Kobe Bryant may have been one of the least-popular players, rivals, around here, in large measure because he played for the Lakers and so often beat the Jazz, but also because he was individually and annoyingly great — with the arrogance to match. But the recollections that arise on a sad, sad day, the day Kobe and one of his daughters died, hearken back to a couple of different memories.
They have nothing to do with his ionospheric talent and competitiveness — others can discuss those remarkable characteristics, attributes Bryant owned like few others — and more to do with his being just a dude.
The first happened in Kobe’s rookie year with the Lakers, when the Jazz faced L.A. in the semifinals of the Western Conference playoffs in 1997. That was long before Bryant actualized what so many could see coming — immense ability on the court and charisma off it.
That Jazz team had their all-time veterans on it — Karl Malone, John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek — and there was no way they were going to lose to the Lakers. Not that year. They had a 64-18 record going into the playoffs, and had designs on one thing — making the NBA Finals to play the Chicago Bulls.
And they did.
Shaquille O’Neal and Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel and Robert Horry were not going to derail that, nor was a young kid named Kobe, who already had his trademark swagger without the educational seasoning that would come to him later. In that series, it was clear the Jazz were the better team and would advance.
What I remember is that determined fresh face, so young, so eager to make a difference, so set on showing his older teammates that he could help them beat the Jazz. As it turned out, he could not.
In particular, the picture of Bryant’s expression in the postgame locker room at what was then the Delta Center after the Jazz had taken one of their four series victories was what stood out. In a close game, when the Lakers needed a big basket near the end. It was Kobe, who was then all of 18 years old, who had the onions to take a necessary 3-point shot. He missed it, and the game wrapped.
Afterward, the kid was disappointed, but ebullient.
He took responsibility for the miss in such a way that was promising for the brilliant career that awaited. He wasn’t centered as much on his failure as he was on his enthusiasm for having played in an important game. I’ll never forget the big movements of his arms and hands, the beaming countenance, the humility, too. Every kid who aspires to play sports or live life in a positive way should have been there to see the teenaged Bryant’s reaction to an otherwise difficult competitive moment.
It was cool. It was inspiring. It was the right way to be.
The second memory came much later, when the Jazz were getting whipped by the Lakers in three consecutive playoff series, from 2008 to 2010. Bryant, naturally, was key to nearly every good thing that happened for L.A., making up for subpar performances, at times, with stellar subsequent outings.
But the lasting thing on a day like this one that stands like a monumental rock in my mind was another postgame moment. The assembled media was jammed into a small room at Staples Center where Kobe was asked about certain possessions, certain feats he had pulled off, certain victory that had come his way.
He did the Kobe thing, answering alternately with a sharp wit and with keen understanding of the technical details regarding what had occurred. Most of my memories of that Mamba encounter have faded away. But the one that hasn’t was Kobe bouncing his little daughter on his knee. She fussed a little at one point, to which he leaned over like any tender dad would, to soothe what was troubling her, to help any way he could.
That’s what I remember. Flashy, showy, at times haughty Kobe Bryant, in that victorious moment, was every father who ever cared about his child’s feelings. Having daughters myself, it definitely caught my eye, and settled in a lasting manner.
I do not know if that daughter was the one who passed away with him in Sunday’s helicopter crash. But if it was, I’m pretty sure she was his focus, the one Kobe was comforting in a time of distress. Whether it’s true or not, that’s the way I’ll remember it.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone, which is owned by the parent company that owns the Utah Jazz.