Pressing questions, hot topics, and collaboration amongst your favorite basketball minds—welcome back to Around the Rim.
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The roundtable runs every week, with new questions and new voices each week. If you have a question you’d like answered by the panel, tweet @JoshEberley or @HOOPmag and check back each week to see who hopped in for the current edition. Last week’s edition can be found here.
This week, with a fixed lens on the career of Kobe Bryant, we are fortunate to have six dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:
Raj Chipalu: Lakers Outsiders, contributor
Jabari Davis: Hot Takes and Shot Fakes, host
Anthony Irwin: Locked on Lakers, host
Jason Maples: Contra Costa College Men’s Basketball, assistant coach
Daman Rangoola: Lakers superfan
Jared Wade: NBA freelance
In an attempt to cope with the loss and honor the memory of Kobe Bryant, I’d like to start out by just asking: What is your favorite Kobe Bryant memory of all-time?
Rangoola: This wasn’t going to be my answer until the shocking way that Kobe has passed, but Kobe’s final game of his career will be my favorite moment of his. It had everything—from a city that was going to celebrate him like the walking god that he was, to a player that was going to give it his all no matter how tired he was and both beautifully and hilariously, shot 50 freaking times for 60 points. But the real reason this is going to be my favorite memory of his, and the most heart-breaking reason why: Gigi absolutely losing her mind watching this game in a way that was not only admiration for her father, but for the game of basketball, which she so very clearly loved.
Wade: His final game. I am tempted to choose a few others. But it was so special, so fitting, and, tragically, so final. It was so Kobe. There has never been anything like it in sports. I remember watching Magic in his comeback All-Star Game. MJ had that little moment in his swan song All-Star Game, too. And I grew up a Red Sox fan, always hearing the legend of Ted Williams’ last-at-bat home run. But c’mon…60?! In your final game? This was storybook stuff. A folk tale. Nothing could better sum up someone who—more than any other athlete this century—feels more myth than man.
Chipalu: There are so many to choose from in a 20-year career, but my all-time memory has to be a moment in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals against the Celtics. The Lakers had been down all game but had finally taken a two-point lead from Kobe free throws. The next possession after getting a stop, Kobe hit his patented dribble midrange pull-up to put the team up four. After that shot, I knew we would take the victory. People use the 6 for 24 shooting in that game as a blemish on his legacy, but I think it encapsulates everything he is about. You don’t get to the six without the 24, meaning to keep fighting no matter the struggle.
Davis: That’s so difficult to narrow down, especially in a moment like this, but if forced to choose, it has to be Game 7 or the 2000 Western Conference Finals. For someone known for his scoring prowess and seeming unflappable grit and will to put the ball in the basket, it’s almost ironic that one of the lasting impression he made on the history of basketball came as a result of a pass. As the game was coming to a head and could have easily gone either way, Shaquille O’Neal snatched a rebound out of the air before tossing it to Kobe in the backcourt. Kobe, being defended by Scottie Pippen, surveyed the court as he crossed between halfcourt and the 3-point line. Kobe winded up crossing Pippen into oblivion before tossing the perfect lob to Shaq as he came streaking along the baseline. That pass essentially kicked off one of the greatest dynasties in the modern age of basketball, so it’s only fitting that it still resonates as we consider his greatest moments on the court.
Irwin: This is actually a lot easier than I would have thought it might be to identify — and it isn’t even a Lakers-specific memory. His performance in the gold medal game in the 2008 Summer Olympics should go down as one of the cooler moments in basketball history. It wasn’t just that he came through in the clutch, but he did so while so many of the game’s absolute best trusted him the way Lakers fans had for years. It epitomized the debate between what numbers said he did in the clutch and what his fans (LeBron, Wade, Paul, Melo, etc., included) knew he was capable of.
Maples: My favorite Kobe Bryant memory was the moment he finally won a championship without Shaq at the end of the 2008-09 season. He had those really tough couple of years without Shaq where he was willing teams with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown in the starting lineup to the playoffs just to lose in the first round. Even after the Pau trade they fell short against Boston in the Finals. He re-calibrated himself as a teammate and a leader to adjust to the personalities around him and you could just see the pure joy of him finally winning a championship as THE GUY and silencing all those “Can he do it without Shaq?” questions he had been facing for years. You could tell he appreciated the championship more after getting knocked down and pulling himself back up.
If possible, can you recall the moment where you thought to yourself, “Oh my lord, Kobe is going to be all-time, all-time special?” When did it really hit you that you were witnessing one of the absolute best to ever do it?
