No. 8 and No. 24: Kobe vs. Kobe
As his iconic jerseys are retired, a story of Bryant’s career, by his numbers
No. 8 and No. 24 Kobe vs. Kobe
As his iconic jerseys are retired, a story of Bryant’s career, by his numbers
Note: This story contains explicit language
In February 1998, iconic Los Angeles Lakers announcer Chick Hearn told a second-year shooting guard he had business to tend to before he could consider a possible political career. “You’ve got 19 or 20 years,” Hearn said, “to play with the Lakers.”
“Nineteen or 20,” Kobe Bryant shot back, “at least.”
Days earlier, Bryant, then 19, had completed a whirlwind tour of New York City, headlining as the youngest player to start in an All-Star Game (despite not even starting on the Lakers). The 1998 midseason classic was unofficially billed as Michael Jordan’s last as a Chicago Bull and the introduction of the “next Jordan” in Bryant, who was wearing No. 8.
Even a basketball savant like Hearn couldn’t have predicted the next 18.5 years of Bryant’s meteoric and often controversial rise, but Hearn knew, maybe before Bryant himself, that the No. 8 jersey would one day live forever in Lakers lore.
No one, though, except maybe Bryant himself, expected No. 8 to be only half of the equation.
On Dec. 18, the Los Angeles Lakers take on the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Kevin Durant leads the defending champions into the Staples Center making a symbolic night doubly more so. The story of Kobe Bryant forever altered against that team on that court nearly five years ago. But at halftime, all eyes will be on center court, where stars around the logo represent each of the team’s 16 championships. Responsible for five of those stars, Bryant will be ordained a Lakers immortal when he becomes the 10th player in franchise history to see his name elevated to the rafters. To make the historic night even more so, Bryant will be the first player in NBA history to see two jerseys — the No. 8, which he wore from his rookie 1996-97 season to 2005-06, and No. 24, which he wore from 2006-07 till his final 2015-16 season — retired by the same team.
This is that story. Of the arrival and the turbulence of No. 8. Of the redemption and storybook curtain call of No. 24. Told via two distinct voices, via alternating narratives, it’s a tale of otherworldly potential — and of self-destruction. A tale of prolificity, and of heartbreak. A basketball fable as dramatic as it is inspiring, these are the highs, the lows, the beefs, the controversies and the idiosyncrasies of a basketball legend so many loved to hate — and couldn’t help but love. Times two.
No. 8The beginnings
Aww fuck it, my favorite team is the Lakers / Laker Yellow Lambo, Laker Yellow ’rari / Laker Yellow nine-eleven, Laker Yellow mami / Laker Yellow Converse, Laker Yellow Remy / Laker Yellow number 8 Kobe Bryant authentic Lil Wayne, “Best of Me (Freestyle)” (2002)
For Kobe Bryant, the NBA was the family business. His father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, is a Philadelphia legend who played in the NBA for eight years, and from 1984 to 1992 on various teams in Italy and France. So when 17-year-old Kobe Bryant announced on April 29, 1996, he’d “take [his] talent” to the NBA, he was following in dad’s versatile footsteps.
A year earlier, at fifth in the first round, the Minnesota Timberwolves had selected Kevin Garnett. A lanky forward whose all-around style of play would revolutionize the NBA, Garnett was the first player drafted directly from high school since Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby in 1975. Kobe, chosen by the Charlotte Hornets and traded to the Lakers for Vlade Divac that same night, was the first guard to be selected without having gone to college. He was the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA draft class that featured the likes of Steve Nash, Derek Fisher, Ray Allen and Stephon Marbury. But more than any other in that Hall of Fame-laden draft, Bryant was connected most often to the first overall pick out of Georgetown — Allen Ezail Iverson, who wore the number 3.
Before playing his first game, Bryant chose the No. 8 for his Lakers jersey: the sum of 1, 4 and 3, numbers he’d worn at the now-defunct Adidas/Reebok ABCD Camp. He also wore 8 in Italian leagues he’d played in as a kid. “Everybody knew about Kobe,” says Marbury, who was so often compared to him, “How could you not?” Bryant, even before he first held his purple and gold No. 8, was endorsed by Adidas, had a Screen Actors Guild card, had asked Brandy to his prom and even appeared on an episode of Moesha.
Iverson was taken by Kobe’s hometown of Philadelphia, but more than a few inside the 76ers organization were enthralled by Kobe’s talents. Myths about his prowess were common. Like the one about Kobe, while he was still in high school, working out with John Lucas (who had been the No. 1 overall pick in the 1976 draft) and several members of the Sixers.
To many in Philly, Iverson was an adopted son, authentically one of their own. Kobe was a kid from the ’burbs whose dad played in the league. “That really hurt him,” Gilbert says. One of the all-time great rivalries was officially born in Cleveland during the 1997 Rookie Game. “For those paying attention,” says journalist Scoop Jackson, who has covered Kobe throughout his career, “that should have been the serving-notice moment that these two were going to be the [lightning rods] of an entire generation of basketball.”
Avid Kobe fan Lil Wayne agrees. “Iverson and Kobe came along, and it was a different type of thing. I don’t care who you is in front of me. I don’t care what your legacy is, or none of that. I’m ’bout to show you what these handles do,” Wayne told The Undefeated last month. “And then when you’re dealing with a Kobe, it’s I’m ’bout the goal and to smash on you. With Iverson, it’s I’m ’bout to leave you at the 3-point line … and I’ma look back as I’m driving.”
