Kobe Bryant was born on August 23, 1978 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Click here for today's sports birthdays.) His parents, Joe and Pam, already had two girls, Sharia and Shaya. Kobe was their third and final child. Life in the Bryant family was not your normal everyday existence. Joe, a playground hoops legend from Philly’s John Bartram High School, was in the midst of a scattershot pro basketball career that took him to three different countries.
Jellybean Joe, a 6-9 forward with the skills of a point guard, never really found his place in the NBA. After three stellar years at La Salle University, he was drafted in 1975 by Golden State. When the Warriors refused his contract demands, he was dealt to Philadelphia. From there, Joe bounced from one team to another, appearing in a total of 606 games for the 76ers, San Diego Clippers and Houston Rockets and averaging 8.7 points along the way. He also played professionally in Europe. Some say Joe Bryant refused to go with the flow. Others insist he was a man ahead of his time.
Pam was by Joe’s side for every stop of his career. He had had his eye on her since childhood. Their grandparents lived on the same block in Philadelphia, and they often crossed paths during the 1960s. The pair rekindled their relationship in college in the early 1970s and got married soon after.
Kobe grew up eating, sleeping and breathing basketball. A year after his son was born, Joe was traded to San Diego. The Bryants loved being in sunny Southern California. Their neighbors were friendly, and rain rarely forced the kids inside. Kobe developed an intense love of hoops on the West Coast. By his third birthday, he was already telling people be would be an NBA star.
In the summer of 1982, the Bryants packed their bags for Houston, after Joe was dealt to the Rockets. Kobe, who was gaining a better understanding of what his dad did for a living, started following the NBA seriously. His favorite player was Magic Johnson, a point guard in a power forward’s body—not unlike Kobe’s dad. The youngster responded to Magic’s flashy style and winning ways, and adopted the Lakers as his favorite pro team.
Joe’s stay in Houston lasted only one season. When the Rockets didn’t renew his contract, he signed with a team in Rieti, Italy. The Bryant family’s basketball odyssey continued. For Kobe and his sisters, the move proved to be a meaningful bonding experience. Stuck in a foreign country and unable to speak the language, they relied on each other to get by. Every day after school they practiced new Italian words and phrases together. Within a couple of months, all three were fairly fluent in Italian.
Joe, meanwhile, finally hit his stride in the pro ranks. Encouraged to use all the talents and instincts he developed on the streets of Philadelphia, he blossomed into a star. Joe regularly poured in 30 to 40 points a game. He made a very good salary, and his family was treated well by the people in their town. What many NBA fans thought of as basketball hell was its own slice of basketball heaven for the Bryants.
Kobe’s world revolved around his father’s basketball schedule. He often accompanied Joe to afternoon practice and rarely missed a game. Kobe studied his dad’s moves, then tried to mimic the way he played. At halftime of games, Kobe sometimes entertained fans by shooting baskets.
On Joe’s days off, if the family wasn’t on a sightseeing adventure, they would spend time with the families of other American players. Among them was Harvey Catchings, whose daughters, Tauja and Tamika, would go on to stardom in college and the WNBA.
This lifestyle—particularly seeing his father thrill crowds with thunderous dunks and no-look passes—further inspired Kobe to dream of a career in the NBA. The soccer-crazed Italians, however, pushed Kobe in another direction. They told him more than once that with his long arms, quickness, and leaping ability, he would make a world-class goalkeeper.
Kobe kept tabs on the NBA thanks to his grandparents. In the days before international cable sports feeds, they recorded games and sent the tapes to Italy on a weekly basis. Father and son watched these videos together, as well as those Joe received from scouting services in the U.S. With Joe imparting his expertise, Kobe learned to see the whole court and read how the action unfolded during a game.
Kobe got a chance to hone his skills each summer, when the Bryants flew back to visit family and friends in Philadelphia. From the age of 10, he competed in the city’s high-powered Sonny Hill League and held his own against boys his age and older. His father and Pam’s brother, John, counseled him on areas of his game that needed improving.
ON THE RISE
The Bryants spent the 1991-92 European season in France after Joe latched on with a new team. The move was hardest on Kobe and his sisters, who endured a two-hour roundtrip commute to an international school in Switzerland. Joe retired after the campaign ended, and he and Pam decided it was time for a permanent return to the U.S. Shaya and Sharia were thinking about college, and Kobe was ready to begin high school.
After Joe accepted
an assistant coaching job at La Salle, the Bryants bought a house in Ardmore,
a well-to-do Main Line suburb about 10 miles outside of Philadelphia.
