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Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles ~ Five Insane Black Mamba Moments that Made Him an L.A. Legend

Photo by Bernstein Associates/Getty Images.

[dropcap size=big]K[/dropcap]obe Bryant is a part of Los Angeles that is often overlooked. The hard part. If LeBron James is Julius Caesar – conqueror of all lands – Kobe Bryant is Sulla, the great but ruthless military commander who defended Rome from its enemies and held it in his powerful grip through sheer force and determination.

It was stunning to see Bryant play. So much so, that it’s easy to forget it wasn’t a movie we were watching when he tossed the alley-oop to Shaq against Portland to cap a thrilling comeback in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. You could almost see the white text coda appearing on your screen to end the movie: “The Lakers would go on to win three consecutive titles.”

It wasn’t a video game when he dropped 81 on the Raptors one ordinary Monday in January 2006. Magical thinking didn’t wish Los Angeles a hard-fought 16th NBA title against the hated Celtics in 2010. Then Bryant snapped his Achilles in 2013, essentially ending his decade-long run as L.A.’s undisputed ruler.

“When it came to basketball, I had no fear,” Kobe writes in Mamba Mentality, his new book. It’s the very first line.

Photo by Bernstein Associates/Getty Images. All images courtesy of MCD×FSG.
Photo by Bernstein Associates/Getty Images.

Just like L.A, Kobe is more than what they show you on TV. He’s L.A. like hustle is L.A. Like dying to live is L.A. Like hard work and determination is L.A. In fact what you didn’t see as the confetti fell over raised hands was a nerdy workaholic built to take pain and overcome obstacles.

Sure Kobe is L.A. in a lot of other ways. He’s multilingual, multicultural, and creative. Hell, he’s got an Oscar and his own production company. But Kobe and L.A. share the same heart. The same relentless drive. Fuck New York. If you can make it here, it’s because you died a million tiny deaths and spawned each time more resolved than ever. Kobe, L.A., us, we are all about an obsessive single-mindedness to always be hustling … when we aren’t eating tacos.

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It’s a fact clearly inscribed deep in the glossy black and white pages of his nerdy ode to hard work: The Mamba Mentality: How I Play. The book provides keen insight on the Black Mamba’s approach to making it in the toughest market on the planet. It’s dense, beautiful, and inspiring. Los Angeles, the hard part, in Garamond type and the sharp eye of the great Andrew D. Bernstein, who provided the photography for the hardcover memoir.

But for me, the best parts of the book are when Bryant breaks down key moments in his career into tiny graphs of matter-of-fact. In 20 years, the Mamba didn’t just rack up numbers, he racked up stories.

Here are five insane Kobe Bryant moments that have become legendary fodder in bar arguments, dinner table debates, and the blacktop courts and humid gyms, where the next Kobe Bryant is surely plotting his march on Rome.

The Air Balls

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]magine a 14-year-old boy on his knees in front of an old dial television set gasping every time an 18-year-old kid named Kobe Bryant launched hapless three-pointers into thin air nothing.

“I wasn’t scared of missing, looking bad, or being embarrassed. That’s because I always kept the end result, the long game, in my mind,” he writes.

It was Bryant’s first year in the league and he came off the bench for most of it. But since draft day, the pressure for Bryant as the heir-apparent to MJ was palpable. I don’t know what the other teams saw that let him slip to the No. 13 spot in the draft. But Jerry West saw greatness and so did most of us. On the blacktop at school, all we talked about was how he was the next Michael Jordan.

And with Shaq signing with the team, it was like pairing West with Wilt, Magic with Kareem, Clyde with Hakeem, Bill Russell with anybody. A championship was basically guaranteed.

And they got close. Sort of. That’s the legend of it. That Kobe Bryant almost shot the Lakers into the NBA finals and a championship in his very first season. The truth is Kobe spent most of the year coming off the bench. He did, however, earn himself a lot of playing time in the playoffs and a spot as a finisher in the 4th quarter. The Lakers had an impressive playoff run right up until the Western Conference championship where they rant into a buzz saw named the Utah Jazz led by Karl Malone and John Stockton. They were trailing in the elimination game, when the Lakers turned to Bryant – or maybe Bryant just stole the moment – to save the season.

Four times Kobe took a shot at greatness and four times the shot missed everything. Airballs. But it was magical in a way, how it went from “What the fuck are you doing?” to “Damn. He’s got balls.”

It many ways Kobe earned the respect of Los Angeles, and his fellow hall of fame teammate Shaquille O’Neal, that day. He was fearless. Imagine being 18 and facing that pressure with no trepidation. Imagine missing that badly three times and still having the guts to take a fourth try. It was crazy. It was legendary.

