It was 17 summers ago that Jerry West took a chance on a high schooler who had the NBA pedigree and the self confidence to realize those gifts. In the 17 summers that have passed since the Lakers acquired Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets for the rights to Vlade Divac, the team has celebrated 5 championships and been to the Finals an additional 2 times. As an individual, the accolades, awards, and milestones achieved are too many to rattle off without it seeming like overkill. Needless to say, the gamble has paid off.
Today, Kobe celebrates his 35th birthday. The kid that the Logo drafted has become a man. He’s had his ups and downs on and off the court in the time that he’s been a Laker, twice — once in free agency and once with a trade demand — even coming close to no longer being with the franchise. But here he is, going into his 18th season, still a Laker. And he will, at least if you listen to him and to ownership, retire one.
Only a few fanbases truly understand what it’s like to see a modern franchise icon stay with one team for their entire career. Today, only Kobe, Dirk, and Duncan can claim that honor. As a fan, it’s undeniably special to see and root for one of those guys. There’s a comfort in seeing him suit up every night, run onto that floor, and compete for the team you root for. I’m not sure outsiders can really truly grasp what these guys mean to these fans. They’re the on court pillars of the organization and have them continue to trot out onto the court is a reminder of all that has been accomplished and a flicker of hope that those past glories can be recaptured.
Back in 1996, the Logo was given the benefit of the doubt when drafting Kobe — he is Jerry West, after all — but to say there weren’t questions about how this would go would not be accurate. Several days ago, Kobe gave a lengthy interview with Jimmy Kimmel and he told a story about his pre-draft workout with the Clippers. Kobe says that the Clips told him he’d had the most impressive workout of all the potential draftees and Kobe responded with glee and asked if that meant they were going to draft him. They told him “no” and said that no one would take them seriously if they’d spent their draft pick on a 17 year old high school kid.
This story allowed everyone to get a laugh in at the Clippers’ expense, since, you know, Kobe turned into the player he has. But, at the time, the Clips were justified in thinking this way. We must remember that Kobe was the first of the prep to pros guards to be drafted into the league. This wasn’t like the ‘Wolves spending a lottery pick on the 6’11″ Kevin Garnett; big men had long been coveted at any age and the success of young players at that size and skill had long been confirmed back to the days of Moses Malone or even Shawn Kemp. But Kobe was a guard and there were legitimate concerns about his ability to adapt to the physicality of the NBA, not to mention the inherit doubts about drafting high school players to begin with.
Of course, Kobe became what he did by using those doubts to fuel him and drawing on his competitive instincts to channel his energy into disproving those who believed he would not succeed.
All these years later, it seems Kobe has come full circle.
Today, Kobe faces similar doubts in attempting to come back from his ruptured achilles tendon. And while he’s earned the benefit of the doubt from many that he’ll put the work in and do everything in his power to return to the floor to be effective, this is the type of injury that few really come back from. So, even those who believe in his will and drive to return in top form have trouble believing that he can come back and approximate the player who has done so much for so long. But maybe that’s exactly what he needs.
In any event, here’s a Happy Birthday to Kobe Bean Bryant. We’ve watched him grow up right before our eyes, from boy to man, from the guy who believed he could do it to the guy who everyone believed would do it. Few can claim such a career arc. He truly has been one of a kind.