Kobe viewed the change in scenery with mixed feelings. Connecting with
American kids was difficult for him, and he worried about fitting in socially.
On the court, Kobe’s transition was seamless. He was one of the Sonny Hill League’s top players during the summer of 1992. He then entered Lower Merion High School and made the varsity basketball team for the Aces. The following spring he began going to the gym at Temple University looking for pick-up games. Among those who befriended him was Eddie Jones, one of the Owls’ starting guards.
Life outside of hoops wasn’t quite as easy. A solid B student, Kobe struggled to find common ground with his classmates. In Europe he had been sheltered from many of the temptations and pressures faced by teenagers in the U.S. Naturally quiet and reserved, he got a crash-course in dealing with the daily dramas of high school hallways.
By his junior year, Kobe finally felt comfortable in his surroundings. He also began to make major strides in his hoops career. At 6-5, he decided his basketball future was probably in the backcourt and began to think and practice like a guard. This was fine by Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer, who liked the mismatches Kobe presented to opponents. In truth, between the expert advice the youngster received from his father and the competition he faced each year in Philadelphia’s top summer leagues, he would have been a handful for just about any high-school defender.
Kobe sizzled during the 1994-95 season. The junior averaged 31.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists and was named Pennsylvania Player of the Year. Kobe also unveiled his devastating cross-over dribble during the campaign. He learned the move from God Shammgod, a teammate on his summer AAU squad.
After Kobe’s breakout year, college recruiters from across the country came knocking. The soon-to-be senior boasted excellent grades and SAT scores, so academics would not be an obstacle. At the top of his list were Duke, North Carolina, Villanova and Michigan.
But when Chicago schoolboy Kevin Garnett went in the first round of the NBA Draft in June of 1995, Kobe began seriously considering moving directly to the pros. That summer, Joe arranged for his son to work out with members of the 76ers, and Kobe was awesome. He also made a big impression on scouts at the ABCD All-America Camp at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.
As a senior, Kobe’s sparkling play put Lower Merion on the high-school basketball map. The Aces posted a 32-3 record and captured their first state title in 42 years. The school’s name was in the newspapers constantly, college coaches filled the stands for every game, and coach Downer received invitations to several prestigious tournaments. Kobe finished the year with a scoring average of 30.8 points, pushing his four-year points total to 2,883, which shattered the Pennsylvania schoolboy record set four decades earlier by Wilt Chamberlain.
The recruiting craziness accelerated after the season ended. When an Italian League team approached Joe about becoming its coach, management insisted that his son be part of the deal. Meanwhile, along with several other top high school seniors—including Tim Thomas of New Jersey, Lester Earl of Louisiana, and Jermaine O’Neal of South Carolina—Kobe was thinking about following Garnett’s path to the NBA.
With rumors that Kobe would bypass college becoming more prevalent, he did nothing to squelch them. As various experts rendered their opinions on his pro prospects, a consensus was building that Kobe was indeed NBA material. The 17-year-old added fuel to the fire when he wowed the scouts at the 1996 Beach Ball Classic in South Carolina.
Kobe ended the speculation that spring at a press conference in the Lower Merion gym. Before dozens of reporters and camera crews—and with friends from the group Boyz II Men nearby—he announced that he had decided to take his talents to the NBA. A short time later he signed on with the William Morris Agency, then inked multi-year endorsement deals with Adidas and Sprite.
The news was greeted with mixed reviews. Some sportswriters compared Kobe to Grant Hill and Anfernee Hardaway at the same age, only with better offensive skills. They believed the teenager was ready. Others criticized Joe and Pam for pushing their son into a bad decision. Kobe bristled at the suggestion that his parents didn’t have his best interests at heart.
Debate began almost immediately about whether Kobe would be a lottery pick, as Garnett had been the previous June. The top four selections in the draft would likely be Marcus Camby, Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, and Ray Allen. From there, the college talent thinned quickly.
The Los Angeles Lakers and their president, Jerry West, were among the teams convinced that Kobe was destined for greatness. In a private workout for the club, the teenager impressed with his leaping ability and wide array of offensive skills. The Lakers asked Kobe to play one-on-one against Dontae’ Jones, and he blew the Mississippi State star off the court.
Los Angeles also felt Kobe’s upbringing was an advantage. As the son of an NBA player, he would be able to assimilate into the league better than other rookies.