Even Kobe remembers it as a moment he cost L.A. a title shot. “I let four airballs fly, and we lost our chance at a title,” he writes in the book. But had the Lakers won Game 5, they would have still be down 3-2 and facing elimination every game going forward. Had they somehow figured out how to stop the pick and roll and beat back the Jazz, Michael Jordan’s Bulls were waiting on the other side, in the middle of their second three-peat.

The Shaq Saga

[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]hat kind of a madman takes on the Iron Giant? Shaquille O’Neal wasn’t just a giant, he was a lovable, charming giant. He was most dominant player to ever play the game and an essential part of the dynasty. But Kobe slung pebbles from a tiny slingshot until L.A. was all his. O’Neal famously lost the battle of the egos, moving on to Miami, where he won a final championship, and and many other teams, where he did not. Kobe would end up spending his entire career in one city, something virtually unheard of in modern sports.

In Mamba Mentality, Bryant basically says the so-called beef was a side effect of he and the big fella pumping up the tension to push their teammates toward greatness. “Shaq and I would, conscious of the intermittent tension around us, ratchet that up. By doing so, our teammates would lock in and raise their own level of competitiveness.”

Kobe adds that, “It was never about Shaq and Kobe. It was about making sure our teammates were fully invested and understood the seriousness of what we were trying to do.”

Photo by Bernstein Associates/Getty Images.
Photo by Bernstein Associates/Getty Images.

The Bike Ride

[dropcap size=big]K[/dropcap]obe Bryant once took a 40-mile midnight bicycle ride through the Las Vegas desert just to warm up for practice. It’s a true story that only people who really get Kobe believe the first time they hear it. No evidence is required. I heard he would practice the same exact shot for hours at a time.

“If you really want to be great at something, you have to truly care about it,” writes Bryant. “If you want to be great in a particular area, you have to obsess over it. A lot of people say they want to be great but are not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness.”

Now if you don’t believe the bike ride story here’s proof from his trainer Tim Grover told to Ramona Shelburne: “He wanted to add in bike training to his summer conditioning. Grover researched a trail in Las Vegas, rented three bikes — one for Bryant, one for himself and one for Bryant’s security guard — and on the night before the first day of practice, they each put on headlamps and headed out to the trail and rode. ‘We finished up around 2 a.m.’ Grover said. ‘And we were back in the gym working out by 7:30 in the morning.’”

The Free Throws

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]his is a hard one to relive. But we were all with you, Kobe. In perhaps the most L.A. thing he’s ever done, Bryant took an astounding hit, a mythical injury from the Iliad, and still won the game with two free throws on only one Achilles. He had to. He had promised the Lakers would make the playoffs, and with those two shots – and an incredible run of restless games that wore his tendon down to nothing – he fulfilled his promise. Angelenos are all about perseverance. We are about working hard, taking hits, and getting back up to try again. Watching Kobe attempt those shots was truly agonizing, a horrifying moment that is seared in the memories of millions of fans. But getting back up, limping to the line, and making the shots are exactly what we expected him to do.

Here’s how Kobe relives that moment: “I realized right away that it was torn. First, I felt it, and then I looked down and saw it curling up the back of my leg. Still, I tried to walk on it, tired to figure out how to play around it. It became evident fast, though, that I should take the free throws and get the hell out of there.”

Photo by Bernstein Associates/Getty Images.
Photo by Bernstein Associates/Getty Images.

The Farewell

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t was a long farewell – three years. Kobe calls climbing back from the torn Achilles his “personal Mount Everest.”

For us watching, it turned Kobe into a human being. In a 20 year career broken down in acts, he went from the kid with the highest expectations to the best player on the planet to finally the underdog that we all rooted for but didn’t expect much from.

“When the Achilles injury happened, I treated it as a new challenge,” Bryant writes. “People were saying I might not be able to come back, but I knew I was not going to let it beat me.”

It was rough to watch him fight back. But in the end, Kobe gave the city what he always gave the city: a show for the ages. I was in a fancy sushi place in Little Tokyo watching with what appeared to be all of Los Angeles cheering him on. You could hear screams pouring in from outside on 1st and Alameda. In his final game as a Laker, the Black Mamba left nothing in his tank. He threw his soul at the basket 50 times. He poured his heart into the hoop 22 times.  He gave us a blocked shot, a steal, four rebounds, and even four assists. And in the end, a final 60-point curtain call.

“When I arrived in the arena, there was a palpable, somber energy,” Bryant recalls in Mamba Mentality. “It felt sort of sad, and I didn’t want that. I wanted the night to be a celebration; I wanted the night to be full of life, and I realized it was on me to change the vibes.”

Change them he did. At the Staples Center, in Little Tokyo, on old and new TV sets all over Los Angeles, we all celebrated the man who brought us countless moments of joy, 33,643 points, 20 seasons of hope, and five championships.

RELATED: LeBron Eats ~ The L.A. Taco Guide to Eating Like The King

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