Thank you. For everything.
As I begin to write this, tears have already begun flooding my eyes and streaming down my cheeks.
It is all finally starting to hit me. If I am an emotional wreck now, I don’t even want to imagine what it is going to be like tomorrow night, as I watch you lace up your signature Nikes and proudly don the purple and gold armor one last time.
A remarkable twenty year story comes to an end. The fact that it all comes to a close against the Utah Jazz is poetic, seeing as it was against them that you hoisted up the famous airballs that would transform you into the assassin that Lakers fans adored, and opposing fans loathed.
It’s especially meaningful to me. My childhood is filled with memories of watching you play this game that we both love, along with all the times that I tried to be just like you. The turnaround fadeaway jumper, the midrange pull-up, the swagger, everything. Kids in the generation before mine wanted to be, “Like Mike.” Screw that. I wanted to be like you.
So many of those memories dominated my childhood, but what will always stand out are the times that I actually got to witness you eviscerate your opponents in person. Being an Idaho kid my whole life, growing up in the Boise metropolitan area, the closest NBA city was Salt Lake City. I wish I could vividly remember every single time that I saw you play when I was just a little boy, but you left me with moments that I will never forget.
Whether it was meeting Deron Williams at the rim and swatting away his dunk attempt to force a collective groan from the crowd, your windmill dunk and flex, or the night after you hobbled around on one leg, pouring in 52 points to beat the Rockets. Nobody expected you to play, but you did, and you extended your streak of 40-point games at that time and led the Lakers to another win.
As great as those were, my favorite memory of you in that building goes back to 2009. It was Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs. You had missed 19 of 24 shot attempts just two nights prior, including the potential game-winning three, and the media killed you for it, wondering if you were still unprepared to lead a team to a title as the clear-cut, undisputed leader.
It was my first playoff game in person, and I was nervous. Another Jazz win and the series would be tied 2-2, and we would have to deal with the worst fan base I have personally encountered on the way out of the arena and back to the hotel.
The energy in the building continued to grow as the countdown to tip-off ticked away, second by second. The crowd began to file in and gave a collective cheer when the Jazz trotted out to warm up. Then came the boos. You, Pau, Ariza and the whole team came out with a seemingly razor-sharp focus. I was still nervous, until they showed you on the scoreboard hovering above the court.
That’s when I knew: “We are not losing this game.”
You have always had an unheralded reputation for your focus, killer-instinct and villainous personality. But this was different. You had this look in your eyes that I had not seen before. It was this incredibly calm, yet menacing look on your face. You did not show a single sign of emotion the entire time. You just chomped away at your purple gum, and proceeded to silently destroy the Jazz in the form of 38 points on 16-of-24 shooting, hitting some of the most outrageous, contested jumpers, no matter who was defending you. You obliterated anyone that stood in front of you.
That’s why Jazz fans hated you so much. Just when they had a sliver of hope to desperately cling to, you, the Black Mamba, slithered through the grass and removed said hope with a lethal strike. And it’s the same reason why I love you so much. Whenever things became worrisome, the Lakers could turn to you to bail them out. To the enemy, you were the villain. To us, you were the savior.
Many questioned your playing and leadership style, but nobody questioned your heart. A person’s character is tested not in their triumph, but in their misery. It was exactly three years ago today that you hit probably the lowest point of your career. You made a move you had made a million times before, and that’s when it happened.
Your Achilles tendon snapped, and so did any hope for the rest of the season. You had been hurt two other times earlier in the game, yet you kept getting back up, pushing not only your own limits, but the team’s as well. It was because of all the times you fell and got back up, disregarding any level of pain, that I did not worry at the time. You limped off the court for the timeout, and sure enough, just like I figured, you walked back out to the free throw line.
“See, I knew he would be alright. It’s Kobe. Come on.”
I’ve seen athletes have to be carried and carted off for this injury. But your first thoughts were to try and somehow reattach it so that you can keep playing. Who the hell even does that? That alone is downright insane. But to hobble back out there and sink two free throws on a ruptured Achilles? Beyond legendary.
You willed your team to victory, like you had done so often that season, carrying them into the postseason. And what nobody talks about in regards to that game: the Lakers won by two. Those unbelievable free throws were the difference.
That’s what made you so great. You always fought through the pain and overcame the adversity, regardless of how daunting it was. You are the toughest athlete I have ever seen, both mentally and physically. The mental toughness you displayed time and time again is something I try to emulate in my own life. It’s just one of many reasons that you are an inspiration to so many people.
I try to display a similar level of toughness all the time, but tomorrow is going to be an exception. I am going to be broken, because you mean too much to me. I was born in 1992 and you became a Laker just four years later. Ever since I fell in love with the game of basketball, you were always there. My entire basketball-watching life, Lakers basketball centered around you. Tomorrow, that comes to an end. What am I supposed to do now? I’m not ready to let you go. I’m not sure I will ever look at the game the same way ever again. I guess only time will tell.
One thing that I am sure of, though, is that there will never be another player that has the same impact on me as you have. There will never be another Kobe Bryant.
I wish you could leave the game by going out on top with ring No. 6. But in a weird way, for your sake, I’m happy with how this season has gone. You have given us some vintage performances amidst a dreadful season, but the fact that we know exactly when the final chapter comes to a close allows us to appreciate you in the fashion that you deserve. Some people can call you selfish for this farewell tour. They have been criticizing you for 20 years. Why stop now?
But you know what? You deserve the amount of love that you have received this year. You’ve earned it. I don’t care what anyone else says. You changed the game.
You’ve delivered endless memories and countless accolades. There’s no way I could truly repay you for the role you unknowingly played in my journey through childhood. I could think of a million words to write, but whenever I hear the name, Kobe Bryant, they come back to just two.