On draft day, West worked his magic. First he tabbed Derek Fisher, a defensive-minded point guard out of Arkansas-Little Rock, with the 24th pick in the first round. Then he put a call into the Charlotte Hornets, who had grabbed Kobe at #13, and after a little haggling arranged a trade for Vlade Divac. The move created extra salary space, which Los Angeles used to sign Orlando free agent Shaquille O’Neal. Just like that, the building blocks of a new dynasty were in place.
Kobe was ecstatic
to join the Lakers. Not only was he starting his pro career with his favorite
team, but he would not be expected to be its savior. In addition to Shaq,
Los Angeles had exceptional talent, including Nick Van Exel, Elden Campbell,
and Kobe’s old pal, Eddie Jones. An added bonus was coach Del Harris,
who had been the head man in Houston for Joe Bryant’s one season
Kobe signed a three-year, $3.5 million contract with the Lakers, then averaged 25 points per game for their summer-league team. He bought a home in Pacific Palisades, Joe quit his job at La Salle, and the family moved out to California with him.
During a Labor Day pickup game at Venice Beach, Kobe fractured his left wrist. Though the injury wasn’t serious, it forced him to sit out five weeks and miss much of training camp. Going into the 1996-97 season, Harris and the Lakers decided to bring their 18-year-old rookie along slowly.
Somewhat fittingly, Kobe made his official NBA debut against Garnett and the Minnesota Timberwolves. In six minutes, he bricked his only shot and committed a turnover. Sparse playing time was the norm for Kobe throughout the first half of the season. With Los Angeles vying for the Pacific Division crown, there was no need to throw him into the fire.
In January, a thinning roster forced Harris’s hand. At 18 years, five months and five days, Kobe became the youngest starter in NBA history. Weeks later, during All-Star Weekend, he set a record with 31 points in the Rookie Game and won the Slam Dunk Contest—the first Laker ever to do so.
Those were the highlights of the season for him. Injuries to O’Neal and other key players decimated Los Angeles, and the club was steamrolled by the Utah Jazz in the second round of the playoffs. Kobe, who saw only spot action in March and April, ended the year contributing just under eight points a night.
Prior to the 1997-98 season, West and Harris agreed to install Kobe as the team’s sixth man. An observant and well-educated player, he took to the role immediately. Playing between 20 and 30 minutes a game, Kobe boosted his scoring average to nearly 18 points per game. He was just the spark the Lakers needed, as they reeled off 11 straight victories to start the year. Even when O’Neal went down with an injury, Los Angeles flourished. Van Exel, Jones and Campbell all were contributing, as were supporting players Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Fisher.
With the Lakers battling the Seattle Supersonics for first in the Pacific Division, fans voted Kobe into the starting lineup for the 1998 All-Star Game. The NBA, in turn, advertised the contest as a battle between Michael Jordan and the heir apparent to his throne. Kobe, the youngest All-Star in league history, didn’t handle the situation well. He drew the ire of teammates by hogging the ball and dissing teammate Karl Malone. West coach George Karl sat him for the final period.
Kobe’s All-Star performance highlighted a growing problem with his game—he wasn’t sharing the ball. Even Jordan talked with the 19-year-old about this shortcoming. No one doubted that Kobe would one day be a star, but he wasn’t there yet. When the situation did not improve to Harris’s liking, he scaled back Kobe’s minutes. Slowly the message sank in, and by playoff time he was working within the team structure and making meaningful contributions on the defensive end.
Los Angeles opened the postseason with an impressive series win over the Portland Trail Blazers. Next up were the Sonics. After dropping Game 1, the Lakers took the next four in a row. Kobe’s role was limited thanks to a bout with the flu. Though he returned to full health for the Western Conference Final against Utah, Los Angeles was completely outclassed by the more poised and experienced Jazz.
The NBA lockout turned the 1998 off-season into a frustrating waiting game. Kobe decided to invest some of that time cutting a hip-hop CD, which was never released. However, he did meet Vanessa Laine, a teenage dancer appearing in a music video being filmed in the same building. They would eventually wed in the spring of 2001, very much against his parents’ wishes. They believed he was too young to be married. This led to a brief estrangement from his family, who did not attend the wedding.
When the labor problems of '98 were finally settled, the resulting 50-game campaign put the championship up for grabs. Los Angeles responded with three major moves. The Lakers signed Dennis Rodman, replaced Harris with assistant coach Kurt Rambis, and in March dealt Jones and Campbell to Charlotte for Glen Rice, J.R. Reid and B.J. Armstrong.