Wade: The lob to Shaq. For whatever reason, Diesel was struggling in that Game 7 and Portland looked like they would cruise to the Finals. We already knew that Kobe was a monster going into that series. No doubt. Lots of All-Star Games looming. Hall of Fame potential. But Bean raised the bar. Kobe was really locking people up and showing his all-around game on the boards, hitting 3s, and just doing it all. Then he propelled the comeback and sealed the deal with that iconic pass. The lasting memory there is Shaq, in his peak colossus form, rising for the dunk then celebrating in an almost frightening manner as tore off down the court like a runaway Godzilla. But people forget that Kobe, who finished the night with 25/11/7/4, made it all happen by casually crossing Scottie Pippen—the best defender I ever saw—into next week. Left my guy in the dust then made history with the toss. It was iconic. And he was now an icon.
Chipalu: It hit me many times but one of my favorites was in 2009 against Denver. I fell in love with the game in the latter stages of Kobe’s career, having started seriously watching him in the 2007-08 campaign. The team had just lost to the Celtics in the Finals the previous year. That Denver series was tough, where the Lakers lost in Game 1 at home. Game 5 was a tough hard-fought win and they were going into a hostile crowd for Game 6. He took that game over with 35 points and made sure it was never really a contest in the second half. Watching someone just take the heart from a team was different, and especially seeing it in the playoffs was quite special.
Davis: As an Angeleno, of course, many of us wanted to believe he was always destined for greatness from the day he stepped foot on the Great Western Forum floor. Admittedly, over the years, we may have developed a bit of revisionist history as there is no way to truly have determined that in his first couple years in the League. He certainly showed flashes of signs of things to come, but the initial moment that I recognized Kobe would be something well beyond simply being a brash, cocky and skilled player was in a game vs. the Golden State Warriors during the 1998-99 season. If memory serves, Shaq was ejected in the second quarter and the Lakers were down by as many as 25 points at one stage. Kobe went on to stun the crowd with clutch play after clutch play; blocking shots and knocking balls loose, all while making his patented array of seemingly impossible buckets of his own. As the game got tighter down the stretch, the Lakers were in a situation where the team was down two points with Glen Rice Sr. was at the free throw line with one shot left. Rice intentionally missed the shot, Robert Horry taps the ball to the side and all of a sudden Kobe comes flying into the frame from out of nowhere and forces a tie by somehow masterfully tapping the ball as he flew towards the sideline. The Lakers went on to take care of business in the overtime session and Kobe played a part in closing out the win just as we eventually became accustomed to seeing from him.
Irwin: There were always hints at his greatness, but we knew definitively after Game 4 of the 2000 Finals that he was special. Kobe was coming off a sprained ankle that kept him out of most of Game 2 and all of Game 3. In Game 4, Shaq fouled out. A loss meant the series would be even with game 5 being played in Indiana. Kobe finished with 28 and the Lakers beat the Pacers in an overtime Shaq missed a chunk of.
Rangoola: 2000 Game 4 NBA Finals when Shaq got fouled out was where you really start to feel that not only was he an incredible player with a lot of potential, but that there was something about him that we perhaps were still underrating. Shaq was such a force of nature, especially come playoff time, that it wasn’t easy to isolate what made Bryant the all-time great that he turned out to be, and that moment where he put the team on his back and not only performed well, but thrived, was a huge turning point in how I viewed his ceiling.
Maples: Easy for me: 2001 Western Conference Finals. He was the best player on the floor in a series that had prime Tim Duncan and prime Shaquille O’Neal in it. He was just unstoppable. 33/7/7 with 2 steals on 51/37/77 shooting splits. I think that was a moment in time where us Laker fans came to realize he wasn’t just a complementary player to Shaq. My “we are blessed to see this man” moment was Game 6 of the 2010 Western Conference Finals. Phoenix was giving the Lakers some trouble with their speed and shooting and were making another run late in that game to try to get it to a game seven, and Kobe put them away with some of the most devastating, soul-sucking, demoralizing shots I’ve ever seen in a big playoff game on the road. The last one was a double pump fadeaway over Grant Hill toward the Suns sideline, and Alvin Gentry who was coaching the Suns at the time just threw his hands up in disbelief and Kobe patted him on the rear on the way up the court. That’s honestly my favorite Kobe playoff game to rewatch to this day.
In an era of basketball where most of the League came up watching and admiring Kobe Bryant, what do you think is his most lasting and significant impression he left?
Chipalu: His work ethic and dedication to the craft. He set the tone for what the standard was in terms of “putting the time in.” Tons of stories out there about him in the gym at obscene hours, and making sure to get a workout in no matter the circumstances. Not only to practice but to practice efficiently, in ways that actively improve your game. You see this all across the League, from Kawhi Leonard to Kevin Durant who say they idolized him growing up.
