"C'mon, man. Pass the ball." This Southern-California-hot-dog stuff would never fly on the Jersey Shore. I had just moved to San Diego and came to the courts by myself. I waited three games to get on. I would be leaving after we lost this game. My team was a bunch of ball hogs. They were all Kobe Bryant fans.
It was 1997. Kobe was only a teenager coming off the bench for the Lakers, but his arrogance, swagger and outrageous talent had already infected the California playgrounds.
Kobe came to the National Basketball Association to shoot the ball without apology. No apologies to teammates, coaches, commentators or ex-Laker-Hall-of-Famers. No apologies coming into the league at 18 years old and no apologies in his final game nearly 20 years later, this April 13 against the Utah Jazz.
My teammates at the playground had adopted Kobe's flashing-green-light-to-shoot-with-no-guilt-or-loss-of-confidence-whether-it-went-in-or-not attitude. The attempt was a tribute to Kobe. If one happened to go in, they wouldn't yell the name of the kid who shot it. They would yell, "Kobe!"
One week later, a couple of friends I grew up with came to visit. We recruited two of the kids not wearing Kobe Bryant jerseys and won every game to stay on the court all day. The tangible and intangible benefits of teamwork hold true from the playgrounds to the NBA. This "team-over-individual" philosophy is easier to prove without Kobe Bryant on the other team.
Kobe's breed of greatness bends the laws of the game to his own advantage. Young people see it first. Older viewers are slower to acknowledge the game is about to transcend due to a young player's unique ability and willpower. Kobe's not the first or last NBA player to do this, but he is one of the rare and few.
The essence of basketball is counting down the clock for the game-winning shot in your driveway. The championship in your hands. Your team trusts you. It's no time for the great ones to pass. You challenge the defense. The city's economic welfare is in the bloody balance. Your shot is in the air, the buzzer sounds ...
Kobe has made hundreds of millions of dollars playing basketball, but I'm not sure he has a nickel for every time a kid, in one language or another, said, "3 ... 2 ... 1 ... Kobe? ..." and threw a dream into the sky toward an old rim and backboard.
Kobe ruptured his Achilles tendon in April 2013 and remained in the game to shoot free throws. Last January, Kobe tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder. He convinced his coaches to let him play and shot two left-handed shots before being sent to the locker room. "Kobe, thou shalt shoot the ball," said the great prophets in white robes surrounding the bed of a young Kobe. Who shall say otherwise?
Kobe was in street clothes on the Lakers bench last year in Dallas when a heckling fan could no longer be ignored. Kobe looked in the fan's direction and held his index finger in the air, followed by a second finger, third, fourth and finally his thumb to indicate five. What the fan said doesn't matter. Five is the answer to every criticism of Kobe. Five championships turn criticism to dust.
The media has been hard on Kobe this year. They want less minutes and more defense. They want Kobe to hang it up, or even worse, they want him to pass the ball.
"Kobe is the worst percentage shooter in the league this season," bemoan the pundits. "And, he won't stop shooting!"
"Fools!" hollers I. "Of what relevance are statistics when discussing immortals?!"
Fans are hollering, too. Hollering at the young Lakers to pass to Kobe. When Kobe gets the ball, fans of both teams rise to their feet and yell what Kobe has been ruthlessly adamant about doing all along. It is what I, converted, have been saying to the television every time I've watched Kobe the past few years. The same thing millions around the world say when Kobe has the ball.
And we dream the ball in, as if we had shot it ourselves.