Bryant rouses respect across team divides

This past week, Kobe Bryant surpassed 30,000 total points for his career, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to do so. He accomplished the incredible feat against the New Orleans Hornets (or, should I say Pelicans?) in typical Bryant-is-still-the-smoothest-scorer-alive fashion. He quickly attacked from the wing, weaved through the lane, stutter-stepped through and around a couple of overmatched defenders, and floated the ball over the outstretched arms of a shot-blocker, all while looking off two completely unguarded three-point shooters on the perimeter.

May I say typical Kobe Bryant fashion, anyone? Come on, I deserve at least one tiny jab at the guy, considering that he inflicted unwarranted fear and nervousness upon my fragile adolescent psyche these past few years, I’m a die-hard Boston Celtics fan and very proud of it, and the Los Angeles Lakers are right up there as one of my least favorite sports teams (joining the repulsive Miami Heat, New York Giants and New York Yankees.)

Regardless, Kobe’s accomplishment is well worth celebrating and shouldn’t, under any circumstance, be overlooked. I would be hard pressed to recall a more complete scorer than the future Hall of Famer, and that includes Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the rest of the historic company that he joined on that one play against the Hornets/Pelicans. The man has it all—dunks, floaters, pull-up jumpers, three-pointers, fade-ways, savvy post moves, crafty pivots and the instinctive knack to hit in-your-face, falling-out-of-bounds, demoralize-the-opponent shots that win you close games. Jordan had it too, but Kobe very well might represent the most complete scoring package in NBA history. With the ball in his hands, opposing players and coaches know that he can literally score from anywhere on the floor. And Kobe seems to come through.

When you look at the numbers that he’s putting up this season, Kobe is still coming through more often than other teams would like. He is currently averaging 28.4 points per game on 19.4 shots a game, which means that Kobe is scoring at his best rate since the 2006-07 season, while taking the least shots that he’s ever taken since the 2003-04 season. This rate of efficiency may not continue, given that only over a month of the season has passed and it exceeds even Kobe’s standards, but the statistics definitely look incredible early on. By all means, Kobe finds himself nearing retirement these days, working through the legacy-cementing part of his career rather than the up-and-coming or top-of-the-world one, otherwise known as the Russell Westbrook and LeBron James, respectively. But it isn’t foolish to say that he hasn’t looked this good and this efficient in a long, long time. On top of the scoring numbers, has there ever been a more durable player than Kobe Bryant? He just never misses games, whether his finger is dislocated or his ankle is swelling, and this is perhaps my favorite part about Kobe, the player. Over the past decade, his commitment to showing up in each and every game is unparalleled. I have never turned off a Lakers broadcast regretting that Kobe Bryant didn’t come to play, or just didn’t seem to care about the outcome of the game. Even if he’s facing a lowly, underwhelming opponent, Kobe seems to be driven to prove something. Perhaps, he has his legacy in mind, even when his opponent is the Charlotte Bobcats. Perhaps, the statistics are really, really important to him, which they surely are. Maybe, he just wants to break some obscure record that seemed unbreakable.

Whatever the reason, Kobe Bryant never fails to make an impression, and that is a testament to his Jordan-esque work ethic and willingness to compete, even when his team doctors and assistant coaches are advising him against suiting up. When Carmelo Anthony declined to play in two games this week, one of them nationally televised on TNT, due to a finger injury, I ended up asking myself one question—would Kobe Bryant have played? And the answer that I found encapsulated the true legend of Kobe, which we have never quite seen and will probably never see again. In my heart of hearts, I came to the personal conclusion that Kobe Bryant would have played, even if he was nursing a relatively minor injury. For me, he’s the standard-bearer turned measuring stick when it comes to playing through pain.
Once you start using “fill-in-the-blank would have” clauses to describe somebody, you know that you have something special. His competitiveness is transcendent; the love of every single tedious game comes around once in a generation. In the end, it’s inevitable that somebody will surpass Kobe Bryant as a scorer someday. Down the road, someone like Kevin Durant (whose scoring efficiency is worth noting in its own right) will become the youngest player to join the prestigious 30K club, just like Kobe did this past week. However, the inevitability of the future should not take away from the magnificence of the present. Kobe’s accomplishment is something that should be reflected upon, talked about, and commemorated because reaching a milestone of such magnitude just doesn’t happen every day—or every decade, for that matter.

Knowing him, Kobe will keep on scoring and scoring and scoring throughout the 2012-13 campaign, but it’s worth stepping back for a second after his record-breaking performance in New Orleans. No matter the buzzer-beaters, floaters and in-your-eye jumpers that he will certainly keep on hitting during this current NBA season, the tricky little maneuver up and over Robin Lopez should—and will—stick in our minds as just another remarkable chapter in the illustrious career of Kobe Bean Bryant, the scorer, the competitor, the legend. Let’s all just hope that he keeps on playing—and scoring—for as long as possible.

Knowing him, the baskets will keep on coming in bunches, this year and beyond.

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