In his No. 8, Bryant set the Rookie Game scoring record with 31 points (a record that stood until 2004, when Amar’e Stoudemire and LeBron James dropped 36 and 33 points, respectively, in the Rising Stars game). But Iverson was named MVP of the contest (and later Rookie of the Year). Bryant won the dunk contest that All-Star weekend, with Brandy cheering him on, but he missed out on topping Iverson and longed for the freedom it seemed Iverson had in Philly. The 76ers’ offense revolved around No. 3’s rare talents. Bryant was with Shaquille O’Neal, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel. He scored 20-plus points only four times in his rookie year. The Lakers did make the playoffs in Kobe’s first season, though, while the Sixers won only 22 games.
Then came Game 5 of a second-round series versus the Utah Jazz. A defining moment for No. 8. The Lakers were down 3-1 when Kobe air-balled four times — once at the end of the fourth quarter, and three in overtime. They lost the game, and the series. “Without those air balls,” says Scoop Jackson, “Kobe doesn’t become Kobe.”
Roland Lazenby, author of 2016’s Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant, recalls a conversation that sports marketing titan Sonny Vaccaro had with Kobe not long after the moment. Vaccaro asked Kobe if he was OK. “Kobe said, ‘What?! Why wouldn’t I be? Fuck it! Nobody else wanted to take the shot.’ ”
No. 24The rebirth
Tryna get that Kobe number, one over Jordan Kanye West, “Swagga Like Us” (2008)
Kobe’s gonna switch out of the No. 8 to No. 24. Darren Rovell still remembers the phone call. It was from Los Angeles, from someone he’d worked with before. He quickly got a second source to confirm. Then he sought out the man himself for comment. But Bryant was quiet about it. “The details were very sparse,” Rovell says. “It was kept very tight-lipped. That was just what he wanted.”
A player switching his jersey number after moving to another team is common. Remaining on the same team and making the change is not. Before Bryant’s decision, there had been few notable instances. For example, in 1991, Charles Barkley dropped his No. 34, which he’d worn since his high school days in Leeds, Alabama, for No. 32 to pay tribute to Magic Johnson, who’d announced his immediate retirement after contracting HIV. In March 1995, after a brief stint chasing pro baseball dreams, Michael Jordan swapped his famed No. 23 for No. 45, the number he wore in the minors. Jordan also wore No. 45 on the court at Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, but when he began playing varsity with his older brother, Larry, who also wore the number, he divided it in half, rounded up and landed on No. 23.
Among the few apparent ties between Bryant and the No. 24 are his days wearing the number as a kid in Pennsylvania at Bala Cynwyd Middle School, and as a varsity starter during his freshman season at Lower Merion High School.
But there is the 24-hour theory. “Carpe diem — that’s where No. 24 comes from,” says Philly native and journalist Anthony Gilbert, who met Kobe at one of his sister Sharia Bryant’s volleyball games. “It’s based in using 24 hours of the … day to your full advantage, not wasting a second of it.”
There’s the Nike theory. “I’d heard,” Rovell says, “it was because he had changed over from Adidas.” Bryant inked a four-year, $40 million deal with Nike in 2003 after spending six years with the company that had signed him straight out of high school and designed his first six signature shoes, including the timeless Adidas Crazy 8s. “Which at the time was Adidas’ only successful shoe,” Rovell continues. “So for Bryant to keep the number linked to his iconic Adidas sneaker seemed like bad business for Nike. But a number change would neutralize Adidas.”
And then there’s the Michael Jordan theory. “One better than Jordan,” says the retired Jared Jeffries, who wore the Nos. 1, 20 and 9 during his 11-year NBA career. He’s now the president of the esports organization Echo Fox after previously serving as director of player personnel for the Denver Nuggets. “That was kind of the thing everybody in the league thought about why he changed to No. 24.”
On April 26, 2006, before Game 2 of a first-round Los Angeles Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns playoff series, Rovell broke the number-change story — to Bryant’s chagrin. The switch from No. 8 to No. 24 would be effective at the start of the following season. At the time, the number belonged to Jim Jackson, although the Lakers had filed paperwork for Bryant’s jersey change with the league office in advance of the deadline on March 3, three days before the team signed Jackson as a free agent.
Gregg Downer, Bryant’s high school coach, actually wore No. 24 when he was in high school. “I can remember when Kobe was a freshman,” says Downer. “I said, ‘You picked a good number. I like that No. 24.’ ” But after just one season, Bryant changed to No. 33 — the jersey that’s now retired at Lower Merion. He switched in order to represent his father, Jellybean, who also wore the number in high school.
By the time the Lakers drafted Bryant in 1996, the team had already retired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s No. 33. It’s been reported that No. 24 wasn’t available for Bryant as a rookie because forward George McCloud III wore it. McCloud, however, didn’t actually join the Lakers until February 1997. It was Fred Roberts who occupied the No. 24 on July 12, 1996, when Bryant hoisted up a gold jersey with No. 8 on its back at his first Lakers news conference. On July 17, 1996, the Lakers released Roberts — Bryant missed the chance to wear No. 24 by five days, if he wanted it then. Ten years later, he seized the opportunity. But why?
When the news dropped, Kobe Bryant entertained no questions. “We’re in the playoffs,” Bryant told the Los Angeles Daily News. “I’ll be more than excited to talk about it, but not right now. It’s not the appropriate time.”