Kobe, meanwhile, nailed down a spot in the starting lineup. He flourished at both ends of the court, earning Third Team All-NBA honors. Kobe began to add depth to his game, leading the Lakers in steals and ranking second on the team in scoring with a 19.9 average. In all, he logged nine double-doubles and proved increasingly dangerous in crunch time. Though his jumper lacked consistency, the Lakers were going to Kobe more and more in key situations—and he was delivering.
After going 31-19 in the regular season, Los Angeles felt it was ready to go all the way. Rodman gave the club a veteran presence, and Rice’s outside game created more space on the floor for Kobe and Shaq inside. But all was not right in Lakerland. Rumors surfaced that O’Neal was jealous of Kobe. In a team meeting, the club tried to smooth over the rift, but bad feelings lingered.
The off-court controversy
didn’t faze Los Angeles in the first round against the Rockets,
and the club advanced with a four-game series victory. Then the Lakers
ran into the red-hot Spurs. After dropping the first contest, Los Angeles
battled back and seemed in control of Game 2. But with 19 seconds left,
Kobe missed a pair of foul shots that would have given the Lakers a three-point
lead. San Antonio ended up winning by three and seized the series momentum.
When the series moved to LA, the Lakers let Game 3 slip away late. The
next day they succumbed to San Antonio in an embarrassing four-game sweep.
A big change was clearly called for, and it came at the top. The Lakers’ new coach was Phil Jackson, who brought Tex Winters and the Triangle Offense along with him. Jerry West knew he had to find a way to make Kobe and Shaq see eye to eye. Jackson’s unorthodox approach had worked wonders with Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago. Now he would get to play Svengali to two new superstars.
MAKING HIS MARK
Kobe was excited by the opportunity to play for a proven winner like Jackson and spent much of the off-season improving his quickness and footwork on defense. From the get-go in the 1999-2000 season, Kobe and Shaq looked different on the court together. In Jackson’s system, the ball moved more freely and there was less standing around. With the addition of veteran Ron Harper, Los Angeles had all the ingredients for a championship.
The club won 25 of its first 30 to start the campaign and registered three separate winning streaks of at least 10 games during the year. The Lakers rolled to the NBA’s best record (67-15) and homecourt advantage (which they now enjoyed at the new Staples Center in downtown LA) throughout the playoffs. O’Neal, healthy and happy, was the runaway choice as the league MVP.
Kobe, meanwhile, enjoyed his best season as a pro. After missing the first 15 games with a broken bone in his right hand, he blended in perfectly with his teammates and blossomed into a complete player. His shot selection was better, his rebounding and scoring increased, and he began hitting more regularly from the outside. Most notable, however, was his sterling defense. In a February victory over the 76ers, Kobe shut down Allen Iverson, holding him to 0-of-9 shooting in the fourth quarter. It was this kind of effort that earned him a spot on the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team.
In the playoffs, the Lakers got all they could handle from the Sacramento Kings in the first round, but squeaked by in five games. Next they manhandled the smaller and less physical Phoenix Suns. In the Western Conference Finals, Los Angeles split the first six games with Portland. Then, down 13 points in the fourth quarter of Game 7, the Lakers stormed back for a miraculous win over the Blazers. They would face Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals.
Though Indiana battled hard, Los Angeles won the series in six games, earning its first title since 1988. Kobe went down in a heap early in Game 2 after rolling an ankle. He sat out the next contest, which the Lakers lost.
Kobe returned in Game 4, limping through the entire first half. With the Lakers trailing in the third quarter, he got a burst of adrenaline and exploded for 10 points. He then finished off the Pacers after Shaq fouled out late in the fourth quarter. Jackson told his troops to abandon the triangle and get the ball to Kobe. He responded with a virtuoso performance to give the Lakers an insurmountable 3-1 series lead.
Tired and battered after the longest season of his young life, Kobe took it easy during the summer of 2000. After declining a last-minute offer to join Team USA at the Olympics in Sydney, he regained his health and felt refreshed by the start of the following campaign.
Coach Jackson’s roster was infused with new energy, too. To better handle the Western Conference’s high-scoring forwards, Los Angeles acquired Horace Grant and Greg Foster in a three-way trade with the New York Knicks and Seattle Supersonics.
Unlike the previous year, however, the Lakers stumbled from the starting gate. By the All-Star break, they had already lost more games than they had in the entire 1999-00 campaign. Injuries had a lot to do with the club’s inconsistent play, as Kobe, Shaq, and Fisher all missed time. But when Los Angeles returned to full health, the team rediscovered its rhythm. Sparked by an eight-game winning streak down the stretch, the Lakers edged the Kings for first in the Pacific Division.
