A Legend Takes a Curtain Call

"The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great in whatever they want to do." - Kobe Bryant

Twenty years. Five world titles. One team. That's only part of the legacy that Kobe Bryant leaves behind. He played in more than 1,300 NBA games, but last night was his final curtain call. And it was amazing. Despite a mediocre season, one that had many questioning if he'd hung on too long, Bryant played 42 minutes, took 50 shots, and scored 60 points before the home crowd. He delighted them. He reveled in the moment. And he went out on a high note.

I am 34 years old and, despite growing up there, only one California sports team has ever been near and dear to my heart. That's the Los Angeles Lakers. But being a Laker fan has been rough the past three years. The team has won 27, 21, and 17 games, respectively. But they still had Kobe, and therefore still had hope. Or at least the fans still had hope.

With Kobe leaving, it's the end of an era for the Lakers. Sure, they have young players and cap money, but it's unclear what their future will be. That's what made last night such a gift. For one night, we saw the vintage Kobe. For one night, we remembered what the last 20 years have been like.

I still remember when I was in high school, away at summer camp, when the Lakers traded for Shaq and then traded for a rookie named Kobe Bryant. I didn't know what to make of Kobe at first. He had an arrogance about him -- but he also had incredible talent. And together those two centerpieces, along with coach Phil Jackson, won three straight titles.

Then it seemed like Kobe's ego broke them up. Jackson retired. Shaq was traded. And the Lakers went from contenders to pretenders. But for two years Kobe toiled without much result. But he also grew as a person. When the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol and drafted Andrew Bynum to go along with Kobe and Lamar Odom, we had the core of a great team again. And when Kobe warmly embraced the return of Jackson -- a coach who had lampooned him as uncoachable in a book -- I knew he had grown as a leader.

Kobe was always prickly, and that made some not want to play with him. But it's also what drove him and made him great. The Lakers won two more titles, falling short in a another, and Kobe established himself as one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- player in franchise history.

I always had a love/hate relationship with Kobe. But after 20 years, a time span that was probably among my most formative in terms of being a sports fan, he's probably my favorite Laker. I was too young for Magic, but I've seen Kobe play his whole career. And I'm deeply appreciative of the competitive fire he brought to the Lakers.

Kobe changed the game. He was a force of nature on the court. He was an All-Star, a champion, and, especially in this last year, an ambassador for the game. But he never lost that competitive fire.

After being cheered loudly and often throughout his final game, and scoring a magical 60 points, Kobe was asked if it was the perfect ending to his career. He said no, that would have been winning a championship.

It's that competitive fire that made him great, and all us fans are better for it.


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