Don’t read this column. At least, not yet.
Instead, think for a second. Try to remember being 9 years old. People don’t remember the past chronologically, but by the few moments they find the most personally formative. I’m no exception — in fact, I can honestly admit I remember only one night from my 9-year-old existence, and I only know how old I was because we just passed the decade anniversary last week, so the math was easy.
“Wake up, he’s got 60.”
One quick note before we continue: the Los Angeles Lakers should not have beaten the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22, 2006. On that night, every Laker not named Kobe combined to shoot 33.3 percent from the field, and the only others to make more than one basket were Chris Mihm and Smush Parker. Of the 28 shots Bryant made, 10 were assisted. The mid-2000s Lakers were poorly constructed to win, but phenomenally constructed to let No. 8 shine.
Proof? They won the game by 18. Prime Kobeball was a thing of beauty.
Enough of the stats — numbers are inadequate indicators of that night’s holistic impact. When my brother smacked me awake and we experienced history together, Kobe gave us a moment I know I’ll never forget. To me, that game’s about much more than the gaudy stats that defined it. My childhood hero had become the willing scourge of the league, and this was his moment of reckoning.
I’ll stop dancing around it. People hate Kobe Bryant. Many saw an insolent diva, a selfish young player who oftentimes refused to pass the ball to his MVP teammate Shaquille O’Neal even during their NBA Finals three-peat from 2000 to 2002. When Kobe pushed Lakers management to trade Shaq following their loss to the Pistons in the 2004 Finals, he finalized his public villainous crusade. This, plus being investigated for sexual assault in 2003, left Bryant’s image irreparably slain. The young and charismatic “new face of the NBA” was now an outcast, mocked and publicly demonized as if the entire sports world had in some way felt swindled.
Speaking of shaping memories, I’ve driven a golf cart once in my life. My dad thought it would be nice to let me drive him around the course with his friends because I wouldn’t be getting my license for another couple years. While my dad was putting on the 7th green, I tried doing donuts on the fairway. Three rotations in, I lost control of both the wheel and my balance, and fell out of the cart, only to have my ankle run over by the still-rotating back wheel. If I’ve ever screamed and cried more than that moment, I don’t remember it. As I hobbled away from the cart, I swore I would never step in one again. I was hurt, embarrassed and, most of all, scared. My dad two-putted.
I gave up, and that’s why I’m not Kobe Bryant. In the white-hot crucible of international disgust and hatred, Kobe disappeared. All that remained from the ashes was the Black Mamba — an emotionless buzzsaw that tore through every single team in the league. In the weeks before the 81-point performance against Toronto, Kobe scored 45, 48, 50, 45, 41 and 51. Hell, that season he outscored the entire 60-win Mavericks team through three quarters by himself, 62-61. In his fit of twisted emotional therapy, that game, and that season, became the stuff of lore. And as my memory of that magical night grows more embellished against the backdrop of another disappointing year in Lakertown, I’m beginning to realize that that’s the point.
Soon, Kobe will be gone. The guy’s not dying, but my days of seeing him almost every night for nine months out of the year will soon be nothing but a memory. And memory, as we’ve discussed before, is a fucking fickle thing. But commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the most impressive individual athletic accomplishment that I’ve ever watched live in my Rocket Power pajama set symbolizes something that’s a lot bigger than me, or even Kobe.
Me remembering that night gets at what it means to play sport, and on a grander scale, what it means to be human. The memories we hold onto reveal a great deal about us, and for the most part, I’ve found that we grip the most tightly to those special moments that give us hope amid otherwise overwhelming despair. That’s why we love the fairytale, because in the end the knight always kills the demon and saves the day. We latch onto tales of accomplishment in the face of adversity because we want to believe in the forces that can conquer those demons within us.
Eighty-one beautiful points, man. You can give the old man hell, but Kobe beat the living shit out of his demons. Not many can say that.