Like most Sundays I sat down at my desk in my East Side apartment and started to write a story for Bucks.com, except nothing great came to me so I gave up after a handful of minutes with the assumption that either something would come later in the day or nothing would come at all. The Bucks are the best team in basketball and Giannis is the best player in the league, so I always feel a little ridiculous when something does not come to me, but you can’t force a story.
Twenty-four minutes (or so) later, something great did not come. Something great went.
Seas of Kobe jerseys — the 8s, the 24s — flooded the Bradley Center a good hour before tip back on December 16, 2009. It was my first full season as a credentialed writer going to all the Bucks home games, and the Lakers were coming off yet another championship season. Kobe had played all 82 games and averaged 45 minutes over the final four games of the Finals during that championship run. That did not stop me from being a little frustrated that so many Lakers fans were invading Milwaukee for the game, but I also felt silly about being a little frustrated. The people were there for him.
That night, Ersan Ilyasova — the one and only and same Ersan Ilyasova — put up 24 points in 43 minutes. With the game swinging toward the Lakers, and the Bucks down 76–74, Ersan got the ball on the perimeter against Kobe and Kobe bumped into him, but Ersan played it cool, faded, and hit a three to give the Bucks the lead back. From there it got weird, with the Bucks getting whistled for multiple lane violations and not scoring in the final minute-plus of the game after being up 106–100.
All of those details could be made up because they all lead into the part that anyone remembers, which was destiny, which was Kobe hitting a turn-around fadeaway jumper at the buzzer to win the game.
It’s not like I am the only one to have seen Kobe hit a game-winner in person, and that is the point. Based on his 24 (or so) game-winners, more than 300,000 people watched him in person hit a game-winner. Millions upon millions more on television. If you watched hoops at some point, any point, from 1996 to 2016, you must have some lasting memory of Kobe doing something. (I know some of you strangers out there were next to me watching at the Greyhound Station in downtown Milwaukee when he hit this game-winner against the Suns in the 2006 playoffs.)
In 2015, I took a basketball vacation to California, flying out the morning after the Bucks stopped the Warriors 24-game winning streak to start the season. Up first was a trip to Staples for Bucks/Lakers. It would be Kobe’s last season, and the Lakers had started the year 3–21.
By the third quarter, Kobe was getting MVP chants on his way to 22 points and 6 assists in just 27 minutes as they cruised to a win. Again I was a little frustrated, this time about the MVP chants and the unexpected Bucks loss, but mostly I must have been envious that this team had a guy, Kobe, who belonged to the world and who had a city that belonged to him. It’s the rarest thing to pull off, and the best thing when it comes around.
When I found out, I texted my friend Todd the same thing that he had always said whenever he tossed something confidently— a wad of paper or whatever — from across the room on its way in at the old bar where we all used to get together, and I have to think it will live on: “kobe."