The world is still saddened by the tragic loss of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash that killed him and eight others in Calabasas.
Bryant is one of the most indomitable figures in NBA history. From his decision to go straight from high school to the NBA all the way to the 60-point performance in the final game of his career, Kobe showed why he was one of the most iconic basketball players ever.
Unfortunately, the public was robbed of watching Bryant’s post-retirement career, which already included an Academy Award for his animated short entitled “Dear Basketball” as well as a series of novels and the mentorship of his daughters.
Kobe might be gone, but his legacy will live on forever. Here are the eight best moments of Bryant’s career.
8. The young kid arrives
Kobe was not the first to go preps to pros, and he would not be the last, either. However, he is easily among the most influential to make the leap.
Bryant as the first guard to enter the NBA Draft straight out of high school when he decided to turn pro in 1996, which probably explains why there were some doubts as to his ceiling as a teenager in the Association.
But–as Los Angeles Lakers legend Jerry West has explained at length in recent days–there was far more than meets the eye when it came to Bryant’s potential and overall swagger.
West watched Bryant dominant individual workouts with the Lakers and knew immediately he was destined for NBA greatness. He engineered one of the greatest trades in history, sending former Lakers center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Bryant, whom Charlotte selected with the 13th pick.
In subsequent years, West would trade away beloved guard and All-Star talent Eddie Jones just so Bryant would have the opportunity to start. But it all began with that moment in 1996.
7. Taking over in Indiana
The Lakers barely survived the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, and they faced a dire situation in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers.
Shaquille O’Neal had dominated the contest, scoring 36 points and grabbing 21 rebounds for the Lakers as they battled to get a crucial road win. However, O’Neal fouled out of the game midway through the overtime period, throwing the contest back into the balance. No matter.
Kobe took over in overtime, scoring eight points and hitting a pair of jumpers over Pacers legend Reggie Miller. Bryant also rebounded a Brian Shaw miss and scored to give the Lakers a three-point lead with just under six seconds to play:
Shaq won Finals MVP as the Lakers wrapped up the series in Game 5, but this moment showed why Bryant was destined to become one of the greatest clutch performers in NBA history.
6. “Buckle up for Kobe Bryant!”
There had to be at least one dunk on this list, right?
Young Kobe was one of the most athletic players the league has ever seen, and he thrilled fans with a number of highlight-reel jams throughout his career. However, there is one that stands above the rest.
The Lakers faced off against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round of the 2003 Western Conference playoffs, where Bryant would pull off one of the most ridiculous dunks in NBA history:
The drive baseline. The hang time. The double-clutch reverse past Kevin Garnett.
This is one of the most ridiculous feats of athleticism, capped off by an iconic call from longtime TNT announcer Craig Sager.
5. Winning the 2008 MVP Award
Kobe was arguably robbed of consecutive NBA MVP honors in 2006 and 2007, when he led the league in scoring both seasons while also being named to the All-Defensive Firs Team each year.
However, Bryant would not be denied during the 2007-08 campaign. Kobe averaged 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.8 steals while leading the Lakers to a 57-25 record.
Los Angeles would eventually lose to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, but Bryant–much like Michael Jordan before him–proved he could be the most dominant player in the league for a winning team.
Oh, he would get his vengeance, too…
4. The fifth title
Kobe and the Lakers returned to the top of the mountain when they won the 2009 NBA title, but his fifth and final championship had to have been all the more special.
The Lakers earned the chance to face the Celtics again in the 2010 NBA Finals, and the buzz surrounding this matchup was even greater. See, with the Lakers reaching the Finals in three straight seasons and the Celtics coming out of the Eastern Conference in two of the past three years, it felt as though the legendary rivalry was experiencing a rebirth. It used to be Magic versus Bird. Now, it was Kobe versus Boston’s “Big Three.”
This series was everything and more. The Celtics took a 3-2 lead in Game 5 thanks to dominant performances by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, but the Lakers would not be denied.
Los Angeles dominated Game 6, and despite shooting just 6-of-24 in Game 7, Kobe scored 23 points and grabbed 15 rebounds as the Lakers captured their second straight NBA title.
3. Going for 60 in his final game
Kobe valiantly returned from a torn Achilles at the end of a 2012-13 season (his decision to knock down his free throws after suffering the tear definitely deserves a mention). But with injuries continuing to plague “The Mamba” it was clear his career was nearing its end.
Bryant declared the 2015-16 season would be his last. Of course, Kobe hated to lose, but his was a Laker team in the midst of a massive transition. Los Angeles would win just 17 games for the season
Nevertheless, Kobe played on, and he gave basketball fans one of the most remarkable finales in sports history, dropping 60 points against the Utah Jazz in front of a raucous L.A. crowd.
2. Hanging 81 on the Raptors
Ok, before breaking this one down, some context is necessary.
The Raptors were absolutely waxing the Lakers on Jan. 22, 2006. Despite Bryant’s best efforts–Kobe had 26 points at the half–the Raptors led by 14 at the break.
So what does Kobe do? He explodes for an absurd 55 points in the second half, and the Lakers wind up winning 122-104. Just ridiculous:
Bryant was unconscious. Go back and watch the tape. He got to the foul line at will; he pulled up for threes in transition; he was unstoppable going to the baseline on pull-up jumpers. This was artistry from Kobe, and it resulted in the second-highest scoring game in NBA history.
Bryant was the picture of concentration during his playing career. Basketball was his life.
That was hardly the case in retirement. From founding Granity Studios to winning an Oscar and appearing on a multitude of podcasts and late-night shows, Kobe was making a seamless transition.
But the best part about Kobe’s post-retirement career was his commitment to his daughters. Bryant would routinely post about familial exploits on social media, and he eventually took to helping coach his daughter Gianna’s AAU team. Bryant spoke about his love for the game being reinvigorated by Gianna, who was determined to take up his mantle as the “hooper” in the family.
Of course, Gianna was one of those tragically lost in the helicopter crash, which was en route to one of her basketball games at the Mamba Academy.
Kobe’s legacy is expansive. However, he might best be remembered for the same way he ultimately left this world: being a father who cherished his girls more than anything in the world.
Rest in peace, Mamba.