Somewhere along the journey of a decade in the NBA, No. 8 Kobe Bryant had died, whether in sneaker negotiations, through Shaquille O’Neal’s departure from Los Angeles or simply in his head, which was awash with accusations and existential questions. “You had a young superstar who was the face of the league … who already cemented a legacy in No. 8,” says broadcaster and retired Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce. “On the outside looking in, it seemed like the change had to do with what he was going through. Maybe he wanted a fresh start.”
So Bryant threw it all the way back to the number he wore as a kid. “He had to rebuild his identity. He had destroyed himself,” says Lazenby. “Part of the way to do that was the new number. He … hit the reset button.” Or as Lil Wayne says: “When he went 24, that was when he did him … You don’t wanna make no comparisons because there is no comparison.”
No. 8The prices of success
Blame Michael Jackson. The King of Pop told the Lakers’ No. 8 after his rookie season, “Don’t come back to the pack and be normal for the sake of blending in with others. Don’t dumb it down.” Kobe didn’t. And it didn’t always rub people the right way.
“When you’re playing at such an elite level,” says WNBA legend Tamika Catchings, “I don’t wanna say ‘awkward’ because that’s not the word I wanna use, but that’s the first word that comes to mind.” Catchings’ father, Harvey Catchings, played in the NBA, and in Italy, and her family was close with the Bryants there. Tamika sympathizes with her fellow Italian import. “The awkwardness comes from … you spend so much time working on your craft, to be the best. You do lose a little bit of social skills. … It does kinda get like, ‘I’m wasting time,’ in different situations.”
By 2001, Kobe Bryant had asserted himself as a bona fide superstar — the game’s best two-way player (with jilted rap dreams). His coming-out party? The 2001 playoffs: he averaged 29 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 1.6 steals en route to the Lakers’ second of three consecutive championships — against none other than Allen Iverson and the 76ers.
In the 2002-03 season, Kobe played all 82 games, while Shaq played 67. O’Neal was recovering from the infamous hurt-on-company-time-heal-on-company-time toe injury, and this allowed No. 8 to be the focal point of the offense for whole chunks of the season. Kobe averaged 40.6 points for the month of February. But the emotional zenith came in March, during Michael Jordan’s final trip to Staples Center. Kobe played host with a 55-point outburst — including 42 in the first half. “He was so hot that night,” recalls then-Wizards rookie Jeffries, “I was like, ‘He’s going to score 100 points.’ ”
Childhood friend Anthony Gilbert talks about Kobe’s motivation
Courtesy of Anthony Gilbert | Photos by Getty Images
All-NBA and All-Defensive team honors piled up, but so did the traffic in Kobe’s personal life. As his responsibilities grew in Phil Jackson and Tex Winter’s triangle offense, No. 8 remained under Shaq’s dominant No. 34. Kobe was defiant. The media picked up his demeanor, as did players in the league. There was a 2002 bench-clearing wrestling match between No. 8 and the Indiana Pacers’ Reggie Miller. There was a throwing of hands that same year with teammate Samaki Walker.
The seeds of his discontent can be traced back to the summer before. As teammates celebrated and sprayed champagne after their second of three consecutive titles in 2001 — a legendary postseason in which the Lakers went 15-1 — Kobe sat in a stall sobbing. He’d finally won a title — in Philadelphia — and his mother and father weren’t there. They disapproved of his marriage, leaving him and his parents at an emotional impasse — a constant narrative in his career. Only his aunt and uncle, John “Chubby” Cox, were there to celebrate the moment.
The 2002 All-Star Game in Philadelphia was a reunion for rivals past and present. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier sat courtside, resolving decades of bitterness stemming from their iconic trilogy. And there was Kobe, again, decked out in his patented No. 8 and mini-‘fro , in his hometown. Months earlier, he said he wanted to cut the city’s heart out during the 2001 Finals, a comment the city held against him for years.
Bryant’s 31 points (on 25 shots, no less) secured him All-Star MVP honors (the first of four in his career) in a game that featured Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson, who paid homage to Julius Erving by wearing a custom No. 6 jersey. As commissioner David Stern awarded Kobe his trophy, his second crowning achievement in his hometown in eight months, The City of Brotherly Love showered him with boos. “I stood up and started clapping and the people started booing me,” says Anthony Gilbert, who was in the stands that night. “People told me to go back to L.A. I was like, ‘I’m from here.’ And so is he.”
The Lakers were eliminated by Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs in the spring of 2003. “[People would] ask, ‘Whose team is it?’ I didn’t care,” Bryant told Robin Roberts in a 2003 ABC Halftime Report. “This is not a serious issue to me.” The relationship with his parents, by then, had slightly improved. “I have another issue that I’m dealing with right now that’s real,” he said. “That was the first time that I could remember, playing basketball, where it wasn’t even fun for me. I didn’t want to play anymore.”
No. 8 had hit a professional and personal crossroads. Weeks after his talk with Roberts, Kobe Bryant, at a hotel in Denver, would place his career, his marriage, his image and his freedom in grave peril.
