Kobe Bryant, Madison Square Garden
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

As Los Angeles mourns the tragic death of Lakers great Kobe Bryant, New York Knicks fans should rally behind their west coast counterparts.

New Yorkers love to make fun of Los Angeles.

It’s really not our fault. After all, anyone who’s been to the coast knows the Angelenos overcomplicate everything. Instead of a viable mass transit system, they have the freeway and spend half their time in traffic. Rather than embracing the raw realism of downtown, LA instead celebrates outer areas like Hollywood and Santa Monica.

Instead of pizza, Los Angeles passes off stuff that makes Sbarro look fresh from a brick oven.

But New York can’t touch Los Angeles in basketball lore, and the reason is Kobe Bryant. Take the long history between the New York Knicks and Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers out of the equation. Forget the five times both teams played each other in the NBA Finals.

In Bryant, the Lakers had a transcendent talent. He wasn’t just a basketball great, but a legend. It was Bryant who ushered in a new era of Los Angeles basketball alongside Shaquille O’Neal. It was Bryant who showed us the NBA would survive without Michael Jordan.

Ask anyone in the pre-LeBron James era (and even during James’ career) who the best player in the game was, and the answer would probably be Kobe Bryant.

Unfortunately, all we have of Bryant now are our memories of him. The five-time champion and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna tragically passed away in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26. Basketball has felt empty since, even for the 13-36 Knicks. Another season is lost, and with an awful tragedy mixed in to boot.

But Knicks fans can do more than just ride the season out. Instead, let’s support the Lakers all the way to winning the NBA Finals.

When Mamba owned New York

Let’s talk about a key night of Kobe Bryant’s career. Specifically, let’s go back in time to Feb. 2, 2009. Mike D’Antoni is in his first season coaching the Knicks, his fast-paced offense proving exciting as New York rebuilds again. At 21-26, a second-half rally could be enough for a playoff berth.

This never happened, but history was still made at Madison Square Garden on this night. In the Lakers’ 126-117 victory, Bryant led the way with an eye-popping 61 points.

Think about that for a second. 61 points. It’s hard enough for James Harden to average 35.7 points per game, even in this era of increased offense. Bryant, meanwhile, put up 61 points in a single night as if he were just eating In-N-Out Burger. It was just that easy.

For context, Bryant played 37 minutes that night, second only to Pau Gasol’s 41. He shot 19 of 31 from the field, including 3 of 6 from downtown. He was a perfect 20 for 20 from the free-throw line.

Los Angeles led 65-54 at halftime, and an eventual Lakers blowout seemed inevitable. The Knicks turned on the afterburners in the second half but it was too late. Los Angeles beat New York again on the back of Kobe Bryant.

Mamba Mentality

Granted, it’s not as though Bryant went into the game wanting to score so much. In fact, thanks to Lamar Odom’s shooting struggles that night, he and Gasol were forced to be even better.

But that’s not the point. Did Bryant have to score on that level on that cold February night? From a basketball standpoint, yes. Odom was off his game. Bryant was the only other player on the roster with the motor and skills to pick up the slack.

This wasn’t Bryant the ball hog who showed up a few years later. This was Bryant in full Mamba Mode.

He wasn’t scoring 61 points in a game because he felt he had to. His killer instinct required him to score so much simply because he could.

Time to respect LA

More importantly, think about this for a second. You can hate the Los Angeles Lakers with a passion for whatever reason. You can hate Kobe Bryant even more for reasons that are your own. Even as one of the best basketball players in history, he remains a polarizing figure.

But what no true blue basketball fan can do is look at Kobe Bryant and not respect him. It’s just impossible. He was just so great at the game in so many ways. Even in retirement, his love for Los Angeles and his Lakers never dissipated. He remained part of the Lakers family instead of just retiring and disappearing.

As a result, my fellow Knicks fans and New Yorkers, it’s time for us to do the unthinkable. While we still love our beleaguered team, the best way we can celebrate Kobe Bryant’s legacy is rooting hard for the Lakers.

This will be hard for some fans to swallow, but it’s the right thing to do. Bryant didn’t just play for Los Angeles, he was Los Angeles. His death leaves a deep void in the heart of the City of Angels, one which may never be fully filled again. Sure, LeBron James and Anthony Davis have the Lakers sitting pretty atop the Western Conference, but it’s not the same.

Even if the Lakers do go on to win it all, Kobe won’t be there to enjoy it. Every Los Angeles resident, even Clippers fans, could rally behind the purple and gold, but something will still be missing. It may seem strange, but Kobe Bryant’s presence is just that powerful.

Final thoughts

Now, imagine a scenario where basketball fans worldwide rally behind the Lakers. Let’s not forget Bryant was an international star as well as one in Los Angeles. He won two gold medals at the Olympics and another at the 2007 FIBA games. He spoke fluent Italian, courtesy of living in Italy while his father Joe “Jellybean” Bryant played there.

You can almost picture it now. Fans would fill Merchants Square in Milan as large screens broadcast the NBA Finals. Fans would be inside and outside the Staples Center to cheer the Lakers on.

It all goes back to what mattered most in the prime of Kobe Bryant’s career. When he and the Lakers did well, so did basketball as a whole. Fans appreciated the game on every level and were wowed by how effortlessly Bryant played the game. How many people here didn’t jump out of their seats when he lobbed the ball to Shaq in Game 7 of the 2000 West Finals?

Kobe Bryant gave his heart, soul, his entire life to not just the Los Angeles Lakers, but the sport of basketball. At the time of his death, he and Gianna were on their way to one of her games.

We as fans, regardless of our favorite teams, must now return the favor. I, as a New York Knicks fan, will be rooting full force for the Lakers this season. I hereby call on every other fan to do the same.

It may seem tough, but it’s what Kobe Bryant would have wanted.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.