The Kobe Bryant Era ends tonight for the Los Angeles Lakers

It’s hard to believe that Kobe Bryant is hanging it up tonight. The end of a 20-year career that had its fair share of ups and downs is also an end to one of the NBA’s GOATs. No matter how un-Kobe-like he has played the past season, the face of the Los Angeles Lakers will be a new one come October.

They are calling it Mamba Day across social media. Whatever you want to call it, it’s the amazing end to an impressive career.

It’s funny. I always feel like Kobe is still so young because I remember vividly he’s meteoric rise at the age of 18. I went to college not too far from where Bryant went to high school, so everyone in our area knew who he was. Wayniac Nation’s own Benny Smalls went to Bryant’s Lower Marion’s rival Conestoga High School. He remembers seeing Bryant play as a high-school student.

“Going to a Kobe game as a Conestoga student,” Spitalnick recollected, “the tickets were sold out by the JV game. He was compelling enough that you got there early and watched JV basketball just to get a glimpse. During layup lines — you couldn’t dunk in high school, you  weren’t allowed to — he would tease the crowd and go up like he would dunk and drop it in. When people were shooting free throws he was hitting half court shots. He made you want to root for the opposing team to get the ball instead of your own so you could watch what he did. We knew we had something special, but not one of the greatest of all time.

“You almost felt bad for your friends having to play against him, it was inevitable that they were about to be posterized.”

Going to school outside the Philadelphia area, we were also aware of Eddie Jones. When the Lakers traded for Bryant it didn’t make sense. They had just drafted Temple’s finest two years prior tenth overall. Where were the possibly going to both fit?

Of course the answer became very easy. Bryant played sixth man for two seasons and then Jones was gone.

Bryant’s career would be full of love and hate. He became a perenial 2,000-point scorer that was second to none to watch as far as the excitement level. But Kobe didn’t come without his haters. Unfortunately for him, he often brought it upon himself.

Early on, there was the fact that he couldn’t win a championship was the centerpiece of one of the most prolific franchises in NBA history. He had swagger, but many took it as being a smug youngster. There was the string of events in Denver that was reprehensible and put a blemish on his career that Bryant had to fight for a long time to gain forgiveness, or at the very least acceptance. And there was that relationship with the Great Aristotle.

Shaquille O’Neal came to the Lakers and he and Bryant won not one, not two, but three championships in a row. It was one of the most bizarre relationships in sports history. One day Kobe would blame Shaq for the Lakers shortcomings, the next day Shaq would be pointing the finger at Kobe’s selfishness and the next day they would win a championship and Shaq would anoint Kobe as the greatest player he’d ever played with in his career.

Whatever the case was, the war of words inevitably left the Lakers to make the decision of who the face of the franchise was, and in the end it wasn’t much of a decision. Shaq was exiled out of LA and Kobe had his team back. Of course, the fact that Shaq won yet another title before Kobe did certainly didn’t help the haters of the Kobe couldn’t win one on his own regime.

Love him or hate him, Bryant had one of the most unique careers of any athlete across any sport. Most athletes who play the game so well that they become part of the GOAT lexicon almost always seemingly have more people that want to deny them than accept them. Kobe seems to have had a roller coaster of a career of love and hate. When No. 8 Kobe wore out his welcome, No. 24 Kobe reinvented himself trying to win fans back. Those two more championships certainly helped.

Bryant is one of those unusual cases. He played for one of the NBA’s greatest franchises for the entirety of his career, a fantastic feat in this day and age. It seems easier to place Bryant’s career amongst the all-time greats of the NBA than it is to figure out where he stands amongst those of Lakers lore.

There’s no question where Bryant will forever live amongst the legends  in the annals of NBA history. The guy has more points than Michael Jordan, has a ring for each finger and was in the spotlight, good or bad, for 20 years.

Tonight, from Los Angeles against the Jazz, Kobe plays his final serenade. It will be one hell of a show.

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