No. 24The request and the resurgence
“I always wanted to be a Laker. It’s in my heart. This is what I do, this is the team I want to play for.” Kobe Bryant (2004)
As Kobe Bryant set out to reconstruct himself as No. 24, he pondered an even bigger change. His first year in the new number, the 2006-07 season, ended with the Lakers posting a record of 42-40 while enduring their second consecutive first-round playoff exit. Kobe was still Kobe, leading his team in scoring through all five games of the series against the Phoenix Suns. Yet without a strong supporting cast, he and the Lakers found themselves in the basketball purgatory of a loaded Western Conference. No. 24, with four years left on the seven-year, $136.4 million contract extension No. 8 signed in 2004, demanded a trade.
“The Lakers had to do something,” Bryant told ESPN in 2016. “I was … losing faith. … It was like I was their meal ticket. You come out and score 40, 50 points, fill the seats, we’re going to keep the payroll at a minimum, generate revenue. … I am not with that. … I have to win without Shaq.”
Chicago was Bryant’s top choice, but talks faded after No. 24 failed to sign off on a deal that included Bulls forward Luol Deng. The Pistons offered Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and draft picks for Bryant, while the Lakers called the Cavaliers about LeBron James. Trades never materialized. Bryant remained in Los Angeles.
But on Feb. 1, 2008, the Lakers acquired the 7-foot Pau Gasol, No. 16 for four different teams for 17 NBA seasons and counting. This trade with the Memphis Grizzlies gave Bryant a dominant big man for the first time since Shaq. The Lakers returned to glory: a No. 1 seed in the West and, on May 7, 2008, for the first time in his career, Bryant was named NBA MVP. The Lakers fell in the 2008 NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics, led by Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen — but the Lakers were back, and so was No. 24.
Stephon Marbury breaks down No. 24’s 61-point game at the Garden
Photos by Getty Images
“The number represented Kobe’s growth and development into the player he was always formulated to be,” says Stephon Marbury, who as a member of the Knicks saw firsthand one of Bryant’s all-time No. 24 performances. It was Feb. 2, 2009. The Lakers at Madison Square Garden.
“When he was announced in the starting lineup, he didn’t shake anyone’s hands. He just had this look on his face,” says former Knicks forward Jeffries. “I remember telling somebody, ‘Man, it’s going to be a longggggggggg night.’ You could see he was out to prove he was still the best player in the league.” And then, with precision, Bryant picked apart the New York defense. The Knicks threw double-teams at him early, but instead of passing out of them, he simply began catching, firing and scoring.
“Kobe is like a scientist on the court,” says Marbury, who watched from the bench that night, three weeks before parting ways with the Knicks via a buyout. “He’s breaking everything down, and it’s all predicated upon angles and how he’s being defended, how he’s being guarded … how they’re doubling.” Bryant finished the night with 61 points, shooting 19-for-31 from the field and 20-for-20 from the free throw line, in 37 minutes. “Wilson Chandler got a bunch of it that night,” Jeffries jokes. “But I touched a lot of it too.”
From his courtside seat, Spike Lee, director of the 2009 ESPN documentary Kobe Doin’ Work , witnessed what he dubbed Bryant’s “Roger Maris” game, after the New York Yankees slugger who broke the single-season major league record for most home runs with 61 during the 1961 season. On that February night in 2009, No. 24 set the single-game scoring mark by an opponent at the Garden — a record he still holds, eight years later and counting. “I don’t really look at it like him having a big night,” Marbury says. “I look at it like him just playing. Scoring 50, 60 points is something that he does.”
No. 8Public enemy No. 1
Small chance a smart brother’s gonna be a victim of his own circumstance Chuck D, “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” (1990)
Shaq — whose No. 34 jersey will welcome Kobe’s duo to the rafters of the Staples Center, and whose No. 32 Miami Heat uni is perched high in the AmericanAirlines Arena — persuaded Hall of Fame veterans to come to Los Angeles. It was Karl Malone (who wore No. 11, as the Lakers’ No. 32 was obviously in the rafters) and Gary Payton (in his patented No. 20) who signed with the Lakers in the summer of 2003, forming a superteam that predated the Big Threes of the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat years later.
While Shaq was doing all that, Kobe, then 24, was embroiled in a legal drama.
It began the summer before: July 2003. In town for a knee operation, and staying at the Cordillera Lodge and Spa in Edwards, Colorado, Bryant was arrested on a felony sexual assault charge. He vehemently stated that the encounter between him and the young woman (who worked at the spa) was consensual. The August 2003 preliminary hearing was incendiary. Days before the criminal case was set for trial, the alleged victim discontinued cooperating, and the prosecution dropped all charges. There was what has been called a “breathtaking” apology. A civil case was settled in March 2005. This was one of the most high-profile rape cases in American history. In all, the saga lasted 608 days. Kobe played through the possibility that he could spend his life in prison.
Professional, legal and personal stresses became routine fixtures in Bryant’s life. Meshing together a superteam came with its own set of frustrations. There was the bombshell October 2003 interview with Jim Gray wherein Kobe, 24, blasted Shaq’s leadership and commitment.
And, behind the scenes: “The thing that was underrated,” says ESPN senior reporter Ramona Shelburne, who began covering Kobe in 2003 with the Los Angeles Daily News, “was how much it affected the relationship with his wife, and how close they were. And how it really just tore them apart. Their relationship was very important to Kobe. People don’t understand how important Vanessa is in The Kobe Story.”
Kobe’s future was either basketball or the penitentiary. No. 8 was accused of one of the most heinous crimes imaginable and instantly morphed from fan darling to league pariah. It was around this time that his “Black Mamba” persona was born. He was determined to show that the negativity around him, much of which was self-inflicted, wouldn’t break him.
