The Purple and Gold sections at the Staples Center in Los Angeles were shrouded in ominous darkness. The game was over, but the long road for the rest of the season beckoned. This was his home court. This was now his city, and it was his franchise, where he had thrived for the past 16 years of his career. Sixteen years of ups and downs, of friends and foes, of alliances made and alliances broken, of success and failure.
Well, in the case of Kobe Bryant, we can say that there was mostly success in those years.
He won his team five championships, two of them as the Finals MVP. He was named an All-Star 14 times in those 16 years, and he hoisted one cherished Most Valuable Player award. Twelve others were picked ahead of him in the draft, and he made sure to prove the naysayers wrong. Again and again. He won the Slam Dunk Contest. Five times, he experienced the championship champagne, the parade, the first touch of the beautiful trophy. He hit big shot after big shot, and all the while, was cheered by his fans and booed by his detractors. He's left NBA fans in stunned silence by taking their breath away -- he once scored 81 points in a single night.
He's played sidekick and he's played leader. He made some close friends and many of them were his enemies, too. He won with greats like Shaquille ONeal and Pau Gasol and lost with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker. He fought and won epic battles against foes of all shapes the sizes the Spurs, Kings, Timberwolves, Pacers, 76ers, and the Celtics and while many of them rose and fell, his own talents outlasted them all. As he grew older, his peers aged faster than him, and new foes replaced old ones. But he remained relevant, remained competitive, kept fighting and kept scoring. Most importantly, he kept winning.
But no hero no matter how great has an answer for Father Time. Last year, the Black Mamba showed he can still score a lot by shooting a lot, but he appeared to have lost a little bit of his sheen, and his reign at the top was undoubtedly stolen by a younger breed of talents: LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Most telling is that last year he was kept away from his precious championship trophy and the sweet taste of that victory champagne.
And just when it seemed that he was quietly going to fade away, into the dark, the team that he had carried for so many years gifted him a lifeline, a chance to carry them forward again. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash joined him and Gasol in Lakerland. Suddenly, he formed new alliances and joined with new talents that would stand alongside him as he aimed to rise to the top again. His foes have changed and grown stronger, too. Down the very locker room of the shrine he protects are the lockers of the Clippers, his dangerous neighbours. He has to worry about Durant and the Thunder, and worry about the improved Grizzlies. He always had to worry about the Spurs. His favourite foes the Celtics are refusing to admit defeat yet. And there's a new King in Miami whom all teams are aiming to dethrone.
At 34, the Lakers knew Bryant was going to need all the help he could get, and the Lakers did just that.
Even so, the Lakers have had a disappointing start to the season, stumbling to a 7-8 record, and failing to live up to their mammoth expectations so far. Howard has shown flashes of dominance, but has been inconsistent as he recovers from his back injury. Gasol has been slowed down due to knee tendinitis. Nash has only played two games. The bench is inconsistent and a coaching change has disrupted team chemistry.
But Kobe has been brilliant. Through the first 14 game of the season, he has averaged 26.9 points per game (best in the league), but more importantly, is shooting a career-best 51 percent from the floor and career-best 41.5 percent from the 3-point line. He also has his highest assists average in five years this season. For a player oft-criticised for his shot selection and selfishness, he seems to have risen above those weaknesses and at an age when many of his peers are limited to playing less demanding roles he has unexpectedly bounced back to play some of his best basketball in recent years.
Kobe mustn't dwell on the past glories too long. Now, he has to worry about the future. He has to worry about gelling better with his teammates, he must understand the new coach, and he needs to improve on that 7-8 record.
Above the Staples Center floor, above where all the basketball action is, there hangs a dozen retired jerseys of legends who have worn the colours of his famous team before him. Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and many others. One day, The Black Mamba's name and number will be up there too.
But that day isn't today. Now, he needs to turn his attention to the 17 championship banners, standing side by side on the rafters above the court. Now, he needs to plot about how to lift up the 18th.
Now, The Black Mamba Rises.