KOBE BRYANT - TIME TO SAY GOODBYE
There are moments throughout history that alter the landscape of the sporting world as we know it. At the time, we may be none the wiser, but gradually the changes will begin to shine through, and the game will never be the same.
Wilt Chamberlain's introduction to the league via the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959 shifted the posts in the NBA. His 14-year stint in the league is seen as a defining moment; his record-breaking career produced a number of rule changes that still stand today.
The merger between the National Basketball Association and American Basketball Association in 1976 was another defining moment. It saw the eventual introduction of the three-point line and has helped shape the current, fast-paced style of play in 21st-century basketball.
Six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan also revolutionised the sport. The 'perfect' player was an all-around machine and a generation grew up wanting to be like Mike. A new crop of youngsters have grown up idolising a man who has drawn comparisons with MJ since his days in high school, and it all began in the mid-90s.
June 26, 1996, was the date; a night that would change the NBA forever, as former commissioner David Stern stood on stage at the 50th annual draft and shook hands with a fresh-faced 17-year-old straight out of high school.
Off the back of Lower Merion's first State Championship in 53 years, the Charlotte Hornets used the 13th pick to make history; selecting Philadelphia-born Kobe Bryant as the first guard to ever be drafted straight out of high school. The Los Angeles Lakers traded Vlade Divac for his draft rights and, as they say, the rest is history.
Allen Iverson may have been the number one pick by the Philadelphia 76ers, but it was the young gun who stole the headlines on a night that saw Steve Nash, Ray Allen and Jermaine O'Neal enter the league. The McDonald's All-American, who surpassed Chamberlain's state scoring record in high school, was marked from day one as an incredible talent; the advertisements and hype soon came, but the evening that rewrote history was only the start of a mesmerising career.
The signs of something special were there from the very beginning but his rookie season did not produce the exciting basketball as regularly as many had anticipated. Coach Del Harris made the teenager work for every minute of play as back-up to Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel.
But his performance in the 1997 Slam Dunk contest was something to behold; his swagger and attitude as a rookie captured the imagination of fans the world over. But there was something else that would set him apart from the competition; the desire and determination to be the best. That devotion, coupled with a relentless belief in his own ability was encapsulated by his first four years in the NBA, starting with the 1997 Western Conference Final.
The rook shot four airballs in a loss to the Utah Jazz, sending the Lakers crashing out of the playoffs. Shaquille O'Neal recalled that day, saying Kobe was the only player who would even think about taking those shots - an early sign of his incredible self-belief.
Having fallen short in front of an audience of millions, Bryant bounced back and forged himself into a premier guard in the league. His first All-Star appearance came in 1998 despite not being a starter for the Lakers, but his popularity was already evident. 395,686 fans votes put him ahead of the 'perfect' Point Guard John Stockton.
Bryant went head-to-head with Jordan in Madison Square Gardens in a game seen as the passing of the torch. 18-1-6 pushed Kobe towards All-Star MVP, but the 'GOAT' came out on top and challenged the young gun to 'let his game define his existence' instead of the 'hype and commercials' if he wanted to be the best.
He did just that. The hype continued, but success was to follow. The playoff disappointment remained until the turn of the century, but it would all change with the arrival of legendary Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, the architect behind the Jordan-led force that won seven rings in the 90s. A historic three-peat was on the horizon, and it began with a 4-2 win over Larry Bird's Indiana Pacers in 2000.
16 years later, through constant hard work and desire, Kobe has amassed a record that puts him alongside the greatest to ever grace the hardwood. Five championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, and the 2008 regular-season MVP are just the tip of the iceberg, and with retirement on the horizon, the 2015-16 season has seen the NBA bid an emotional farewell to one of its favourite sons.
The future Hall of Fame inductee's mindset drove him to the summit of the NBA, and his legacy will live through the ages. As his time as a player comes to an end, Kobe has been reflecting on what the future holds, and he believes the manifestations of what led to his on-court success can transfer to life away from the court.
"I don't know if I would leave anything behind outside of the physical representation of what my 20-year career has been," reflects Bryant. "The training, the actual act of going out to play, scoring and defending. Kind of like the shell of who I've been for the past 20 years. I think that's the thing I will leave behind.
"I'm leaving behind the physical shell of what I've been for the past 20 years, everything else I'm carrying with me forever."
"But what carries on with me is the spirit that represents those physical manifestations, so the understanding of persevering, how to deal with failure, how to handle success, understanding how to communicate, understanding how to understand empathy and compassion.
