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The Mamba's Last Mambo

The farewell game of the Kobe Bryant farewell tour has started off in similar fashion to the entire 2015-16 Los Angeles Lakers season.

Poorly.

Four minutes into the game, the Lakers trail 6-0 and Bryant is 0-4. Not exactly how I'm guessing Bryant pictured his swan song going.

On a night when the Golden State Warriors are going for record-breaking win number 73, Bryant, Black Mamba himself, is going quietly into the dark night on what is, as of this writing, a 16-win team that has had its fair share of drama this season. 

Capping a 20-year career, hobbling towards the finish line, is not how any player imagines themselves leaving the game. Winning the championship on a game-winning shot is the way a player wants to walk off the court. It's the way it is dreamed from the early days of picking up a basketball and shooting hoops in your driveway. It's late at night, the cold air is setting in and you want to make one more before calling it a night. Only seconds to go. Down by one. Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The clock is winding down...

UPDATE: Bryant has rattled off 12 straight points. Jay-Z nods his head in approval.

Bryant's first year in the league was my senior year of high school. As far as basketball heroes go, Larry Bird and Bill Russell were on the top of my list. Michael Jordan was close behind. 

Bryant, fresh out of high school, exploded onto the scene, in good ways and bad. The scoring was evident, as were the air balls in pressure situations in which complaints resounded about a rookie taking the final shot.

Despite being a lifelong Boston Celtics fan and Bryant being on the Lakers, I was impressed by him. Here was this kid, only one year older than me, and he was willing to step up in these pressure situations. There was only a hint of his cockiness in those first two years of his career and he showed a resilience to work hard in making himself better.

Bryant, you could say, was a favorite of mine. By time Mamba's second year arrived, I was in my first-year of college, playing pickup games against teachers from my mom's elementary school (many of which played together in a women's league.) I will admit now that it gave me a perfect opportunity to practice all of my "Kobe" moves. Post-ups. Cross over dribbles. The fade away jumper. And even the "fake like I"m passing behind my back on a fast break but hook the ball around to myself". Much like Bryant was the King of L.A., I was the King of the Multi Purpose Room.

UPDATE: Bryant finished the first quarter shooting 5-13. On pace for a very Kobe-esque game.

As time went on, though, Bryant became a man I learned to loathe. He was a ball hog. He was cocky beyond any measure. He was accused of rape (and exonerated. Though that hasn't been mentioned much this week). The Black Mamba was cold-as-ice on the court and he consistently drove a dagger into the hearts of the non-Laker fans.

I watched some of my best friends root for Bryant. And I saw some of them devastated time and time again after a game-winning shot eliminated their team from the playoffs. He got on those shooting sprees (like he did in the first quarter tonight when he made four in a row) where you knew that anything he shot up was going in. It was inevitable. Two guys could be in his face and Bryant could make a shot with ease. I even went as far as to put Bryant in the middle of an NBA conspiracy. It was damn frustrating. 

Over the past few years, after I felt those very daggers along with millions of other Celtics fans in the NBA Finals, I've learned to appreciate Bryant once again. Despite his propensity to shoot as much as he used to (at a lower success rate), he has mellowed over the years, doing his best to take on more of a leadership role. From judging him on solely an outsider basis, Bryant has one of the greatest work ethics to ever be present in this game. He is among the top-ten greatest players of all time.

Injuries over the past four years have played a part in his downfall. It's inevitable. The amount of minutes he's played in the last twenty years, adding in all of those championship runs, took a toll. Wearing down is bound to happen. There was still flashes of that old Kobe this past season. He's not the same man that dropped over 81 points in game. (When I saw that, I probably quipped he had to do it on 82 shots. He did not.) But, when he was feeling right, he could still drop 30 on you.

UPDATED: Bryant now has 21 points with three minutes left in the first half.

The thing I appreciate most about Bryant is the fact that he stayed with the Lakers for his entire career. In this day and age, it is rare that a superstar does that. (Casually looks in the direction of Lebron James). Yes, there were times he was close to leaving, but Bryant saw it through to the very end. Bryant's career saw it all. Rocky relationships, All-Star game mishaps, NBA championships. You weren't always my favorite, Mr. Bryant, but you will always remain one of the greats. And for that, after a nearly 18-year hiatus, I can finally salute you once again. And for the first time in my life, I'm rooting for that Lakers victory. And to one final Kobe game of scoring 40 points--perhaps on 41 shots--a game in which he can finally fade away into the loving embrace of the Los Angeles night.

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