“[Kobe] had strength of will. I look at what happened to Tiger [Woods]. This happens to a lot of people. They destroy themselves,” says author Lazenby. “There’s a reason Elvis died like he did. It kills all of them, if they don’t find some way. They destroy themselves. Kobe destroyed himself, but he had a combo of grit and good fortune to rebuild his life.”
And coach Jackson? He demanded discipline, leaving the two at odds. Kobe, for the second consecutive season, led the team in scoring (and shot attempts in his fourth consecutive). Rumors of confrontation and frustrations ran rampant. Even still, on-court drama secondary to courtroom drama.
On the last day of the 2004 regular season, the Lakers, in epic dysfunctional glory, had a chance to secure the 2-seed heading into the playoffs. The hurdle was Portland. Down three with eight seconds left, No. 8 nailed a game-tying 3 in Ruben Patterson’s grill. Patterson prided himself as “The Kobe Stopper.”
“Kobe loved that idea that somebody could ‘stop’ him,” Shelburne says. “That always got him up.” The Lakers found themselves down two in double overtime with a single second remaining. “Set me a pick and we’re going home with a win,” Kobe reportedly said in the huddle. He received the inbounds pass from Payton. There was so much arc on the shot it looked like it would scratch the JumboTron. Nothing but net. The Lakers won 105-104.
After the game, Patterson asked for an autographed pair of Kobe’s shoes. Shaq, who fouled out in the second overtime, offered praise: “Good thing about having a courageous little brother. He always has my back.” The Lakers had found some peace in the eye of 2004’s storm. Mayhem would follow.
No. 24The final climb
Been an All-Star, been a champion / Free throw line, you hear ’em chanting / MVP, MVP / Kobe Bryant, aka envy me / In knee deep, smash any D / Whoever he is, he can’t guard me Lil Wayne, “Kobe Bryant” (2009)
In 2008, Kobe Bryant became league MVP, made it back to the NBA Finals for the first time in four years, and realized an elusive dream of playing for Team USA. Jerry Colangelo hand-picked Bryant to help lead the gold-medal-winning “Redeem Team” at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, where he wore the No. 10 in the red, white and blue. The question is, did he choose that number to once again one-up Jordan, who wore No. 9 on the “Dream Team”?
Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal finally squashed their beef at the 2009 NBA All-Star Game, four months before the Lakers defeated the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic to win their first championship since 2002, and Bryant his first career Finals MVP.
By 2010, Bryant had only one demon left to exorcise: the Boston Celtics. “I saw him lose in Boston,” says photographer Atiba Jefferson, who has shot Bryant for SLAM magazine and the NBA since 2000. After witnessing the Celtics snatch the 2008 title from the Lakers in six games, Jefferson covered the renewed rivalry of the 2010 series, including the Game 7. “So, for Kobe, nothing else matters but winning that [series].”
Paul Pierce witnessed Bryant’s cutthroat determination firsthand. “I know Kobe wanted payback,” he says. “He’s hella determined, and if somebody gets the best of him, you can believe he’s gonna go back at ’em. Not only was he going for his fifth title, he had an opportunity to redeem the title he felt he should’ve had in ’08.”
Boston had taken a 3-2 series lead but dropped a potential championship-clinching Game 6, in which the 6-foot-10, 270-pound force-in-the-middle center Kendrick Perkins tore his ACL, ruling him out for Game 7. In that game, Bryant struggled. As he chased his fifth career championship, one shy of Jordan’s six, Kobe looked exhausted. “I was on E,” No. 24 said after the game. It showed. He shot just 6-for-24 from the floor.
“NO ONE … And I mean NO ONE should EVER [compare] kobe Bryant to my dad,” Marcus Jordan, the GOAT’s youngest son, tweeted during Game 7. “He’s [jacking] this game.”
Though his jumpers weren’t falling, Bryant grabbed 15 rebounds and channeled his clutch gene toward the game’s waning seconds: he swished two free throws to make it a five-point, two-possession game with 25.7 seconds remaining. A desperation 3-pointer from Celtics guard Rajon Rondo careened off the rim and into the hands of Gasol. He passed to Lamar Odom, who hurled it down the court to a wide-open Bryant to seal the 83-79 win as time expired. Pandemonium.
“I remember thinking about the confetti, because they always drop confetti, and that always screws up the autofocus,” says Denver Nuggets team photographer Garrett Ellwood, who shot the 201o Finals for the NBA from the elevated photo deck at the top of the arena’s lower bowl. Teammates swarmed, and a staff member found Bryant in the scrum to give him a championship hat. Sasha Vujacic jumped on the scorer’s table in celebration, and Jordan Farmar followed suit. All the while, Ellwood’s camera tracked Bryant.
“The second Kobe jumped up on the scorer’s table, I was like, ‘I gotta get this in focus,’ ” Ellwood recalls of the moment that Bryant, arms spread and ball still in hand, belted in exaltation to the crowd. “He wasn’t there long. I don’t think he had his hands up long either.”
Ellwood’s photograph, which is featured on the cover of 2010’s The Los Angeles Angeles Lakers: 50 Amazing Years in the City of Angels, is the most iconic shot ever captured of Bryant in No. 24. The scorer’s table was his mountaintop. He’d won another title and slain the beast of Boston. “This one is by far the sweetest, because it’s them,” Bryant said after the game. “This was the hardest one by far. I wanted it so bad.” Out of the 733 total games (regular season and playoffs) he played as No. 24, no moment in the jersey is more important than this one.
