Earlier this week, the legendary Kobe Bryant had not one, but two jerseys retired in the Staples Center in LA. He put up amazing stats in both #8 & #24, and when asked, was hard-pressed to choose between the two.
“It’s really, really tough for me. I think 24 was more challenging, and I tend to gravitate to things that are harder to do. And physically for me it was really, really hard for me to get up, night-in and night-out, man. It’s a grind. … Thinking on the Boston Celtics. Having a bone fragment in my foot during that series. Having a broken finger. Muscling through that back half of the career. Some of the toughest stretches of basketball ever, man. And so, I guess if you force me to pick one, I’d probably go with No. 24 because of that.”
Truly one of the all-time greats, he was the man who went toe-to-toe with Paul Pierce in the Finals in 2008 & 2010, and generated real hate from Celtics fans across the world because of how good he was. I thought it would be fun to look back on his run from a Celtic point of view.
THE BEGINNING OF AN ERA
Before Kobe Bryant became a Laker, he was a lifelong fan of the organization. He watched old tapes of the Lakers-Celtics Finals as a kid, and grew to hate the Celtics as much as he loved the Lakers. So when the Celtics called him in for a workout, he was reluctant, but he did it. According to Celtics management at the time, he was more than impressive. But they wanted somebody who could come in and contribute right away. Bryant was a high schooler that needed to develop his game further. So, the Celtics passed on him with the 6th pick and went with Antoine Walker. Kobe was drafted 13th by the Hornets, immediately traded to the Lakers, and the rest is history.
As was predicted by many GMs around the league, Kobe took some time to find his groove. In his first season, he averaged just over 15 minutes a game. He showed flashes of his potential, but wasn’t a regular rotation player. In his second year, the mamba came out. Kobe made a huge leap, right into the all-star game. He was just 18 years old. By his fourth year, he was one of the league’s top players. Along with Shaq, the Lakers won 3 championships in a row from 2000-2002.
The Lakers were riding high, but the Celtics couldn’t get over the hump with Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce. After surprisingly making it to the Eastern Conference Finals and taking a 2-1 lead over the Nets in the 2002 playoffs, the Celtics-Lakers chatter was starting back up, but the Lakers were clearly a better team at the time. The Celtics were swept in the second round the next year and by 2004 were sold and under a massive change from top to bottom. New GM Danny Ainge decided to blow it up and enter a full rebuild, keeping franchise cornerstone Paul Pierce to build around.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2007 that the Celtics were stirring things up around the NBA, but all of a sudden they were being talked about as a serious championship contender. Ainge pulled off deals for both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and the Big 3 in Boston was ready to set the league on fire. But across the country, Kobe was determined to show the world he could win a championship without Shaq. He had his unforgettable 81 point game the year before and was entering full Mamba mode.
When the Celtics won the east and the Lakers won the west, talks of the rivalry reignited, and before long the teams were set to face off and attempt to write the next championship story. Kobe had already won 3 rings, but this was different. This was against the CELTICS. This was what he grew up dreaming about.
The Celtics had the better overall record and therefore had home court advantage. The drama began in Game 1, when Paul Pierce injured his knee early in the second half and had to be carried off the floor. He would return before the end of the 3rd and hit two big 3’s in a row, sending the TD Garden in a frenzy. The Celtics had all the momentum after and won what was eventually dubbed “the wheelchair game”.
After winning game 2 as well behind Pierce’s 28, the next 3 games were in LA. Kobe went off for 36 in Game 3 to propel the Lakers to an 87-81 win, but he was off in Game 4, and the Celtics took a 3-1 series lead. The Lakers won the next game with their backs against the wall, but all it did was let the Celtics celebrate on their home floor in front of their own fans in a game 6 blowout.
The Celtics won by 39 and the Celtics were NBA champs again. Paul Pierce won Finals MVP, and solidified himself as a true Celtics Legend with the help of his new all-star teammates. Kobe watched the team he hated most celebrate, and was already thinking about getting revenge. He averaged 25.7 points, 5 assists and 4.7 rebounds on 40.5% shooting to Pierce’s 21.8 points, 6.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds behind 43.2% shooting.
