I became a Kobe Bryant fan with 0.7 seconds remaining in Game 4 of the 2006 NBA Playoffs.
Phoenix Suns fans will surely remember that as the game where Steve Nash was the victim of two terrible non-calls. Lakers fans, on the other hand, will just remember that day as another in a long line of Kobe’s triumphs. But for me, those final 6 seconds of regulation were a Damascus moment.
Like many people, I was staunchly anti-Kobe when he entered the league. I’ve never been able to fully ascertain the exact reasons for these feelings but I’m sure they stem primarily from the overzealous Michael Jordan worship that Kobe displayed during his first few years in the NBA. It was impossible to ignore back then. From the way he carried himself on the court, to the tactics he employed, even the sound of his voice were all a part of Kobe’s near imitation of his (and my) idol, Michael Jordan. And while it was probably unfair to an 18-year-old, I’m positive that I’m not the only one who was taken aback by this, so much so that I disliked Kobe as a player.
However, lest we forget, Kobe was complicit in his creation of an unlikable player. The selfishness, the Colorado incident, and the feud with Shaq are all blemishes that Kobe brought upon himself. Whether these resulted as a case of egotistic behavior or something else, Kobe single-handedly was responsible for the image he created. Though he apparently wanted to be liked (or even loved), Kobe seemed oblivious to the persona he had generated. A commercial at the time that showed Kobe training while an overdub stated a list of reasons that people hated him and ended with Kobe saying you can love him for the same reasons further illustrated the chasm between what Kobe thought he was portraying and what he really was. We didn’t hate Kobe because he won titles or had a perfect jumper; we hated him because he was trying to be our savior.
All that changed on April 30th, 2006. After an uncharacteristically bungled inbounds play resulted in a steal, the Lakers’ Smush Parker passed ahead to Devean George who got the ball to Kobe just inside the three-point line. Trailing by two, Kobe took one dribble, and with the agility of a man one foot shorter avoided a defender before releasing the most imaginative and ridiculous shot I can remember watching live. It was a shot only a handful of players could make, and even fewer would consider; a shot that only one player would take in that situation.
There’s a state of thoughtless awareness that martial artists strive for. It’s a place where your body acts on its own accord, where cognitive choice is replaced by instinct. Only through intense training and pursuit of perfection can this harbor of being be achieved. Though many current players enter this realm, none do so with the frequency of Kobe Bryant.
On that day, for the first time, I realized that what I was seeing was a man at the height of his powers. With that one play, everything changed. With eyes fully opened, I could finally forgive Kobe’s blasphemy and appreciate that someone could finally claim the crown as basketball’s best player.