Davis: While many of us may still point towards the all-time greats from yesteryear, most of today’s players grew up watching basketball during the 2000’s and later. Put simply, there’s a good chance Kobe Bryant is your favorite player’s favorite player. You can see it in the reactions and outcry from around the League. You can see it in the manner by which certain players present themselves and how they even carry themselves on the court. You can hear it in the way some players answer questions and interact with the media. You can even see it in the way certain players adhere to Michael Jordan’s (and subsequently Kobe’s) old mantra of “you never know if this is the one game a fan will have the chance to see you, so make each one count.” That isn’t a knock against load management or anyone implementing what has proven to be a wise strategy in many cases, rather, it’s merely an acknowledgment of just how important folks with Kobe’s drive take each and every outing. Whether it was his game, his mindset or his undeniable drive, his impact probably can’t be accurately measured in the moment.
Irwin: His work ethic. A major story coming out of the ’08 Olympics was how everyone marveled at how hard Bryant worked. A lot of those guys said moving forward they had a better understanding of what it takes to be successful because of that experience. Now, you have that generation and another one coming filled with workaholics who are going to push the game forward.
Maples: I think the way he attacked basketball is his biggest impression. He gave the game everything he had. I think that’s why so many people love him. You never felt cheated watching him play. In light of his passing, another thing that’s coming out is how gracious he was with his knowledge of the game and how he was willing and even eager to push it forward to the next generation of players. We’ve seen a multitude of interviews of players all over the league recalling how Kobe was giving them a positive message through their injury rehab, tough times on the court, and other things as well. He didn’t grandstand or make it known he was doing it either. He was genuinely about just pushing the game forward through the next generation. A real one.
Rangoola: Dedication to craft, never cheating the game, dedication to competition, and a relentless work ethic. It’s telling that the group of people that admire him the most besides Lakers fans are not journalists, NBA Twitter, or NBA fans at large, but fellow players, both past and present (and I hope, future). The NBA is a great product but there is something missing from the day-to-day games and playoff matchups, a certain vicious cutthroat competitive spirit, that I believe players have looked up to Kobe to find—and I think that’s a feeling that’s not going anywhere any time soon.
Wade: Mamba Mentality. I think that specific term itself has become something of a meme. When he was shooting a ton late in his career on a bad team, the phrase almost became more synonymous with an aging gunslinger who wouldn’t say die. But his actual, real-life mentality was better encapsulated by “Kobe Doin’ Work.” He was a true scholar of the sport and workout demon who did everything conceivable to master his craft. Kob was always more talented than everyone. Then he outworked and out-thought them, too. Kobe was a near-perfect perfectionist who relentlessly pursued improvement. Nobody in the history of sport has personified that desire, that will, that passion like Kobe Bean Bryant. More than anything else, he will now forever represent that ideal to future generations of players.
What is the greatest Kobe Bryant related, “What if,” of all-time?
Chipalu: I think the clear one is to wonder if Shaq and Kobe were to put their disagreements aside but for me, it’s the Chris Paul deal. He would have gotten to play with a legitimate superstar guard in his prime. I’m not sure how many titles and things they would have won, but I believe it would have extended Kobe’s career in a meaningful way. The Lakers fell from grace once that deal was nixed, and will always be a major big what-if for me. I’m glad Kobe got to see the team win and be good before he passed, the Lakers struggled mightily during his later years and retirement. He left knowing the franchise he gave his life to was in good hands.
Irwin: The obvious answer is what if he and Shaq had matured and figured out how to play together but that’s a little too on the nose so I’ll go with the Chris Paul trade veto. It’s no guarantee that Paul and Bryant figure out how to play together and then if they trade for Dwight Howard, whether those three personalities ever mesh, but if they do, you’re looking at completely different careers for both Paul and Howard, plus another title for Kobe, tying him with MJ. The League is completely different now if that trade goes through.
Rangoola: The Chris Paul veto remains a gigantic what-if moment. If Chris Paul is a Laker, does it extend Kobe’s prime? Do they clash? Do they gel so well that Kobe ties Michael Jordan in career rings? The trajectory of many franchises was affected by that trade veto that I as a fan will continue to wonder about. What makes this what-if so fascinating is it’s impact on Paul as well. Paul has more than earned the right to be playing for a title and I think him and Kobe would’ve found a way.
