In front of 19,193 fans at General Motors Place in Vancouver, British Columbia on January 5, 1997, an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant provided a glimpse into the future.
Growing up in Vancouver never allowed for a significant basketball presence. Sure, they had a team for six years, but the failures of the organization were comical and left many disengaged. I did not grow up supporting my local team; they left when I was six-years-old. It was the players that made me fall in love with the game, and few, if any, had a greater impact on my generation than Kobe Bryant did.
Kobe Bryant and the Vancouver Grizzlies didn’t have a storied rivalry. He played them a total of 15 times, with his Lakers coming out the victor in 14 of those games.
I did some quick research since the fact that the Grizzlies managed even one victory in those games surprised me. This was a team that went 101-359 throughout their existence; how the hell did they beat the Lakers hungry for their first title back in 1999?
That’s when I found out it was the third game of a three-game back-to-back-to-back for Bryant and Los Angeles. The 1998-99 NBA lockout season was weird.
There weren’t exactly too many highs for fans during those six years, but there were stories that would survive after they were gone. Stories of starting their inaugural season 2-0, just to lose their next 19 games; stories of almost beating Michael Jordan and the 95/96 Chicago Bulls, and stories of the time an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant came to town.
Every NBA city has such stories deeply entrenched in their lore, passed down from prior generations of basketball fans.
In a similar manner in which previous generations enlightened newcomers to the game with stories that made them smile, that made them feel, it’s now up to us to tell future fans about the greatness of Kobe ‘Bean’ Bryant.
Bryant’s rookie campaign wasn’t exactly stellar. He was a teenager, just one year removed from high school, the learning curve was going to be daunting. But this was a man who had an unparalleled work ethic and dedication to his craft. He was going to figure it out, and he did. In that rookie season, he showcased moments of greatness and what was to become.
Those moments were prevalent in his first trip to Vancouver.
He started the game by maneuvering around Shareef Abdur-Rahim—the third overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft—and finished at the rim (0:10). At the (0:25) mark, he orchestrated a drive and hand-off to Shaquille O’Neal for the finish—what would later become a staple of the tandem.
At the (0:50) mark he stopped on a dime in transition and pulled out that silky smooth mid-range jumper that became a signature move later on in his career. With his defender sagging off at him (1:08), he rose up for the perimeter jump shot, making him pay for doing such.
I’m highlighting those plays because they foreshadowed the player he would become.
He got to the hoop with familiarity; he hustled for loose balls, and he showcased the jump shot. It might not have been a polished product back in ’97, but it definitely was a glimpse into the future.
As mentioned, just a season prior, Vancouver hosted the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls led by Michael Jordan. They got a 48-minute display of what the best basketball player in the world was capable of on the court. That following season, they witnessed the answer to the nagging question that was, “Who was next in line for the throne?”
Brad Stevens, head coach of the Boston Celtics, recently came out and expressed insight on what Bryant meant to a generation of basketball fans. “Kobe’s their Jordan.”
Brad Stevens on this younger generation: “Kobe’s their Jordan.”
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) January 26, 2020
I never got to witness Jordan at the peak of his powers. I saw him in a Wizards uniform for a couple of seasons in the twilight of his career, but that obviously doesn’t compare.
For me, Kobe Bryant was Michael Jordan.
Now, that’s not to say he wasn’t unique in his own ways; I think such a statement gets misconstrued. By saying that “Kobe’s their Jordan,” it means everything that Mike was— that seemingly unstoppable god-like entity that no one outworked, no one outshined, and no one would dare bet their money against—Kobe was for a generation of basketball fans.
It’s impossible to encapsulate all the memories Kobe Bryant provided a generation of basketball into one article. They’re countless. For each individual, there are moments unique to them.
Each time Bryant laced up his signatures shoes, he brought it… hard. You knew what you were getting right off opening tip-off, whether you were cheering or booing the man, you knew that you were getting an all-time great that wasn’t going to leave anything on that hardwood.
That’s why his reach extended far beyond the borders of California. You either loved to watch him lose or cheered jubilantly with him at his highs. He made you feel. Very few players in NBA history were able to achieve such a feat.
Anytime I walk into an open gym, without failure, I’ll see a Bryant jersey, shirt, or someone donning one of his shoes. Living in a hockey town in the Pacific Northwest, which has not had a basketball team since 2001, that really illustrates the reach he had.
The game will never be the same with him gone; I’m just thankful for the memories I have that made me the basketball fanatic I am today. I’m also glad that my city, Vancouver, had the chance to play a role—be it brief and small—in Kobe Bryant’s story.