"Those are things that I will carry with me forever so, although I'm leaving behind the physical shell of what I've been for the past 20 years, everything else I'm carrying with me forever."
That 'shell' has been pushed to the limits both physically and mentally during a testing career. The demands put on players in the league pushes limitations to the very edge. Six months of travel, training and intense games can prove too much for some to handle, but, barring a couple of years that included Achilles and shoulder surgeries, Bryant has sustained an astounding level of fitness and consistency.
As his retirement tour continues, you could have been forgiven for thinking the son of former basketball player Joe Bryant was looking forward to putting the hustle and bustle behind him. On the contrary.
"I'm one of the people that actually enjoy it [training]. Certain aspects like when the summer time comes around. For example, you're not in that frame of mind and realise how peaceful and relaxing life can be.
"But you're also not comfortable because you're used to life involving constant pressure, constant training, and your body being sore and worrying about the next game. There is an adjustment period, I think, to not being able to have this type of pressure and not being able to have those moments."
Blood, sweat and tears have been poured into his 20-year career, so, what next for Black Mamba? His final game in the famous purple and yellow will see his career come full circle with a match-up against the same team from that infamous Western Conference Final, the Utah Jazz.
Mamba began to make contingency plans away from the hardwood during his battle with an Achilles injury in 2014. After copious amounts of hours watching Modern Family, he decided to take his first steps into the world of business. Kobe Inc. was born and his first venture was with upstart sports drink BODYARMOUR.
Despite being the third highest paid player in NBA history - behind Kevin Garnett and O'Neal - Kobe Inc., coupled with endorsement deals with Nike and other big-name companies, will only see Bryant's net worth soar in the future - just look at Michael Jordan's fortune since retiring.
But what about his future in basketball? Having grown up in Italy, there has always been talk of a stint in the Euro League before he finally hangs up his sneakers, but Bryant is under no illusions about the physical state of his body.
"I would love to have played overseas for a season, but it's not going to happen. I wish I could have done it, but my body won't let me," Bryant said. "I definitely plan on helping the game spread and helping kids all around the world understand the metaphors that come along with the game. I was a part of that growing up overseas.
"Growing up, I was a product of that, so when I step away from the game, I definitely plan on visiting places like Africa to be able to teach the game and everything that surrounds the game of basketball. I think I'll always be around, not just from a Lakers standpoint, but for players all around the league if they need advice. You know, I've done that for a while now, and I'll continue to do that."
Injuries have blighted his final years, but there is no doubt that the number 24 will be hoisted high inside Staples Center alongside the likes of Jerry West, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The LA Lakers Hall of Fame is a who's who of basketball greatness, but Kobe will go right to the top of that list. His stats are up there with the best in history, despite missing a large chunk of the past two seasons.
41 games over the past two campaigns show the extent of his struggles as the Lakers have floundered in the Western Conference. Who knows what his stats sheet would have read had he managed to stay free of any issues in the latter stages of his career. He may have toppled Kareem's record, we'll never know.
"The injuries that I've had, I've always been able to look at those from a positive light and learn from those things and also take advantage of opportunities that come as a direct result of them."
Having been the youngest ever player to reach 33,000 career points, Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record would have been firmly in his sights. But he does not feel any resentment towards the 'basketball gods', instead, he remains philosophical on how injuries have played a part in the bigger pitcher.
"I think we have a very good relationship. We understand each other very well, and I think our responsibility is to take advantage of the opportunity that presents itself; good, bad or indifferent. So, whatever comes my way I'm absolutely able to handle those situations and deal with them.
"The injuries that I've had, I've always been able to look at those from a positive light and learn from those things and also take advantage of opportunities that come as a direct result of them. Other things to focus on, other things to plan for. So, no, I don't think the basketball gods have treated me unfairly, I think they've given me a fantastic opportunity."
The previous 48 months have been tough for Kobe mentally and physically. Professional athletes thrive on competition and missing so many games can have a torrid effect on the mind, but the 'gods' have indeed provided him with a fantastic opportunity that he grabbed with both hands.
Having announced his intentions to retire in November, the 2015-16 season became as much about Kobe Bryant's farewell as the success of the Lakers. General Manager Mitch Kupchak echoed that sentiment in January, and his tour around North America has thrown up some truly memorable moments.
"Kobe Bryant was the closest player that we've seen to Michael Jordan, and he also defined himself as independent" - Hakeem Olajuwon
His final appearance in Boston - a franchise that enjoyed such a love-hate relationship with Mamba during the glory days - was a night no basketball fan will forget in a hurry. His last showing at ORACLE Arena was also an emotional occasion. A message from Lakers legend and Golden State Warriors executive board member Jerry West left Bryant visibly emotional, and it is moments like these that emphasise the impact he had on the sport.
