His name is in the conversation, surely, to land among the 10 best players in the history of the game. At a minimum, Kobe Bryant absolutely has to be classified as the greatest Los Angeles Laker of them all.
We could probably debate it all day. Whether Bryant is both, merely one of the above or neither really depends on whose scorecard you consult.
What can be said with certainty is that the time feels right to share some of my own recollections on the fittingly gaudy occasion of Bryant’s double jersey-retirement ceremony. It will take place in Los Angeles on Monday night, when the only team he ever played for hoists both No. 8 and No. 24 — the numbers worn by Bryant in 10-season chunks of his two decades with the Lakers — to the rafters of Staples Center.
The evening is intended to put a commemorative bow on a future Hall of Famer’s career, but when it comes to Bryant, some of us can’t help but rewind to the beginning. It’s an unavoidable instinct for me, because my last N.B.A. season as a full-time Southern California resident was Bryant’s rookie season with the Lakers, when a supersized teammate named Shaquille O’Neal nicknamed the teenager “Showboat.”
The moniker was not a term of endearment. Even at 18, Bryant’s best-of-all-time aspirations were apparent to everyone. “Showboat” was O’Neal’s way of trying to keep Bryant humble — and letting the youngster know who was the team’s actual focal point.
Instead, it just fueled Bryant even more. He was determined to prove to O’Neal and every other doubter that he would ultimately surpass all of the game’s greats.
“Kobe didn’t care about night life or anything else,” said Del Harris, who coached Bryant for his first two N.B.A. seasons and the start of his third. “He only had one interest. His only focus was to be the best that he could be. And in his mind that meant challenging Michael Jordan.
“People can argue how close he actually came, but there’s no question that he fulfilled pretty much all of his dreams,” Harris added.
Having shadowed Bryant throughout his 1996-97 debut season as the Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Daily News before tracking him pretty closely thereafter no matter where I was stationed, I can confidently bill Bryant as:
*The most maniacally driven player I’ve ever covered.
*The toughest I’ve ever seen when it comes to playing through injuries.
*The closest thing to a Next Jordan this league has ever seen.
None of that, of course, happened immediately. Bryant started only seven games in his first two seasons on Harris’s veteran-laden, win-now squad. Even before that, shortly after draft night in 1996, Vlade Divac tried to short-circuit the agreed-upon trade that would send Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets to the Lakers by threatening to retire at age 28 rather than leave Los Angeles.
Divac ultimately came to terms with swapping Hollywood for Charlotte and consented to joining the Hornets. Bryant went on to lead or colead five Laker teams to championships, clash with O’Neal throughout their eight seasons together and tune out critics of his often shot-happy approach to finish his career as the league’s No. 3 career scorer (33,643 points).
With or without O’Neal at his side, Bryant logged a 20-season run in Lakerland that was a constant roller coaster marked by alternating glory and turbulence.
Yet as he reflects on it now, as the general manager of the Sacramento Kings, Divac said: “I wasn’t happy leaving L.A., but if I was Jerry West, I would have traded me for Kobe, too.”
As the Lakers’ longtime roster architect, West was famously smitten by the predraft workout performance that Bryant, then 17, unleashed against the longtime Lakers defensive standout Michael Cooper, who was an assistant coach by that point. As Harris tells it, Tracy McGrady had an even more impressive audition for the Lakers one year later, prompting West to make a brief but serious push to try to acquire McGrady’s draft rights and team him with O’Neal and Bryant.
“I don’t think anybody can look at an 18-year-old and say he’s a Hall of Famer,” Harris said. “You couldn’t even do that with Jordan. And Kobe was a young 18 in his first season. He was still in a pretty normal teenage body, compared to when LeBron James came in and had a man’s body.
“McGrady came in the next year with a more mature body and worked out so well that Jerry kind of tooled around with the idea that maybe we should just go ahead and make a deal for whatever it took to get this guy — even though it’d be a step back in the short term — to have two guys like this on the same team.”
It was the Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss, hungry to end a championship drought that would ultimately last 11 seasons before Shaq, Kobe and their new coach Phil Jackson won their first of three successive titles together in 2000, who shot down the idea of a Bryant/McGrady partnership.
Harris, himself, also didn’t want to surrender an All-Star like Eddie Jones for McGrady, either, fearing it would take the Lakers out of the title mix. Bryant was the first guard in N.B.A. history to make the jump directly from high school to the pros and working one teenager into a lineup with championship aspirations was already a sizable undertaking.
“I did tell Kobe there would be a time when there would be some competition between him and Shaq,” Harris said. “People asking, ‘Whose team is it?’ and all that. I told him that he had an opportunity to make it work just like Magic Johnson did with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Magic publicly deferred to ‘Cap’ every chance he got.
”I told Kobe: ‘I don’t know if Magic believed that, but he knew it was good for the team and good for Kareem to say that. And I think it’ll work for you as well. You don’t have to mean it. You don’t have to believe it. Just say it.’ ”
Harris added: “Kobe didn’t resist. He just never did it. It’s not a criticism of him, but just an observation of how deadly competitive he was. To ask him to do something like that just violated his focus.”
The legend evolved from there, in ways both astounding and troubling, on the journey to those five rings. Sixty-two points in three quarters against the Dallas Mavericks. Eighty-one points against the Toronto Raptors. The 60-point fairy tale against the Utah Jazz on April 13, 2016, in the last game Bryant ever played.
But there was also the trade demand in 2007 that briefly threatened his relationship with Buss and, much more serious, sexual-assault charges that stemmed from an incident in 2003 in a Colorado hotel in which Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old woman who was a front-desk clerk at the hotel.
Prosecutors eventually dropped the case when the woman told them she was unwilling to testify and Bryant then issued an apology, saying he understood that the woman, unlike himself, did not view their encounter as consensual. A lawsuit the woman brought against Bryant was later settled out of court.
The incident damaged Bryant’s image, particularly in regard to endorsements. But he gradually restored a good amount of his popularity — especially locally.
The regal standing he holds in Los Angeles will be evident throughout Monday’s 21-minute halftime festivities. Even his old foil, O’Neal, will be in attendance, and has offered to serve as the D.J. for a private pregame party in Bryant’s honor.
In the later stages of Bryant’s career, after all that winning and scoring — and in an L.A. touch, all that drama, too — no one seemed to mind that the kid O’Neal had once dubbed “Showboat,” had started giving himself nicknames. First it was “The Black Mamba,” and then “Vino.”
By that point, Bryant believed in his own mythology to the degree that, when he tore his left Achilles’ tendon late in the 2012-13 season, he initially refused to accept the severity of the injury that had struck him down.
As the longtime Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti recalled on Saturday: “I told him it’s ruptured and he’s done. He said, ‘Can’t you just tape it up?’”
It was classic Bryant. As vintage Vino as it gets.