Kobe was key to the
club’s resurgence. Playing 40 minutes a night, he averaged 28.5
points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists in 68 games. Among the single-game
career-highs he established during the season were points (52), steals
(six), and blocked shots (five). Kobe also posted the first two triple-doubles
of his career.
Kobe raised his performance even higher in the playoffs. With the Lakers sweeping by Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio in succession, he was scintillating. Kobe tallied 48 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in Game 4 against the Kings to close out the series. In the Western Conference Finals against the Spurs, he shot a sizzling .514 (54-105) from the field.
Facing the 76ers in the NBA Finals, the defending champs opened at home with a surprising 107-101 overtime loss. It was all Lakers after that, however, as Los Angles roared to victories in the next four. Kobe was high scorer for LA in Games 2 and 3. At just 22 years old, he had his second NBA championship.
With whispers of a dynasty growing louder, Kobe approached the off-season with his typical vigor. He continued working on his perimeter game, taking as many as 1,000 jumpers a day. The Lakers, meanwhile, fine-tuned their roster in preparation for another title run. Grant left via free agency and was replaced by Samaki Walker, Harper retired. and Foster was dealt to Milwaukee for guard Lindsey Hunter.
Despite an injury to Fisher, the Lakers opened 2001-02 with victories in 16 of their first 17 games. Kobe was the catalyst. When O’Neal landed on the injured list for a couple of weeks with a bad foot, he carried the team. Kobe was good for 25 a night, made key defensive stops, and by season’s end was the team’s best playmaker. He also made his fourth All-Star appearance and was voted the game’s MVP after tallying 31 points, five rebounds and five assists. The game was held in Philadelphia and Kobe heard a lot of boos from his hometown fans. He was taken aback until he realized he was hearing it for beating the Sixers the previous spring.
The Lakers cruised in the second half and finished at 58-24. Their road to a third title would take them through Sacramento, where their Western Conference Finals opponents had put together a dynamite team. Mike Bibby, Chris Webber and Vlade Divac tortured the Lakers, while Shaq and Kobe counterpunched and forward Robert Horry killed the Kings with buzzer-beating dramatics. The series went the full seven, with the Lakers prevailing in overtime in the clincher, 112-106.
As expected, LA trampled the Nets in the championship series. New Jersey just didn’t have an answer for O’Neal. The four-game sweep landed Shaq his third straight playoff MVP award and Jackson his ninth career championship. The Nets were in Kobe’s kitchen throughout the series, but he still logged over 40 minutes a game and hit one crippling shot after another to stall New Jersey’s frequent comeback attempts.
A three-peat was something special, but a four-peat was not in the stars. With Shaq sidelined to start the 2002-03 season, the load was put on Kobe’s shoulders to keep the Lakers close to the Kings until the big guy returned. Initially, he thrived under the increased pressure. While his shot selection raised some eyebrows, he was scoring, rebounding, and passing at career-high levels. Still, the Lakers were losing games they had won in previous seasons, and Kobe began hearing it from his critics.
Even when O'Neal came back in November, Los Angeles struggled to regain its championship form. Reports hinted at unrest in the locker room. The supporting cast, supposedly upset at suggestions that they weren't carrying their weight, challenged Kobe and Shaq to act more like leaders. The club played lethargically through December, including an embarrassing 27-point loss at New Jersey in a rematch of the 2002 NBA Finals. The next game, Kobe scored 44 points against the Sixers. Though the Lakers fell in OT, they showed signs of awakening from their doldrums.
Indeed, Los Angeles soon began a steady ascent through the Pacific standings. Kobe was the main man. In January he launched a scoring streak of at least 40 points in nine straight games, including 52 in an overtime victory against the Rockets. The Lakers won eight times during Kobe's sensational stretch.
By March, Los Angeles had established a firm hold on a playoff spot. Ending the year at 50-32, the Lakers loomed as a serious threat in the West—though there were major questions about the club's depth. Shaq looked healthy and motivated, as did Kobe, but they had expended a lot of energy during their upsurge through the standings. Kobe, who finished second to Tracy McGrady in the scoring race at 30 ppg, had logged more than 40 minutes in a night, often taking a pounding when he was on the floor.