“This is a guy who was winning his fifth NBA championship,” says Atiba Jefferson. “But, to him, it might well have been his first.”
No. 8The long fall from grace
That ain’t the half, shit gets worse as I get older / Actions become bolder, heart got colder / Chip on my shoulder that I dared a nigga to touch / Didn’t need a clique ’cause I scared a nigga that much DMX, “Slippin’” (1998)
After the 2004 Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons (a defeat that ate at Kobe Bryant for the rest of his career), the Lakers purged. Neither Gary Payton nor Karl Malone returned — the latter had had a personal feud with Bryant.
Phil Jackson was informed he wouldn’t be brought back as coach, and soon after he released The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul, in which he infamously referred to Kobe as “uncoachable.” In his exit interview, Bryant had allegedly told Jackson, “I’m tired of being a sidekick.” Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat that summer in a move Kobe denied was instigated by him. Yet, a day later, Bryant officially re-signed with the Lakers. In a town as teeming as Hollywood, No. 8 was alone in the crowd.
The disgrace of his sexual assault case remained. His jersey sales nose-dived. He was a cultural punching bag. Years later, Nas would call Kobe a good friend, but the MC blasted him in 2004’s “These Are Our Heroes”: Now you lose sponsorships that you thought had your back / Yeah, you beat the rap, jiggaboo, fake nigga you / You turn around then you shit on Shaq.
The 2004-05 season was a wash. The only real highlights: No. 8’s involvement in the Hurricane Katrina relief game and the Christmas Day showdown against Shaq, Dwyane Wade and the Heat (Bryant scored 42 points in an overtime loss). A severe ankle sprain against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers sidelined Bryant for weeks. The team experienced a midseason leadership change: Frank Hamblen took over head coaching duties after Rudy Tomjanovich resigned.
Around the same time, Kobe’s grandfather, “Big” Joe Bryant, died from complications of diabetes. Bryant later revealed that his wife, Vanessa, had experienced a miscarriage stemming from stress. An unflattering Los Angeles Times story revealed the backstory and inner workings of Vanessa and Kobe’s relationship. And, on top of all of that, the All-Star Game took place in Colorado. The Lakers missed the playoffs in 2005 for the first time since 1994. “Kobe was a divisive figure [then],” says Roland Lazenby. “He was uncool.”
The arrival of the 2005-06 season was a pressed reset button. After a 361-day separation, Phil Jackson returned to the Lakers. It turned out to be Kobe’s gaudiest season, statistically, spurred in part by a rule change that outlawed handchecking. He averaged 35.4 points per game en route to his first of back-to-back scoring titles, the highest average since Michael Jordan’s 37.1 in 1986-87. His 81 points in January 2006 against the Toronto Raptors lives in NBA lore — one of six 50-plus-point games that season from No. 8. Yet, one special night in Staples Center, five days before Christmas ’05 cements one of the all-time great scoring legacies.
Kobe Bryant hugs his fiancé Vanessa Lang while in the locker room after defeating the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the 2000 NBA Finals. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images) Years later, Bryant and his wife pose with daughters Giana (L) and Natalia during a ceremony honoring him for moving into third place on the all time NBA scoring list, passing Michael Jordan, on Dec. 19, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
It’s early November 2017. Hours before a Dallas Mavericks vs. Washington Wizards game, Dirk Nowitzki (who wears No. 41 only because his childhood number (14) was taken by Robert Pack his rookie season), reflects on Kobe Bryant. “When our games were over, I went home and usually watched the third, fourth quarter of [a] Lakers game,” the 2006-07 league MVP says with a smile. “You wanted to see what miraculous things he pulls off in the fourth. Whatever you tried to take away from him, he just took the other things. He was probably the best offensive player that I’ve faced in my career.”
Dirk didn’t have to turn on the TV on the night of Dec. 20, 2005. He was part of the show. No. 8 had one of his most iconic games — a 62-point barrage in three quarters that outscored the entire Mavericks team. “We had him trapped on the baseline in front of our bench. The shot clock was winding down, and there was nowhere really to go,” Dirk says, mimicking the play as he describes it. “He just turned around and shot a lefty 3 ball. Bottom. He could’ve had 80 probably that night if he would’ve kept going.” Kobe declined the option to play in the fourth quarter, telling then-assistant coach Brian Shaw, “I’ll do it when we really need it.”
“I got a lot of that 62,” says Devin Harris, Nowitzki’s teammate then and now. The trash talk, he remembers, was electric. “After Josh [Howard] fouled him, I think I gave him a hard foul. He’s like, ‘Devin, that shit ain’t gon’ stop me. That shit ain’t gon’ stop me! Play some fuckin’ defense!’” Harris laughs about it, 12 years later. “At that point, I don’t think we had too many guys left to guard him.”
No. 24The long – and slow – walk to retirement
Kobe my nigga / I hate it had to be him Drake, “Stay Schemin’” (2012)
The Mavericks swept the Lakers in the conference semifinals of the 2011 playoffs. After that, Los Angeles traded for All-Star point guard Chris Paul in the offseason, although the NBA, for “basketball reasons,” voided the deal. The following season, the Lakers lost in the same round, this time in five games to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Title dreams were rejuvenated in the summer of 2012 when the Lakers traded for both point guard Steve Nash, a two-time MVP, and center Dwight Howard, a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Father Time, though, kept Nash off the floor with injuries, and No. 24 and Howard failed to get along. So, by the end of the 2012-13 regular season, Kobe was again willing a team to wins, no matter how many shots taken or minutes played.