It is a time for all fans to show their appreciation to KB and their support was evident as he topped voting to be named a frontcourt starter for the Western Conference - eclipsing MVP Stephen Curry with an incredible 1,891,614 votes - despite a below-average season. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is under no illusions about the lasting effect Kobe will have in the game.
"Kobe will invariably go down as one of the greatest ever to play this game," said Silver. "By his announcing that this is his last season in the league, there's no doubt that has created enormous interest in every single one of his games for the remainder of the season.
"I'm sure there are a lot of families where a parent will be taking a child saying 'come see Kobe Bryant because you'll be seeing one of the greatest ever play'. He means an awful lot to the league."
Despite not appearing in the All-Star game since 2013, last weekend marked his 18th selection for the showpiece event. It was a night to remember as the NBA came together to say thanks to a departing legend. The night began with a blockbuster entrance and an emotional message from fellow LA Lakers legend Magic Johnson and ended with the crowd on their feet, chanting 'Kobe, Kobe, Kobe' something he has seen a thousand times during his career, but arguably never that special.
Considered one of the best two-way guards ever, Bryant's defensive work has been just as crucial in forging his reputation. Nine All-Defensive First Team and three Second Team selections speak for themselves, and his lockdown defence was fundamental during all five ring-winning seasons.
Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the greatest centers to ever grace the hardwood and a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, worked with Kobe throughout his career, helping improve his post game, and the two-time NBA Champion holds Bryant in very high regard.
"Kobe Bryant was the closest player that we see to [Michael] Jordan, and he also defined himself as independent," the 1994 MVP said. "He accomplished a lot, he had his own style and his work ethic, he was a hard worker. Also, his confidence; if Kobe is shooting and he's missing the last shot, he wouldn't have half a second's thought about taking the last shot.
"He is that kind of guy. A lot of players would be afraid to take that shot, but no, Kobe believes he was going to make the next one, and it takes courage to do that."
Few people have had the pleasure of sharing a locker room with Kobe and Michael, but Horace Grant has seen the legends on a day-to-day basis. The four-time champ shared a dressing room with Bryant during the second year of the LA Lakers' three-peat and returned to California for the final year of his career in 2003.
He also played a supporting role during the Chicago Bulls' three-peat from 1990-93 during his seven-year spell with the Eastern Conference franchise and offered an insight into what made the two players so special.
"They were the two most competitive people I've ever known, played with or played against in my entire life," recalled Grant. "They both never liked to lose, at anything, and that is a great benefit to them being great.
"They don't mind failure because they're going to work extremely hard to make sure they don't make the same mistake this week that they did last week, and that's part of their greatness."
A cast-iron mentality has been the driving force behind Kobe's astounding career. It is what separates the good from the great, and he certainly falls into the latter category. Skill can only get you so far; there has to be a determination to be the best, and that has been the cornerstone of his success.
From the days in Europe following his father's basketball career, to his formative years at Lower Merion, Bryant has stood out from the crowd, and it did not take long for his high school coach Gregg Downer to realise he had someone special coming through the system.
"When I met him at the age of 13, I knew he would be a pro, but when I saw his work ethic over next four years, I knew he would be special and would never settle for average. He is on any short list of all-time greats, surely in the top 10, and maybe in many people's top five. I think he and Jordan are the two greatest wings ever."
"I try to look at my legacy and how it impacts the future of the game, so not look at my legacy from a standpoint of where you are in the greatest of all-time"
The comparisons between Kobe and Michael have been there from day one and will last through the ages, but Bryant is his own man. He has defined himself and set his own benchmark for up and coming guards.
The young boy who spent hours in Italy religiously watching Lakers tapes and relentlessly worked on his Sky Hook to be like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has become the idol. He is now the player a generation of basketball fans will tell their children about and whose highlights will be fondly remembered as time goes on. Kobe arrived, conquered, inspired and is now making way for a new generation. To the man himself, that sole factor stands above anything else when assessing his own legacy.
"I try to look at my legacy and how it impacts the future of the game, so not look at my legacy from a standpoint of where you are in the greatest of all-time. I think the most important thing, the most beautiful thing, is how does your legacy impact a generation of players to come and that are currently playing.
"I feel like when I've done what I've stood for in these 20 years; impacting the players of today and tomorrow in a positive way and a way that they can carry that legacy on themselves and impact a generation to follow, I think that's much more significant than where I stand in history."