By Kalama Hines
The memory is as clear to me as Crystal Pepsi. A pair of 12-year-old boys riding their bikes to and from school each day, my friend Terence and I would make regular stops at the local shop to spend whatever money we could scrape together.
For me, it was the fruit of weekend labor for my father’s landscaping business that afforded a pack or two daily. Anyone who has ever been an addict knows that familiar feeling – tearing the seal, yearning for that one perfect fix.
This particular day was perfect. On this day, it was Fleer, and the prize was a Kobe Bryant rookie card.
I still have that card. A 17-year-old kid, donning a white Lakers cap, and holding that historic yellow jersey. The number 8 embroidered in purple on the back would become so familiar throughout the world in such a short period of time.
That image marked an emphatic return to dominance for one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. But the time has come for the boy on that card to become a man to whom we bid farewell.
With his departure, it is unclear who will replace him as the heart of the NBA, but that is a question to be addressed later. For now, let’s spend what time we have left enjoying the genius that Kobe has brought to the court, despite Father Time’s repossession of much of that genius.
For those of us lucky enough to have witnessed basketball in the 1980’s and 90’s, we may have seen the game at its best. Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. Larry Bird and Isaiah Thomas. Reggie Miller and the New York Knicks.
For those not so lucky, understand that you are seeing the sun set on the career of the most intense competitor and supremely talented athlete of this generation.
With a pizzazz that only a player so sophisticated could pull off, Kobe announced his decision through poetry, on the Derek Jeter-founded website “The Players’ Tribune,” effectively crashing the site.
Not a two-hour one-man show, instead, a six-stanza epistolary poem. A piece of work that New York University writing professor Jameson Fitzpatrick described to Fuse as impressive and having “true poetic logic.”
Perhaps no excerpt shows that better than:
“You gave a six-year old boy his Laker dream
And I’ll always love you for it.
But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer.
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.”
The style certainly befits his caliber of play, and what he meant to the world of basketball.
His game was poetry in motion. The beauty of the turnaround jumper. The majesty of flight prior to a thunderous dunk. All the while, caging the ferocity needed to finish off his opponent and surprising brilliance on the symphony piano and ability to speak four languages.
The superlatives are also well documented: 32,638 career points (third-most all time and most by a Laker), five NBA titles, two NBA Finals MVPs, 15 All-NBA selections, and many more. But Bryant’s career goes well beyond the numbers.
To me, Kobe was the young guy willing to bust his butt to earn a name for himself who became a not-so-young guy willing to bust his butt to keep that name. He wasn’t a guy who came into the league with a name expecting it to maintain itself.
That’s what made, and will continue to make, him special. Even to someone, like me, who has never been a Lakers fan.
He may have gained the reputation, with time, as a guy who would push his teammates further than they were willing to go. But that was what he knew. That was made him great. He was constantly working and fine tuning his craft. It was something, of the many, that he learned studying Jordan. Something that allows him to place his name beside the association’s best ever.
His fiery passion caused him to be loved by so many, but hated by countless more. But love him or hate him, you have no choice but respect him.
And with the clock ticking on the fourth quarter of his career, he will soon vanish into that tunnel a final time, and we will be left with the moments captured in our memories, and on the trading cards we still cherish.