Maples: I have two, equally annoying “what ifs” that I will hold on to the rest of my life as hoop fan related to Kobe. The first, is if he and Shaq could have worked it out. I felt like Kobe was entering his prime while Shaq was aging, and if some honest conversation could have happened on both ends, the Lakers could have won five or six championships in a row. The second “what it” is the Kobe vs. LeBron NBA Finals we never got. I felt like in 2009 or 2010 it could have happened and just didn’t. Would have been the Bird vs. Magic of our time and something truly special that would have gone down in NBA history.
Wade: There are none. You can talk about him and Shaq winning eight rings (they could have), or if he ended up going to Chicago or the Clippers, or if he didn’t miss the time to his Achilles. But his career unfolded exactly as it needed to. I wouldn’t want to see a single thing go differently (aside from Kobe never going to get surgery in Colorado for obvious reasons).
Davis: In a career that spanned 20 years, there are likely a ton of fascinating “what if” moments we could point towards, but the biggest one remains what if he and Shaq had been able to set aside their differences and stay together for at least a few more seasons. Some of us like to cavalierly suggest the duo might have enjoyed as many as 10 rings together. While that’s far too optimistic given O’Neal’s physical decline over the years, it could be a realistic thought to say they had a chance at another 2-3 runs at a title. At the very least, it would have been nice to see that pairing end on a more positive note simply because of the fact that it was one of the best the League has seen. One of the few times where we were blessed with two of the top 10-15 players of all time in their relative primes together and it will always feel a bit like we were cheated.
If it was up to you, how would you like the NBA to commemorate the career and life of one of, if not the most polarizing personality to ever grace the League?
Maples: I would be down for either a logo change seeing as Jerry West is on record as not wanting to be the logo anymore anyway, but the more realistic change I would make is have every team retire Nos. 8 and 24. He was that big, and he inspired that many players throughout the League. RIP Kobe Bryant and thank you for everything from a guy you’ll never know, but you definitely inspired.
Irwin: I think naming the All-Star MVP after him would be pretty touching. He loved performing on that stage to the extent that some of his peers thought he took it too seriously. He’s responsible for some incredible moments and, given the timing (with All-Star Weekend right around the corner), this would feel pretty fitting. Molding an MVP trophy of one of his plays in those games just seems like the right thing to do.
Rangoola: I’m not going to be the only person to propose this, but I really feel like re-naming the All Star MVP trophy for Kobe would be a remarkably appropriate gesture, for many reasons. First of all, the All-Star game is fast approaching, and the sooner the NBA can commemorate him in a lasting way, the better. Secondly, Kobe’s light shone brightest when he was amongst other stars (his 2008 Team USA stands out the most to me in this regard), and dedicating the MVP of a game populated by the League’s best is something that I would love to see. Lastly, Kobe played hard every damn night because he knew, in a very astute way, that the fans deserve a show—what better showcase for the fans than the All-Star Game?
Davis: As the resident Kobe homer, you might be surprised that I don’t agree with retiring his jersey numbers around the League. We’ve heard all types of methods to honor him, but the one that makes the most sense would be to rename the All-Star MVP trophy after him and celebrate January 26 as Kobe Bryant day. As the one guy that didn’t care whether it was an exhibition game, a game of horse or a Finals matchup, it would make sense to honor him in that manner. Not to mention, being an 18-time All-Star and 4-time All-Star Game MVP. As for the day, while some may think it is overboard, it is just as warranted. We’ve never had one of the all-time greats pass away in the prime of their lives. We’ve endured plenty of heartbreak around the League throughout the years, but never with one of the true titans of the industry at this stage in life.
Wade: I honestly don’t care. We live in a culture now where everyone wants recognition. Kobe doesn’t need it. He is so ingrained in all our memories forever that any honor would be simply supplemental. The Lakers will put a statue of him—and, I hope, Gigi—outside of Staples. Maybe they can rename the arena after him. But anything the NBA does will just be a nice gesture, and they really do have to consider the message that will be sent if they make some sweeping pronouncement to formally elevate a man who almost certainly, allegedly, committed a heinous crime. Whatever you think of him as a player, as a man, as a folktale, Kobe already made his legacy. He doesn’t need extra validation or context. Love him? Hate him? Respect him? Revile him? It doesn’t matter. Kobe’s the shot clock—way above the game.
Chipalu: I would like to have him become the new logo of the NBA. Jerry West has been an incredible face of the League, but I think he would understand this change. No one has been a bigger advocate and spokesman for not just the NBA but the WNBA as well. He retired with grace and was open to mentoring any and everyone who would welcome his wisdom. I think we commemorate Kobe with the logo and make sure not only his game but his life lives on forever.