* Original piece published on Kobe Bryant Day- Aug. 24, 2020
Everyday something happens that can alter the course of life. For better or for worse, we’re sometimes ask “what if” throughout our time here on earth. One of those moments happened 25 years ago.
The Charlotte Hornets finished the 1995-96 season with .500 record at 41-41. They would miss the playoffs, along with securing the 13th overall pick in the NBA Draft. A late lottery selection that would change the game of basketball forever.
Kobe Bean Bryant, a young star from Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Penn., was an original pick of the Hornets in 1996. Even though Bryant would’ve fit perfectly in Charlotte, one thing was clear from the beginning —he didn’t receive any southern hospitality from the team who drafted him.
“Charlotte never wanted me,” Bryant told ESPN in 2015. “[Hornets coach Dave] Cowens told me he didn’t want me. It wasn’t a question of me even playing there. They had a couple of guards already, (and) a couple small forwards already. So, it wasn’t like I would be off the bench much.
“I mean, I had grown up watching basketball,” Bryant continued. “I knew who Dave Cowens was and [was] pretty excited [to play for him]. Then I was like, ‘Oh, all right.’ I quickly transitioned from smiley kid to killer instinct.
“Cowens told me, ‘We don’t really need you here,’” Bryant said.
What if Dave Cowens and the Hornets took on Kobe? What if he stayed in Charlotte? What if he built a basketball legacy here and attracted basketball’s best talents to the Queen City? What if it forever changed the franchise and the team never moved to New Orleans? What if? For Bryant, those “what if’s” were never taken lightly. It took a draft night rejection by the Hornets to give him a “Mamba Mentality.” And the rest is history.
Cowens and the Hornets’ front office decided to ship Bryant off to the Los Angeles Lakers. Looking back on the deal, the Hornets probably never forgave themselves, and surely the fan base hasn’t either. Charlotte got big man Vlade Divac in a trade, which was defined by a two-year window. Bryant went on to become an NBA All-Star in 1998, while Divac was on his way to Sacramento as a journeyman with the Kings.
In 2000, the Lakers found imminent success with one of the most formidable duos in Tinsel Town since Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Shaquille O’Neal alongside Bryant were virtually unstoppable as they breezed through the NBA’s competition. During their historic playoff run, the team went 14-1 dominating every team who crossed their path.
The powerhouse led the Lakers on three NBA championship runs and many memorable moments, including the game-sealing alley-oop from Kobe to Shaq in the 2000 Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trailblazers.
O’Neal was ultimately traded to the Miami Heat in 2004, leaving a Lakers team to once again be placed on the back of Bryant. In 2007, before his MVP season, Bryant looked for a change of scenery by demanding a trade. Though the Lakers denied the request and the team went on to finish 42-40.
Bryant returned the next season with one of the best of his career. He averaged 28 points, with six assists and five rebounds, taking Los Angeles back to the NBA Finals before losing to the Boston Celtics. The Lakers would comeback to win back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010, beating the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic and the original big three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen for the Celtics. Bryant’s performance in those games culminated in back-to-back Finals MVP’s.
Through the years, however, basketball began to take a toll on him. Bryant suffered a major Achilles injury in 2013 and a plethora of injuries followed suit. In 2016, father time caught up with Kobe as he announced his retirement following the season. The farewell tour for Bryant was one for the ages. His name was chanted in every city he went to from the first tip-off to the final buzzer.
The Black Mamba left us with one lasting memory of his greatness in his final game. As only Kobe can do, dropping 61 points, including 17 straight in the fourth quarter, to lead the Lakers to a victory over the Utah Jazz. Die-hard NBA fans were in awe of Kobe’s final stanza.
After retiring, Bryant devoted time to his family before his love of basketball. He coached his daughter’s travel team and believed women could change the world of basketball as we know it. Bryant was an avid supporter of the WNBA, who fought for equality across the board.
“I think there are a couple of players who could play in the NBA right now honestly.” Bryant told CNN, “There’s a lot of players with a lot of skill that could do it.”
Bryant’s words resonated with many who shared an undeniable love for the sport.
A love that inspired his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, to dream of playing for the UConn Huskies and idolizing her favorite player Maya Moore. While Kobe loved basketball, he loved his family more. Bryant also found that love through charity work.
Kobe and his wife, Vanessa, launched a self-titled Foundation in 2007 to sponsor international experiences for minority college students as well as provide scholarships for the Kobe Bryant Basketball Academy. His basketball academy proves to be yet another example of Bryant giving back to the youth and changing the lives of those around him. He also continued his work through the foundation formerly known as the Mamba Sports Foundation, the Mamba and Mambacita Sports foundation.
Bryant inspired millions to work hard and believe that if you want something bad enough, you will get it. An 18-time all-star, five-time NBA champion and soon-to-be hall of Famer. While he was known as “Mamba” on the court, off it he was simply Kobe. A father, a husband, a coach, a mentor and friend to many who knew him. When something major or catastrophic happens, we’re drawn back to remembering the details.
Many of us will always have Sept. 11, 2001 as an unfortunate date in our memory banks. Sports fans, and millions around the world, will have another date etched in their minds —January 26, 2020. A day from an unforgiving year marking the loss of Kobe, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash.
Bryant wasn’t afraid to die. He was afraid of not taking every moment like it was his last.
It was the same way Kobe approached the game of basketball. As unfair as the outcome may seem, he lived to play the game.
“Dear Basketball,” Bryant wrote in an Nov. 29, 2015 piece for The Players Tribune.
“From the moment I started rolling my dad’s tube socks
And shooting imaginary Game-winning shots In the Great Western Forum
I knew one thing was real: I fell in love with you. A love so deep I gave you my all —From my mind & body To my spirit & soul.
As a six-year-old boy Deeply in love with you I never saw the end of the tunnel. I only saw myself Running out of one.
And so I ran. I ran up and down every court After every loose ball for you. You asked for my hustle I gave you my heart Because it came with so much more.
I played through the sweat and hurt Not because the challenge called me But because YOU called me. I did everything for YOU Because that’s what you do When someone makes you feel as Alive as you’ve made me feel.
You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream And I’ll always love you for it.
But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer. This season is all I have left to give. My heart can take the pounding My mind can handle the grind But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.
And that’s OK. I’m ready to let you go.
I want you to know now So we both can savor every moment we have left together. The good and the bad. We have given each other All that we have.
And we both know, no matter what I do next I’ll always be that kid With the rolled up socks Garbage can in the corner
:05 seconds on the clock Ball in my hands. 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1
Love you always,Kobe”
On this day, January 26th, we honor the legacy of Kobe Bryant. One year after his tragic death.
Kobe Bryant Remembered: What if the Charlotte Hornets kept the NBA legend? was originally published on wbt.com