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Eamonn Sweeney: 'Bryant's journey from enfant terrible to elder statesmen earned gratitude of Lakers' fans'

Eamonn Sweeney


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Kobe Bryant fell just short of Michael Jordan’s six NBA titles. Photo: Getty

Kobe Bryant fell just short of Michael Jordan’s six NBA titles. Photo: Getty

Getty Images

Kobe Bryant fell just short of Michael Jordan’s six NBA titles. Photo: Getty

Kobe Bryant was the quintessential LA Sports star. But his first steps on the basketball court were not taken in California or even America, but in Italy where his father Joe played Serie A basketball for seven years of his only son's childhood.

When the family returned to America Kobe enjoyed a spectacular high school career in Philadelphia and in 1996 became just the second player in 20 years to go straight to the NBA without playing college basketball.

Four years later, at the age of 21, he was winning his first NBA title with one of the greatest teams of all-time, the Lakers side which won three in a row between 2000 and 2002.

Shaquille O'Neal was the undisputed leader of that team, winning a hat-trick of finals MVP awards, but Bryant's performances were good enough for him to be heralded as the heir to Michael Jordan.

As the Lakers swept the New Jersey Nets 4-0 in 2002, few would have expected it to be seven years before their prodigious shooting guard won another finals. Yet things started to fall apart over the next couple of seasons.

Relations between the team's big two, never great, started to break down completely and Bryant began to earn a reputation as a prima donna.

In one memorable game he responded to suggestions by coach Phil Jackson that he'd been shooting too much by hardly shooting at all. In the 2004 finals a star-studded Lakers team were beaten 4-1 by the hard-working Detroit Pistons in a massive upset.

The Jordan comparisons were less common after that.

For all his talent, Bryant came to be seen as a more quixotic character than the remorselessly efficient Chicago Bulls' star.

Yet he remained perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing and viscerally exciting player in the game, particularly in the 2005-06 season where his career high average of 35 points a game included an extraordinary 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, the second highest total in league history.

Like Jordan he made shooting from medium and long range look so simple and natural you would have sworn anyone could do it.

Even those scoring heroics couldn't prevent the Lakers making an early play-off exit. But the arrival of the great Spanish player Pau Gasol in 2008 turned the Lakers into champions once more.

Beaten by the Boston Celtics in that year's finals, they rebounded to defeat the Orlando Magic in 2009 and the Celtics in a 2010 seven-game showdown which was one of the game's all-time great series. Finals MVP two years in a row, Bryant at last had a crown with his name all over it.

He coveted a sixth title to equal Jordan's total but that was not to be. As he entered his 30s, injuries began to take their toll and the talent around him began to diminish as the Lakers went into decline. In the last four years of his career they didn't even make the play-offs.

Yet Bryant was probably never as popular as he was just before his retirement in 2016. There was a nobility about the struggles of the aging warrior with the limitations of his body and his teammates which caught the public imagination.

The enfant terrible had become the elder statesman, possessed of the serenity which had eluded him in those tumultuous days alongside Shaq. The pair even reconciled.

As it became clear that he would finish his career with the LA Lakers, the over-riding feeling of the club's supporters was one of gratitude.

Hollywood, which always loves the Lakers, showed its gratitude to Bryant in the best way it knew how, by giving him an Oscar for a short animated movie he made called, Dear Basketball.

Kobe's death in a helicopter crash seemed almost too shocking to be true.

The tragedy was exacerbated by the death of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna along with him. It made me think of the passing of Anthony Foley and of how the death of a sportsman can seem particularly unsettling because we've seen them at their physical peak, exuding a kind of indestructibility.

At this moment, various publications and websites will be working on revised lists of basketball's best of all time where Bryant is second only to Jordan.

That won't, strictly speaking, be correct. Lebron James and Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul Jabbar and even his old mate Shaq probably belong ahead of him.

But it will feel right.

Sunday Indo Sport