The Lakers faced Minnesota in the first round and dropped two of the first three in the series. After back-to-back poor shooting performances, Kobe asserted himself over the next three games. Averaging 31 points and six assists, he led Los Angeles past the Timberwolves to set up a tough match-up against San Antonio.
The strain of the Minnesota series on the Lakers was evident early against the Spurs. When San Antonio took the first two games on their home floor, the pundits were ready to write the defending champs' obituary. But Kobe and his teammates came back to life at the Staples Center. He hit for 39 and 35, and the Lakers knotted the series.
In San Antonio for Game 5, Los Angeles fell behind by 20 points, then launched a furious rally in the fourth quarter. But when a late three-pointer by Horry didn't go down, the Lakers lost a 96-94 heartbreaker—not to mention their legs. The tank finally ran dry in the second half of Game 6, as the Spurs cruised in a 28-point blowout. Like the rest of the team, Kobe watched the carnage in a daze.
In the summer of 2003, after six years of meticulously cultivating a spotless image and building a seemingly indestructible empire of endorsements and outside business interests, Kobe was accused of sexual assault by a 19-year-old girl in Colorado. The alleged attack occurred while Kobe was at a resort near Vail, where he was waiting to have surgery performed on his right knee. Kobe acknowledged that the two engaged in sex, but contended it was consentual. It was a humiliating and very public downfall. And though the case crumbled before going to trial (and was settled out of court), Kobe and his marketing appeal took a death blow. The episode stretched his marriage to the breaking point.
Despite the ongoing distraction of Kobe’s case, there was basketball to be played. The Lakers went into 2003-04 loaded for bear. Along with Kobe and Shaq, the team also featured future Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone. LA started fast, winning 20 of their first 25 games. The Mailman missed some time with a knee injury, but the team soldiered on, finishing strong with 14 victories in their final 17 games. They edged the Kings for the Pacific Division title, with their single-game margin coming courtesy of Kobe. He tied the clinching game against the Blazers at the buzzer, and then won it with another buzzer-beater in double overtime. He averaged 24.0 points per game on the season.
The Lakers beat the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs in five games, and next defeated the Spurs and Timberwolves to take the Western crown. Malone showed he still had gas in the tank with a great defensive job on Kevin Garnett. In the NBA Finals, the Lakers were favored against the scrappy Detroit Pistons. Payton and Malone were cast as the sentimental favorites to capture their long-awaited championship rings.
Detroit coach Larry Brown had other ideas. He devised a defensive scheme that stalled the Lakers and also coaxed clutch scoring performances from Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton. After the Lakers dropped Game 1 at home, Kobe rallied the team to an overtime victory in Game 2, hitting a three-pointer to tie the game in regulation. The Pistons responded by stepping up their D, regularly sandwiching O’Neal between Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace. They took the next three games for the championship.
With two frustrating misses after three straight championships, Kobe felt stifled as third banana to Jackson and O’Neal. He did not have to wait long, however, to make the Lakers “his” team. Jackson resigned as coach after the seson and O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant. With Chucky Atkins at the point and Chris Mihm stepping into the pivot, Kobe was suddenly the only holdover from the starting five that had made it to the 2004 NBA Finals.
It showed throughout the 2004-05 campaign. The Lakers still won the close games, but they weren't much better than a .500 club. Kobe spent a month on the sidelines with a sprained ankle, and later Odom went down for the season with a shoulder injury. The Lakers went into a tailspin down the stretch and Kobe was helpless to stop the losing. He finished second in the NBA with a 27.6 average, but it mattered little once LA was eliminated from the playoffs.
The highlight of '04-05 was probably the first meeting between the Lakers and Heat, on Christmas Day. Kobe hit for 42 and helped LA build a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter. But Miami stormed back to tie the game and then won in overtime. It was one of 48 losses the Lakers suffered on the way to a mind-blowing last-place finish in the Pacific Division.
The Lakers had nowhere to go but up in 2005-06. Their chances were improved by the return of Jackson, who envisioned Kobe and Odom as his new Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen combo.
Alas, the LA rotation was not particularly deep. After Kobe and Odom, it included Mihm, Smush Parker, Brian Cook and Kwame Brown. Not exactly the team's All-Star lineup of old.
Learning when to carry the Lakers—and more to the point, when not to—Kobe finished the year as the NBA’s scoring champ, averaging 35.4 points per game. His biggest night came against the Toronto Raptors when he netted 81 points, a performance that ranked among the most impressive in history. Because the game was close, every point Kobe put on the board was crucial, and he worked overtime on the defensive end as well. Only Wilt Chamberlain—whose teammates fed him repeatedly in a 1962 blowout against the Knicks—had ever scored more in an NBA game.