In 2009, the Lakers won in the Finals, but the Celtics didn’t make the party. They dealt with injuries all season and would have to wait till 2010 to get another chance, and the Lakers were waiting for them. Worse, Kobe was looking for revenge in the midst of one of his best seasons in which he hit 6 game winners. He was getting old, but he was still capable of things no one else could do on the court. That showed in the 2010 Finals, when he helped the Lakers pull off a comeback game 7 victory to seal his fifth championship and second consecutive Finals MVP. When asked which of his 5 championships meant the most to him, Kobe didn’t hesitate.
“The Celtics one. Not just because it was the hardest one to get but also being a Laker fan, there’s no greater feeling or dream than facing the Celtics in the Finals. We came up short in ’08, so now it was like the Basketball Gods were smiling down upon us all, because now we finally get a chance to get revenge. It would’ve been really painful for me to retire and not be able to have revenge on the Celtics. I know the history of the Lakers and Celtics, and I don’t want to be one of those players that was a Laker great that lost to the Celtics and never had a chance to redemption. So that Finals to me was the most important one.”
It was official, Kobe Bryant was the most hated player, and possibly person, in Boston. Celtics Nation had to watch Kobe win his three rings with Shaq when we were just trying to get to the Finals. We watched him get another after falling short of the Finals in 2009. Injuries plagued the Celtics that year, most namely Kevin Garnett. He would come back from a knee injury in the playoffs, but wasn’t the same. And now, we had to watch him crush the hopes and dreams of hanging Banner 18.
Bryant may have had the last laugh in the Celtics-Lakers story of his era, but his quote about the 2010 championship being his favorite is really about respect for the Celtics more than anything. He understood this was the hardest thing he had to do in his career. Taking down the Celtics was bigger than taking down anybody else, like the Magic the year prior. That was all good and well, but Kobe wanted to beat the Celtics. He knew putting a championship stamp on the historic Celtics-Lakers rivalry would establish his legacy as an all-time great.
“I learned my lesson my rookie year, when I was talking to him. He fouled me out in like 7 or 8 minutes. From that point on, I knew I couldn’t talk to him. He was kind of buttering me up. He’s asking me where am I from, how you doing young fella? Where you from? I like your heart, young fella. Before you know it he’s head faked you three times and got the and one off the backboard, came off the pick and roll and dunked on you.” -Tony Allen
Tony Allen was the main defender on Kobe in both the 2008 & 2010 Finals. To this day, he is still one of the best defenders in the league. On Kobe’s farewell tour, he gave Allen a gift to show his respect for Allen’s hustle. Along with a pair of signed shoes was a message that read “To Tony, the best defender I ever faced!”. Kobe stated this numerous other times when asked about it. Turns out there was some truth to Bryant’s comments to a rookie Tony Allen.
KOBE’S LAST YEARS
It wasn’t until the Lakers started losing that I could appreciate what Kobe had done for the game of basketball. His last two years he was getting paid too much for the Lakers to bring in any significant talent, and Kobe wasn’t good enough to carry the team anymore. They became the laughing-stock of the NBA, the beginning of their rebuild unable to start until Kobe’s contract expired. His last season was one of the worst in Lakers franchise history, and was simply a year dedicated to Kobe.
In the midst of his farewell tour, Kobe defied human capabilities here and there, turning back the clock with some 30+ point performances late in the year. He could sense the end was nigh, and was going to leave everything he had on the court. Never was this as evident as his final game in which he dropped 60 big ones at 37 years old. But beyond that, he made his worst enemies love him in that game. It took all the way up to that last game, but as I watched him torch the Jazz I found myself rooting for him to score every time he touched the ball.
NO KOBE, NO PROBLEM
It was only acceptable because they weren’t playing for anything. Honestly though, even if they were I’m not sure I would’ve been able to contain my excitement. That performance was one of the grittiest things I’ve ever seen, and something only a true great is capable of. So this is for Kobe, the Laker legend that we all loved to hate, but couldn’t help but learn to appreciate. He has inspired players from everywhere, and is the most popular name among current NBA players when asked who their favorite is. Even players on the Celtics idolize Kobe Bryant. 3rd on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, Kobe truly is the man, the myth, the legend. I’m certainly glad we don’t have to worry about that problem anymore.