — Dwight Howard was the only true center — and also a pre-Miami LeBron/early banana boat crew who hadn’t fully earned our trust yet. However, we had Kobe.
It was so strange to root for him. Every fiber of my fanhood was trained to loathe this man. Sure, I respected him but not as much as I hated the Lakers. The gold medal game against Spain, which wasn’t a great matchup for the States as the Spaniards had the Gasol brothers who were more than capable of controlling the paint, tipped at midnight local time.
Obviously, I stayed up to watch it, and it was beyond worth it. The game was tight throughout with the U.S. unable to extend its lead into blowout territory. It was getting late in the game and you could kind of see the young guys looking around like, “This isn’t supposed to be this close” as Spain kept cutting the lead to one possession.
But you could tell Kobe wasn’t worried. He only ended up with 20 but hit a couple late dagger 3s. It was incredibly comforting having him on your side — almost as much as it was troubling when he showed up in Laker colors.
In the late stages of his career when he was often trying to overcome bad injuries and worse teammates, I grew to like him. It could have been because he was no longer capable of haunting the Moda Center but, honestly, I think it was his force-of-will personality. You knew how much he wanted to win and it pained him when his young teammates didn’t share that same drive.
There is a level of “F— it” veteran players reach when they hit a certain age where they’re going to say and do things on their own terms and if you don’t like it, you can leave. That was my favorite Kobe. He opened up to the media and shared his frustrations and feelings as candidly as possible.
When asked about getting booed during his final game in Portland, he said, “The boos every time I touch it, I absolutely love it.” That’s the Kobe I’ll remember.
There are memorable heroes and unyielding villains, but one thing is for certain, whether he was friend or foe, there’s no forgetting the mark Kobe Bryant left on the game of basketball and the people who watched him play.
Maybe some day there will be a purple and gold lining in these dark, depressing clouds but right now I can’t find one. It’s a sad time for the association. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and the other families of the people on that helicopter. Rest in peace Gianna Bryant. Rest in peace Mamba.
Sean Beckwith is a diehard Blazers fan but will always yell “Kobe” when shooting anything. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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