The NBA family lost a titan of the sport in Kobe Bryant. He cost the Orlando Magic their best chance at a title and cast his shadow over an entire sport.
Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson sat on the bench as the confetti started covering the court. The Larry O’Brien Trophy adorning the court behind the Orlando Magic logo was not about to go to them. It was going to the team in purple dancing atop their icon.
Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson would say after that Game 5 defeat they wanted to sit there and soak in the moment. They wanted to feel that hurt and that pain of coming so close to their ultimate goal. They wanted to watch and understand what it takes and the sacrifices it takes to get to this level.
Those Magic great players wanted to watch Kobe Bryant dance and celebrate on their floor. They wanted to see what that pinnacle moment felt like.
Only one NBA title was ever won at the old Orlando Arena — then the Amway Arena in 2009. It belonged to Kobe Bryant.
In that 2009 series, he scored 32.4 points per game and dished out 7.4 assists per game. It was his first Finals MVP.
Every time it felt like Orlando had Bryant’s number, he delivered a play to bury them. Hedo Turkoglu blocked Kobe Bryant’s last-second shot to set up Courtney Lee’s ill-fated game-winning alley-oop attempt.
Then Bryant ripped the team apart with a critical assist in Game 4.
In overtime of that game, he drew a double team and dished it back out to Derek Fisher for a 3-pointer that clinched a 3-1 series lead.
Bryant put the dagger in to kill teams throughout his NBA career. It was a pass that ended the Magic — perhaps the Magic’s greatest team — and put them in that position to watch Bryant celebrate.
Orlando, like so many other teams before, still had a mountain to climb. It was a mountain this particular team would not be able to climb, falling short of that Finals rematch in 2010.
This is a small part of Bryant’s story. The story for him — the story history will tell — was this was his first title without Shaquille O’Neal. A legacy-defining title that was truly his.
He stood on the stage to get the Larry O’Brien and Bill Russell Trophies and hugged his daughters Natalia and Gianna, still small enough so he could hold both in his arms — as he celebrated with his teammates on the stage.
It was a moment of pure celebration that confirmed he was truly one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
It stands in stark contrast to this day.
Bryant and his daughter Gianna, just a decade removed from celebrating on the Orlando Arena floor, were killed in a helicopter accident in Calabasas, Calif., shocking the league and sending everyone involved into mourning.
The NBA played its games Sunday. But the whole league was in shock. Players cried on the court. Teams played tribute videos and offered moments of silence. Nobody really seemed to have their focus on the game wherever they were playing.
At the start of Sunday’s game against the LA Clippers in Orlando (not far from where Bryant celebrated that defining title), the Clippers took a 24-second violation on the first possession in Bryant’s honor. The Magic took an 8-second backcourt violation in turn. Other teams did the same throughout the league.
There was a strange energy to the game. It took a while for both the crowd and the teams to get into it. Nobody’s heart was really in the game. They were thinking about the tremendous impact Bryant had on their lives and the tremendous impact they had on them.
For many, Bryant was how they got introduced to the game. He inspired them to take to the court and love the game of basketball. He created the awe that made the sport wonderful.
Bryant established his legacy and only grew it as his career came to a close.
He won another title in 2010 and remained a dominant scorer as his career came to an end. Bryant was the most influential player in the league for his era, garnering a devoted fan base and awe from players around the league.
Bryant was a legend to everyone. The ubiquitous figure that took Michael Jordan‘s shoes as the cultural face of the league and the shadow for everyone to overcome.
Everyone is still looking to measure up to Bryant both in deed and in attitude. A cultural phenomenon that left his mark on the entire league and its history.
In his retirement, he was a mentor. Teaching younger players the “Mamba mentality” and passing down the knowledge he gained and the work he put in to the next generation.
Bryant has a mystique about him. The “Mamba Mentality” became a way of life. A sign of methodical work as the key to success. Basketball was life and Bryant delivered on all the work he put in throughout his 20-year career.
This is a standard no one could live up to, but everyone had to chase. That was how Bryant approached the game and how he lived his life.
Bryant always believed in impossible standards. That is perhaps how he consistently reached the top or how he shot free throws after tearing his Achilles or came back to scored 61 points in his final game, outshining the Golden State Warriors’ record 73rd win in the process.
Nothing was impossible.
Bryant did not mean to have the attention always on him — most of the time, at least — he was determined to win. And if it took him scoring 81 points or making the right pass to do so, he would do it.
He embodied at least culturally what we want athletes to be — unyielding, determined, hard-working and awe-inspiring.
That is the power Bryant had. All eyes were always on him and he always seemed to deliver in the biggest moments. That will be his legacy. The belief that Bryant would always deliver.
In that 2009 Finals series, he certainly did. He understood what it took to win and tried to teach that young Magic team how much it would cost to win.
Bryant was always great in the regular season, but he stepped his game up even further in that five-game series. The Magic had no answers. He picked the team’s elite defense apart. Howard was not ready for that moment.
Bryant’s last lesson to that team was to watch him celebrate his victory. It proved to be a goal too difficult for that group to achieve.
Orlando would not see Bryant much more after that 2009 series. Matt Barnes tried to make Kobe Bryant flinch in their 2010 meeting in Orlando. The moment is still captured as a sign of the Mamba mentality mystique.
Bryant’s last game against Orlando belonged to his now-teammate in Howard. Bryant scored only 14 points on 4-for-14 shooting. Howard was the star in his first game in Orlando after his trade to Los Angeles.
Even though Bryant was hurt in the final three times he arrived in Orlando. Fans waited to see him emerge from the tunnel and sit on the bench. He would come out of the locker room late, knowing that the crowd would pop for his arrival.
Fans always wanted more of Bryant. They wanted to see his greatness and just get a taste of the sublime.
Bryant still had so many lessons to teach. He still had so much influence to spread. And he still had so much love to give to the game of basketball, even if he was not playing anymore.
The NBA lost a true titan of the sport. Someone worth celebrating even in defeat. And worth respecting even as an enemy.
There will not be another one like him. The league will forever be in his shadow trying to glean the lessons he left behind.