Jackson, meanwhile, did a masterful job spotting his players throughout '05-06. Getting the best out of Odom, Brown and Parker, he guided the Lakers to a 45-37 record. In the playoffs, the team built a 3-1 lead over the Suns, but let it slip away. While Kobe scored 50 in one game, Phoenix was able to neutralize him with its quickness and eventually took the series in seven.
LA assembled an interesting supporting cast for Kobe in 2006-07, but injuries kept the team from flourishing. Still, with Kobe leading the club in points and assists, and Odom chipping in around 10 boards a night, the Lakers were winning consistently enough to stay near the top of the Pacific Division. The team was within striking range of the first-place Suns until it hit a February losing skid. A rumored deadline deal for Jason Kidd fell through when the Lakers refused to part with teenage center Andrew Bynum.
Kobe put his stamp on the season during the All-Star Game in February. Going head-to-head with LeBron James on several first-half possessions, he looked intense from the opening tip-off and finished with 31 points, six assists, six steals and five rebounds. The West won 153-132 and Kobe was named MVP.
The rest of the year did not go as well, at least for the Lakers. The team finished 42–40, the worst record of Jackson’s coaching career. They did make the playoffs, but were eliminated again by the Suns in the first round.
Kobe, however, led the NBA in scoring again with 31.6 points per game. He did this on the strength of a monstrous March surge. With the Lakers mired in a long losing streak, Kobe exploded for 65 points against Portland. The T-Wolves came to town, and he dropped 50 on them. The Lakers next took the court in Memphis, where Kobe totaled 60 points on the Grizzlies’ defense. Incredibly, he netted 50 against the Hornets the next day.
Kobe had nothing left to prove except that he could take a team to the NBA Finals without Shaq. After off-season rumblings from Kobe that he wanted to be traded, the Lakers vowed to build a decent team around him in 2007–08. Los Angeles made good on itss prommise when it dealt for Pau Gasol to join Bynum and Odom in the frontcourt. The feel around the locker room was different going all the way back to training camp. This was a different Lakers teams. Slowly, quietly, Los Angeles knit into a winning unit.
Unfortunately, prospects for a championship run dimmed somewhat after Kobe blew out the little finger on his shooting hand in a February game. He decided to put off the delicate surgery and deal with the pain.
Kobe played in all 82 games nonetheless and scored 28 a night He . Although his numbers across the board were far from his best, he had fully matured into a veteran leader on the floor. The Lakers finished with 57 victories and the Pacific Division title. Kobe was an easy choice for MVP. Had an average player been in his situation, the team’s 57–25 record could easily have been reversed.
Kobe continued his MVP performance in the playoffs, as the Lakers swept the Nuggets. Kobe scored 49 points in Game 2. He closed out Denver with 14 points in the final five minutes of a 107–101 victory in Game 4.
Next up were the Jazz. The Lakers took the first two games in Los Angeles, and the Jazz evened the series in Utah. Gasol and Odom came up big in Game 5 to give the Lakers a series edge. The Lakers thenfinished off the Jazz in Game 6, winning by two but having led virtually the entire way. Kobe scored 34 in the victory.
Most experts figured the Spurs would give the Lakers problems, and they did—for about 24 minutes. San Antonio opened up a 20-poin t lead in the first half of Game 1, but Kobe scored 25 in the second half of a stirring 89–85 victory. The teams split the next two games before Los Angeles took control with a narrow win at home. Kobe missed an ill-advised shot that gave the Spurs a chance to win at the buzzer, but the Lakers survived. They won the series two days later, as Kobe netted 17 points in the final quarter of Game 5.
Kobe had proven he could lead a team to the NBA Finals by himself. The final hurdle was the Boston Celtics, a team built to derail a club like the Lakers. Veteran superstars Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen simply proved too much for Los Angeles.
The Celtics won the first two games in Boston and split the next two in California. Kobe scored 36 in a Game 3 win, his best output for the series. He had a poor shooting night in Game 5, but made a nice defensive play to save a victory and narrow Boston’s series lead to 3–2. This just delayed the inevitable as the Celtics humiliated Kobe and his teammates in Game 6, 131–92.
That painful loss became a distant memory for Kobe during the 2008 Summer Games in China. Kobe headlined the newest version of the Dream Team, happily sharing time with LeBron and Dwyane Wade. The Americans rolled through the tournament, blowing out opponents on the strength of tough defense and an unstoppable fast break.
