Kobe Bryant showed his best self to the very end
Cleaners know when to walk away, and which direction to walk. Never running, always walking. He leaves smoothly and on his own terms. – Tim S. Grover
This was one of the lines this great basketball trainer emphasized in his book Relentless when it released back in 2014. It’s only fitting that it would actually be his long-time client Kobe Bryant who would show exactly how to live by these very words.
For years and years, from the late '90s to the early part of the last decade, many people recognized Bryant as the face of world’s best basketball league.
In the decade and aftermath that followed after Michael Jordan’s second stint with the Bulls, it was Bryant who gladly took on the mantle of the NBA’s best player while battling fellow legendary Hall of Famers in Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan.
Not to take anything away from those big men, but it was Kobe who captured the love and hate of players and fans all over the world. With his multiple All-Star nods, MVP awards, scoring onslaughts, and postseason appearances, Kobe became the NBA’s – or even more so basketball’s – poster boy since his first NBA Finals victory at the turn of the millennium all the way until his 17th season in the league.
That might have actually lasted a little bit longer, if not for a torn Achilles that he suffered on April 12, 2013. His seven-game run prior to that game against the future league darling Golden State was as unbelievable as you could imagine, especially for a 36-year-old running on 40,000-plus mile legs.
But since Father Time is undefeated among all professional athletes, that may have been the very last great game we would ever see from the Black Mamba. (READ: Kobe Bryant scores 60 in his final NBA game)
Or so we thought.
Exactly 3 years and one day to that fateful injury that many say marked the beginning of the end, Kobe Bean Bryant would wow the whole basketball world with his final basketball act.
In what was already a lost season for the then-rebuilding Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe did his best all throughout that year to put on a show for fans across NBA arenas one last time. Despite having a mediocre supporting cast built from castaway vets and young draftees, he still put forth his best foot forward each and every game, as long as his aching body allowed him to.
But for everything to culminate in that final game inside Staples Center on a day his footwear sponsor dubbed #MambaDay in the way that it did? Not even the two-time Olympic gold medalist could have imagined it to pan out any better.
Totaling 60 points (over 7 years later since the last one), taking 50 shots, scoring the final 13 points of your team, making the go-ahead basket, and sealing the game with two free throws – ending your career in the same way you made your first bucket – exactly 3 years and one day to the time you suffered one of the worst injuries in all of sports… could it get any more Hollywood than that?
That was why Kobe Bryant was meant to play in Los Angeles. And that was why the basketball gods blessed him and all of the globe’s basketball loving people for 20 magnificent years.
For that one final night in the spring of 2016, Kobe Bryant laced up his Kobe 11 ‘Fade-to-Black’ sneakers for the last time to show us that up until the very end, until those red streams light up the backboard and the buzzer sounds long enough to signal the end of a basketball game.
He never wavered in his belief of showing up to work, putting in the effort, and letting the results speak for themselves.
He went into the zone, his own ‘dark side’ so many of us have seen before, gave his rent its due, and made a difference yet again, still inspiring people from all over.
In one of the best interviews he provided during his post-playing years, he couldn’t have said it any better when he stated:
"I didn’t feel good about myself if I wasn’t doing everything I could to be the best version of myself. If I felt I left anything on the table, it would eat at me. I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror."
"The reason I can retire now and be comfortable about it is because I’ve done everything I could to be the best basketball player I can be. You can’t leave any stone unturned," he finished.
To the very end, Kobe was still the best example of sucking it up and pushing through the obstacles in his path, whether they were injuries, haters, teammates, opponents, whatever.
He still very much reminded us that pressure, negativity, and hatred are all just ingredients for a person to rise above, which is something we all might take inspiration from as we battle this pandemic fronting the world right now.
In the 4 years that has passed since, Kobe was just starting to show us that he wasn’t just his best at basketball. He was also beginning to be the best version of himself among other things and ventures. Unfortunately, the heavens didn’t want any of us taking part in any of that anymore.
A few weeks ago, upon swiping across the thousands of tweets about the recent tragedies that befell the world this 2020, one account posted: "Was Kobe Bryant the glue that held the world together?"
Since his passing in January, one could think about it. Who knows? Maybe he was.
In those final 42 minutes of the 48,000 plus he logged in during a 20-year tenure, he could not have made this generation that grew up to watch him and learn to love the sport themselves from the late 1990s to the late aughts any prouder.
Boston forward Jayson Tatum put it best for all Kobe fans in the Celtics’ tribute (the best one among all the NBA teams that did IMO) to him on January 31st:
"Kobe Bryant always was and will be my favorite player of all time."
That performance on the night of April 13, 2016 cemented it in legend.