We recall their feuding days, which was always good copy, but we sometimes forgot how great they were together. The apex of their partnership came in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals against Portland, a 59-win team that had carried the Lakers to the brink. With 10 minutes left, the Trail Blazers led by 15. Driven by desperation, the Lakers chased them down. Kobe put his team ahead with 1:50 left. And then …
With the Lakers up four with 45 seconds left, he took the ball above the arc and faced down Scottie Pippen, himself a six-time champ as the Robin to MJ's caped crusader. Kobe lost Pippen with a crossover. (The man could always get anywhere he wanted to go.) He ducked into the lane and was close enough to shoot. (He was, shall we say, seldom a reluctant shooter.) This time he didn't. He hoisted, though not very high, an alley-oop from 12 feet out, among the shortest lobs on record. Shaq rose and crammed it through, leaving the backboard shaking. Running down the court, he raised both hands, his mouth making an "O" in wonder of what he and his little sometimes-buddy had just wrought.
And what did Kobe, six years Shaq’s junior, do? He slapped the Big Aristotle’s hand. And that was it. He didn’t smile. Game wasn’t over. (Though it was, really.)
We knew by then that Kobe could do pretty much anything. Before long he was doing everything. On Jan. 22, 2006 – earlier in the day, the Steelers and Seahawks had won conference titles – the Lakers played one of their Sunday night games in L.A. Close to midnight, we on the East Coast were informed that Kobe Bryant had scored 81 points against Toronto, and suddenly the sporting world forgot all about the upcoming Super Bowl. Eighty-one points! (Only Wilt, with his 100 in Hersey, Pa., had ever topped that. MJ’s best was 69.)
Kobe could be easier to admire than to love. He had that edge. He cultivated and embraced that edge. Styling yourself after a venomous snake – Black Mamba became was both his nickname and trademark – tells us you care little for warm and fuzzy, but that was him. He wasn’t a fun guy. (If you wanted goofy, go be a Shaq fan.) He was, however, cool and sleek and as self-assured as anyone in the history of humankind. There was an icy beauty about his playing.
And he had, it must be said, a surpassing sense of style. In his final game, the 37-year-old Kobe scored 60 points, albeit on a career-high 50 shots. He then addressed the Staples Center crowd. His final words: “What can I say? Mamba out.”
He died Sunday in a helicopter crash with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna. They were en route to her basketball practice. On Saturday, the matchless competitor had tweeted congratulations when LeBron, now a Laker, passed him for No. 3 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. “I’m just happy to be in any conversation with Kobe Bean Bryant,” LeBron said. Whatever else we might say about Kobe, we must say this: He was the player’s player, the pro’s pro.
And now: Mamba out. Far too soon, Mamba out.