Kobe played well throughout the Olympics, but he put his stamp on Team USA with a scintillating performance down the stretch of the gold medal game against Spain. After the Spainards cut America's lead to 91-89, coach Mike Krzyzewski called a timeout to settle his squad. Kobe responded with a short jumper, assisted on a 3-pointer by Deron Williams, and then set up Wade for a monster jam. Kobe scored 13 in the fourth quarter, as the U.S. captured its first gold since 2002 with a 118-107 victory. Kobe—nicknamed "Flying Little Warrior" by adoring Chinese fans—lived up to the billing.
The Lakers were ready to reclaim the NBA title in 2008–09. It had been seven seasons since their last championship. Their bench was strong and their starting lineup healthy. Kobe’s finger was completely healed, and he did not miss a game. He was named Western Conference Player of the Month for December and January as the Lakers racked up victory after victory. In one of the season's stranger plays, Kobe collided with teammate Andrew Bynum, wrecking Bynum’s knee. Jackson simply shifted his players around and the team barely missed a beat. The Lakers finished with 65 wins, the third-best record in team history.
Kobe’s fourth championship was made even sweeter when he was named series MVP for the first time. The Nuggets took Game 2, another taut affair, 106–103. Kobe was the difference again in Game 3, nailing a clutch three-pointer with the Lakers down 95–94. They never trailed again, pulling away to a 103–97 win as Kobe sealed the deal at the charity stripe. Denver evened the series but the Lakers took the final two games to earn a berth in the NBA Finals. Kobe led the team in points and assists in both contests.
As the Lakers rolled toward their date with destiny, Kobe took his game to a new level. He became the league’s finest shot-maker, hitting clutch baskets off-balance, in traffic, and with defenders hanging all over him. Even his critics had to admit that he was now every bit as good as Michael Jordan at hitting the tough buckets. Among his six game-winners in 2009–10 was an unforgettable shot to cap a comeback against the Celtics on their home court. Although Boston was slowed by age and injuries, many traditionalists wanted another Celtics–Lakers Final, LeBron be damned. They would get their wish.
The final two games in LA, were defensive battles. The Lakers beat the Celtics handily in Game 6 to knot the series. Kobe led all players with 26 points. Game 7 was a different matter. Kobe was ice cold most of the game, often finding himself double-teamed. He responded by hitting the glass with fierce determination. Kobe pulled down 15 rebounds.
After falling behind by 13 points in the third quarter, the Lakers outhustled and outmuscled the aging Celtics, taking trip after trip to the free throw line until they were able to open a slight lead. Key shots by Gasol and Ron Artest gave LA some breathing room, and Kobe put the game out of reach with under a minute left. Spotting Gasol in a mismatch with Rajon Rondo, he heaved up a long shot, which Gasol easily rebounded and passed back to him as he cut to the basket. He was fouled and made both shots. The final score was 83–79.
In Kobe, the Lakers have a championship-caliber player with an impressive résumé and proven track record. Having led LAto two championships without another superstar at his side, he did what many considered un-doable. Can Kobe and the Lakers keep adding to their trophy case? As always, this is likely to be the biggest story in basketball.
KOBE THE PLAYER
When Kobe joined the Lakers as a rookie, he asked the coaching staff for tapes of all the league’s two-guards and went to school on their strengths and weaknesses. He studied all-time greats like Pete Maravich and personally sought out the top active players to solicit advice on how to hone his skills.
Now his education is complete—there are no major weaknesses in his game. When he wants to score, he simply does. One-on-one, no one in the NBA can handle Kobe with any consistency. He explodes on his first step to the hoop, and his crossover dribble leaves most defenders flat-footed. He has extended his jump-shooting range past the three-point arc and is absolutely fearless in clutch situations. Kobe’s strength and body control are exceptional. What would count as awkward, off-balance heaves by other players are well within his repertoire.
Kobe’s skill as a playmaker has been revealed since Phil Jackson's return to the LA bench. In his Triangle Offense, Kobe passes as often as he shoots. On many nights he is not only the team's top scorer, but their number-one assist man, too.
On defense, Kobe is better than most of the NBA’s marquee players. When challenged, he can dig down and come up with key stops. At crunch time, opponents usually stay away from him.
As for Kobe’s leadership skills, they were put to the test after Shaquille O’Neal’s departure. The jury was out in terms of results until 2009, when he learned how to trust his teammates and elevate the game of those around him.
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