By Daniel Paiz
The 2003-2004 NBA season was a special one for Timberwolves fans, what with Kevin Garnett finally getting help in the form of Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. After winning a war with a Sacramento Kings roster that included Vlade Divac, Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic and Mike Bibby (among others) over the course of seven games, it finally felt like Minnesota’s year.
That is until the Western Conference Finals started against three-time champs Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Things didn’t go as planned.
This happened again in 2009 when my hometown team, the Denver Nuggets, also earned a spot in the Western Conference Finals. As pictured at the top, it was against a Kobe Bryant that had weathered and refined his Mamba Mentality for a title run after Shaq. There’s a reason why I keep talking about other teams when talking about arguably one of the best basketball players of all time: it’s tough to accept the tragic event that has unfolded.
Kobe Bryant was easy to root against when you were a fan of two franchises (Minnesota, Denver) who haven’t had a lot of postseason success. He’s the guy that stood in the way of what could’ve been (along with Duncan’s Spurs, of course). He’s the guy that came in and as an opposing fan you knew your team had to either keep up, or slow him down.
Neither of those happened too often.
What made me appreciate number 24 was the way in which he attacked the game. There was no fear in his decision-making. There was little complaining from Bryant; he usually recalculated when things were going amiss. That Chauncey Billups-led Detroit Pistons squad and Kevin Garnett-led Boston Celtics squad were the exceptions to the rule of charming the Black Mamba. Even injuries didn’t seem to slow down number 8 the same way they do for everyone else.
Who hits their free throws with an Achilles injury?
It’s no surprise that Kobe Bryant treated life after basketball how he did during basketball: relentlessly. An Academy Award a year after retirement. His own basketball academy that ballers from their teenage years all the way up to starting point guards in the NBA attended. Coaching his daughter’s basketball team and breaking down the game with his oldest at an Atlanta Hawks-Brooklyn Nets game:
Gianna Bryant reignited Kobe’s passion for basketball. She was a rising star in her own right and was looking at playing college basketball herself.
This drive to teach his daughter everything he knew was one of several things that brought about the realization that even the opponent on the other side of the floor is human. Too often sport and celebrity place people on pedestals. Despite five NBA championships (all with Los Angeles), a handful of gold medals with Team USA basketball, a couple of Finals MVPs and over a dozen All-Star selections, Kobe Bryant existed just like you and I.
Sure, he might’ve had a handful of things most of us never will, but he still went to work. Smiled and frowned. Prepared for obstacles and tackled challenges. And he did what a lot of us are still scared to do; he pursued and lived his passions. The lessons he taught on the hardwood still apply off of it.
41 years old is most certainly a life cut short, but it’s a reminder that chasing after your passions will hurt you far less than stress and regret will. May the Bryant family, the other victims in the helicopter crash’s family, and all basketball fans alike learn from Kobe and heal during this unexpected tragedy.