In the Lakers’ first five games of April 2013, Bryant averaged nearly 30 points but played 45 minutes a night. “There was no talking him out of it,” former Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN in 2016. “There was no denying him doing what he wanted to do. We tried. He told me on different occasions, ‘Mike, I’ll tell you when I’m tired, and I’ll tell you when I need to come out.’ ”
Then came April 12, 2013. A night of infamy.
In the fourth quarter of a game against the Golden State Warriors, with the Lakers in desperate need of a win to secure the West’s final playoff spot with just three games left in the regular season, No. 24 made a routine drive to the left and fell to the hardwood. The referee blew the whistle and called the foul on Harrison Barnes. Bryant asked the rookie Warriors forward one question — “Why did you kick me?” — as he grabbed for his left ankle.
“I didn’t understand what he was doing,” says Barnes, who is now in his sixth season and playing for the Mavericks, “but he was trying to literally pull his Achilles up from the bottom of his foot. Someone on our bench says, ‘I think he tore his Achilles.’ I’m like, ‘No way … ’ ”
Pau Gasol and Jodie Meeks towered over Bryant as he remained on the floor attempting to make sense of the moment. Gasol offered a hand and lifted him up. But Bryant wouldn’t allow either of them to help him to the bench, where he limped while continuously muttering, “Fuck.”
“This could be a wrap. That’s what the silence was,” recalled Bryant in the 2015 Showtime documentary Kobe Bryant’s Muse. “It was like, ‘This could really be a wrap for you.’ ”
D’Antoni could’ve substituted in a player to take Bryant’s free throws for him, but he wouldn’t allow that either. If the coach did so, the NBA rulebook dictated that Bryant would be ineligible to return. So the 34-year-old limped more steps back onto the court, where he sunk two foul shots to tie the game at 109-109. “The most bizarre thing,” says Meeks, now a member of the Wizards after playing with the Lakers from 2012-14. “I’d never seen anything like it. It shows how bad he wants to win.”
The Lakers finished the night with a 118-116 victory, and after the game, the on-court diagnosis had been confirmed. A season-ending torn Achilles tendon for Bryant, his 21st injury or ailment in 17 years in the NBA. “This injury was Mt. Everest for me, personally, because I knew what the long road was going to be,” Bryant said in Muse. “So, at that point, you have to make a decision. You have to make a choice.”
According to a report released weeks before the game, Bryant originally planned to use the 2013 summer to decide whether he would retire in 2014 after one just one more season. But as he dedicated the offseason to his recovery, he couldn’t let the sight of him writhing in pain be one of the final memories of his career.
So on Nov. 25, 2013, Bryant signed a two-year contract extension worth $48.5 million. After overcoming the injury, he returned to the court. But he was never truly the same.
No. 8The uncomfortable farewell
“Nobody makes me do anything I don’t want to do. It’s my decision. So the biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy. And that’s how I have to deal with it.” Whitney Houston (2002)
Kobe Bryant had no idea — when reports surfaced on April 26, 2006, of him changing his No. 8 to No. 24 — that his No. 8 would be intertwined in the most controversial series of his career.
The 2006 opening round between the Lakers and Suns was historically clamorous. There was Kobe banging on Nash in Game 2, in one of the signature dunks of his career. There were the chants of “MVP!” raining throughout Staples after Kobe’s game-tying and game-winning Game 4 baskets. There was Raja Bell clotheslining Kobe in Game 5, and the ensuing war of words. And there was Kobe’s 50-point Game 6 loss.
The Lakers would eventually lose by 31 in Game 7, blowing a 3-1 lead. But Kobe’s performance in the final game, taking only three shots and scoring a single point in the second half, drew long-lingering ire. His legion of critics pointed to this as the reason eclipsing Jordan was a pipe dream. His supporters cited the lack of a productive supporting cast.
Nevertheless, the label of “quitter” hovered over him — a deeply personal insult to a man whose work ethic was as much of a calling card as his arrogance (and one he despised even years later). No. 8 was even criticized in golf circles. Charles Barkley dubbed him “selfish.” Kobe appeared on TNT’s Inside The NBA, soon after, to set the record straight.
One of the few to support Kobe at the time was TNT analyst Kenny Smith. More than a decade later, his feelings haven’t changed. “For me, I thought it was overthought out that he self-sabotaged [Game 7],” he says.
Pouring salt on the wound, a day after the series ended, it was announced that Nash would take home his second consecutive MVP. Perhaps fate, or irony, it was Nash, viewed as the ultimate team floor general at the time, who took home the trophy during years when both Shaq and Kobe were seen as the dominant forces.
Despite a season of scoring dominance the league hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years, No. 8 placed fourth that season in MVP voting, finishing behind runners-up LeBron James (second) and Dirk Nowitzki (third). Kobe received 30 fifth-place votes in a move seen then and now as possible sports media bias — due to the rape case, as well as his perceived role in the crumbling of the Lakers’ dynasty — continued to linger. “Does it bother me?” Kobe asked rhetorically years later. “Of course it bothers me.” Making matters sting even more, Shaq captured his fourth (and final) title in Miami a month later.
