Twenty years have come and gone since he joined the NBA, tonight, the league must bid farewell to one of its more storied icons: Kobe “The Mamba” Bryant.
His achievements have been monumental, his impact unforgettable. But all good things must come to an end, and with his career clock nearing midnight, what better way to celebrate his legacy than to look at his most memorable, career-defining moments from the past two decades?
1. The 81-point game
Date: Jan. 22, 2006
The moment: The shots just kept falling … and falling … and falling. With his 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors, Bryant became the only player in NBA history other than Wilt Chamberlain (100 points, March 2, 1962) to eclipse the 80-point mark. He knocked down 28 of his 46 shots, including 7-for-13 from three-point range, and was 18-for-20 from the free throw line. It was one of the most dominant offensive performances in professional sports history, and it just so happened to be the greatest offensive outing from one of the greatest offensive players the league has ever seen.
2. The first without Shaq
Date: June 14, 2009
The moment: Highly criticized for never winning a ring without O’Neal, Bryant finally silenced the doubters after O’Neal left Los Angeles. It might have taken him four years to do so, but with a 4-1 Finals win against the Orlando Magic, Bryant earned his fourth ring and his first Finals MVP, proving he was more than able to carry a team to the promised land. For good measure, he did it again a year later (4-3 vs. the Boston Celtics).
3. The first of five
Date: June 19, 2000
The moment: In what was Bryant’s fourth NBA season and O’Neal’s fourth season in Los Angeles, the Lakers’ dynamic duo recovered from three consecutive Western Conference playoff exits to knock off the Pacers 4-2 in the Finals. Bryant, 21 at the time, played second fiddle to O’Neal, who averaged 38.0 points, 16.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in those six Finals games, but this was the start of something special, and Bryant and O’Neal appeared to finally set their differences aside … for the time being, at least.
4. The farewell tour
Dates: Nov. 29, 2015 to April 13, 2016
The moment: The gifts. The sold-out arenas. The outpouring of support from coaches, fans and fellow players. Bryant’s farewell tour was a season-long moment in itself, and it put his legacy into perspective. All in all, regardless of the lowly Lakers’ 16 wins and Bryant’s career-low numbers across the board, it was a season well-deserved for one of the NBA’s most storied superstars, and one of its most loved villains.
5. The lone MVP
Date: May 7, 2008
The moment: Bryant won his first and only MVP award after the 2007-08 season in which he averaged 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists a game and led the Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference. In his acceptance speech, he let his guard down and showed an amount of compassion rarely seen before.
“I couldn’t have won this award without the play of my teammates,” he said. “This is a team award. This isn’t an individual award. This is an award that I couldn’t have won on my own. If that was the case, I would have won it when I was averaging 40. This gets done because we all do it as a unit. So I can’t thank these guys enough. These are my guys, these are my brothers, and we have one MVP.”
6. The Game 4 takeover
Date: June 14, 2000
The moment: The Lakers took a 2-0 series lead in the 2000 NBA Finals behind back-to-back 40-point performances from O’Neal, but the Indiana Pacers won the third, and when O’Neal fouled out in overtime of Game 4, they appeared destined to tie the series 2-2. Then Bryant happened. Just 21 at the time, he took control of the game in the final three minutes, hitting a series of clutch shots to lead the Lakers to victory, a 3-1 series lead and eventually, their first NBA championship since 1988.
7. The passing of the torch
Date: March 28, 2003
The moment: Bryant and Michael Jordan went head-to-head eight times in their careers, but none of the matchups was a knock-down, drag-out type of battle that would go down in NBA history. But in the final meeting between the legendary guards, 24-year-old Bryant dropped 55 points on 40-year-old Jordan and the Washington Wizards, and a new era of basketball began.
8. The second gold medal
Date: Aug. 12, 2012
The moment: Of all the NBA greats who have suited up in the red, white and blue, Bryant sits in the upper echelon as one of a select few who have won an NBA title, NBA MVP Award and Olympic gold medal. In his second Olympic appearance in 2012, Bryant, then 33, was the oldest player on the roster, but he still made his mark. He scored 17 points in 27 minutes in the gold medal game as Team USA knocked off Spain in what ended up being Bryant’s last Olympic hurrah.
9. The alley-oop
Date: June 4, 2000
The moment: This iconic moment in Lakers history capped a 25-4 fourth-quarter run and solidified a Game 7 comeback win in the 2000 Western Conference finals. The Lakers would go on to win three NBA championships with the dynamic duo of Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal at the helm, and the rest, as they say, is history.
10. The free throws
Date: April 12, 2013
The moment: As the 80th game of the 2012-13 NBA regular season was winding down, Bryant— who had fought through a hyperextended knee for the majority of the game — went down awkwardly, clutching his torn Achilles. Practically immobile and in pain, he limped to the free throw line in as Kobe-esque a way as possible, showcasing his most distinct and irrefutable characteristic: his heart. But was this the beginning of the end? The Kobe-less Lakers were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs, and after his recovery process was complete, he suffered a fractured lateral tibial plateau of his left knee that forced him to miss 76 games the next season.