“[No. 8] just represents the raw Kobe,” says Lil Wayne. True. And despite its limp to the finish line, No. 8’s place as Laker royalty is undeniable. There was the dunk contest, the All-Star Games, the battles with Jordan, Iverson, Tracy McGrady (whom he’d later call his toughest defensive assignment), Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Nowitzki as well as younger stars like James, Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Gilbert Arenas.
“That’s the top of the mountain,” Anthony Gilbert says. “That’s a lot of people’s lifetimes. He did so much in No. 8 that you would’ve never thought 24 would even matter.”
To a younger generation, No. 8 is given an even higher title. “[No. 8 Kobe is] the greatest player to ever play basketball,” says Carlos “Famous Los” Sanford, a former college basketball player turned viral star. On Instagram, he does hoop highlights with a comedic twist. In a deathly serious tone, he says, “That’s the one we compare to 23.”
No. 8 profoundly represents one of the first arrivals of a youth movement that would change the NBA forever. “He championed youth by outworking everybody,” Lazenby says in a sentiment similar to James’ as he broke Kobe’s record of being the youngest to reach 29,000 points. “Kobe led that charge.”
No. 24Kobe signing off
I’m done for now, so one for now / Possibly forever, we had fun together / But like all good things, we must come to an end Jay Z, “Dear Summer” (2005)
The return from his Achilles injury lasted a mere six games before Kobe Bryant’s body broke down on him again. In December 2013, he sustained a lateral tibial plateau fracture in his left knee that shut him down for the remainder of the season. Back the following year, soreness in his back, knees, Achilles tendons and feet required frequent rest from games, until January 2015, when Bryant tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder, requiring season-ending surgery. In the 2015-16 preseason, an injured calf forced him to sit out the final two weeks of exhibition games. Every time he got sent to the sideline with an injury, somehow he’d find a way back to the court. Yet, in the last three seasons of his career, No. 24 played in only 107 games out of a possible 246.
“I don’t think people really understand how physically tough he is,” says Gregg Downer, Bryant’s high school coach. “He played through so many injuries. He shot the foul shot after he tore his Achilles. He played [when] sick. He had IV drips at halftime. But he gave the Lakers 20 years of his heart and soul.”
On Nov. 29, 2015, in an open letter for The Players’ Tribune, Bryant announced that his 20th season in the NBA would be his last. “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,” Bryant wrote to the game of basketball itself. “And that’s OK. I’m ready to let you go.”
The ongoing season turned into Bryant’s farewell tour, all pointing to April 13, 2016, the date that held a matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz at the Staples Center. The final time Bryant would play in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors were set to play the Memphis Grizzlies for a shot at surpassing the 72-10 Chicago Bulls of 1995-96 with an NBA regular-season record 73 wins. Folks had to decide which part of history they’d be watching that night.
And, at least for the titans of the culture, the obvious choice was Bryant’s swan song. Arsenio Hall, David Beckham, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z, George Lopez, Jack Nicholson, Paula Abdul, Snoop Dogg and more punched their tickets to the Kobe show. Even Shaquille O’Neal showed up to see his former teammate lace up his Nikes one last time.
“When I looked at Shaq, he was like, ‘Man, I told Kobe, “You won’t get 40,” ’ ” says Baron Davis, who attended the game. “I was like, ‘Shittttt, man, I think that fool gon’ get way more than that.’ ” No. 24 of course dropped 60 points — on 50 shots — to become the oldest player in NBA history, at the age of 37, to reach the mark.
“When he come on that TV and do that?” says Lil Wayne, who watched the game from Miami, “boy, that was a moment.” The night also yielded his highest-scoring total in seven years, since the 61-point performance at Madison Square Garden in 2009. “One of his classic, throwback nights, for his last time on an NBA court,” Davis says. “It was pure entertainment. Vintage Kobe.”
Hours after he hit the winning shot with 31.6 seconds remaining in the game and wrapped up his postgame news conference with the swaggiest career-ending statement of all-time — “What can I say? Mamba out.” — Bryant returned to the Staples Center court, where both of his numbers had been painted on the hardwood for the momentous game. A marker in hand, he kept it simple with No. 8, signing only “KOBE.” For No. 24, he inked “LAKER FOR LIFE!” in the first digit and “KOBE 24” in the second.
From the crowded ring of photographers, Atiba Jefferson took in what he calls a “very peaceful, Zen moment. … I felt like I saw someone having all this self-reflection, but in the happiest way. Someone who knew that they were moving on from something they did the very best that they could do. He had his problems. He dealt with them, and he’d grown up.”
Ten years earlier, after the Suns knocked the Lakers out of the 2006 postseason, on TNT’s Inside the NBA, Charles Barkley asked, “Seriously … why did you change your number?”
“You know … ” Bryant said before a long pause, “No. 8 has been with me for a while, obviously. But I just felt like it was time to move on to something different. When I came back from Italy, and I came to the States to play, the first number that I selected was 24. It was kind of a new beginning for me. That’s what the second half of my career is about.”
Kobe Bryant entered the NBA in 1996 as a teenager in search of himself, and his own athletic dominance. A decade later he set aside No. 8 in search of the same. And now? As both jerseys go to the rafters, and with the Hall of Fame on the horizon, Bryant’s kept promises that he made to the Lakers and to himself as No. 8 and as No. 24. Only Kobe knows what number of promises are in place for the rest of his life.
Illustrations by Alexander Wells