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Kobe Bryant’s 32 most iconic basketball moments, ranked

Kobe Bryant’s life was cut short at the age of 41 on Sunday, along with the lives of 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant, six other passengers, and a pilot flying to the Mamba Academy on Kobe’s Sikorsky S-76B helicopter. This is a tragedy on multiple levels that goes far deeper than the loss of a famous basketball player.

For basketball fans, Bryant was a player that seared many of the sport’s most iconic moments in recent history. It’s impossible to remember them all, but in honor of his two jersey numbers (24 + 8), here are 32 that I’ll never forget.

32. The air-ball fest that started it all

It’s only fitting that we begin with his lowest on-court moment, which also happened to be his first significant one as a pro. Bryant averaged only 15.5 minutes per game as a rookie on the that 1996-97 Lakers team, but in that moment, they needed him out of necessity. Veteran shooting guard Byron Scott sat with a wrist injury, small forward Robert Horry was ejected in the third quarter for shoving Jeff Hornacek, and Shaquille O’Neal fouled out with 1:46 to play in regulation after foolishly biting on a Karl Malone pump fake. That left a teenage Bryant as their best hope to extend their season.

It took all of that to give him a formative professional experience that would drive the rest of his career.

31. A dozen threes in a game?

Fun fact: Kobe was shooting 28 percent from three-point range through the first 34 games of the 2002-03 season. My favorite part, via the Seattle Post-Intelligencer game story:

In fact, before the game, Los Angeles Times’ columnist T.J. Simers informed Bryant that his daughter — a state champion shooter — could beat Bryant in a three-point shooting contest. He asked Bryant to bet money on the contest, the proceeds going to charity.

30. The passes to himself off the backboard

Kobe wasn’t the first to pull off this move — that’d be Tracy McGrady, who did it in the 2002 NBA All-Star Game. But it’s befitting of Kobe’s audacity that he did it in a playoff game in 2008 against the Jazz, then even more spectacularly in a postseason game against Houston the very next season.

29. Behind the back on the Nuggets

The current Lakers have a a set play where LeBron James launches a full-court pass to a posting-up Anthony Davis off an opponents’ free throw. Here’s how I described it a month and a half ago:

In those situations, the Lakers like to take Davis off the rebounding line and put him on the opposite block for early post-ups the other way. (They borrowed this tactic from Alvin Gentry, who used it during the Pelicans’ brief Davis-DeMarcus Cousins twin towers era). LA inbounds to LeBron, and he rushes the ball up to feed Davis as quickly as possible, giving him space to go one-on-one before help arrives.

As the year has progressed, LeBron has become more audacious with his post entry passes. He’ll sometimes eschew dribbling up the court and instead toss 60-foot bombs on a rope to Davis’ waiting arms.

I’d like to think Kobe’s 2003 dunk inspired them.

28. Sharing 2009 All-Star MVP honors with his nemesis

Kobe’s ongoing feud with Shaq was so multi-layered that it has its own seven-part Wikipedia page. It’s hard to know when it really started and when it really tapered down, because both men weren’t exactly the most reliable narrators. (Remember when Shaq told Stephen A. Smith that “it was all marketing?” Nice try, big fella). But their 2009 All-Star experience is considered a key de-escalator in the overall cannon. As Shaq told USA Today’s Sam Amick in 2016:

“Everything became cool (with Bryant) my last All-Star Game in Phoenix,” said O’Neal. “Me and him got the co-MVP (at All-Stars). It was a great time, (and) my son Shareef, who was like nine (years old) at the time (was there).

“I was just going to give the trophy to Kobe, and Kobe looks at my little man and says, ‘Here you go, Shareef.’ … I was kind of surprised that he remembered his name. He was like, ‘Here you go, Shareef. Here’s the trophy.’ Then I knew everything that happened (during the Lakers days) was silly.”

27. Welcome to the NBA, Dwight Howard

This was the first time Kobe tormented Dwight. It wouldn’t be the last.

26. Welcome to the NBA, Yao Ming

This game took place late in Yao’s 2002-03 rookie season, and Yao actually held his own with 24 points and 14 rebounds before fouling out. But the Lakers still got the last laugh, winning without Shaq in double overtime thanks to Kobe’s 52 points. “I feel like I want to get to bed quickly,” Yao said through an interpreter, via the New York Times. “Once I am asleep, everything is in the past.”

Fun fact: the voice you hear on TNT’s color commentary is none other than Jeff Van Gundy. Four months later, the Rockets hired him to be their head coach.

25. Welcome to the NBA, Ben Wallace

Your eyes don’t deceive you: that is indeed UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center, future home of the indie-turned-mainstream NBA Summer League. At the time, it was the host of an otherwise forgettable 1997-98 preseason game between the Washington Wizards and the Los Angeles Lakers.

I’ll let Marcus Vanderberg of the now-defunct Ball Don’t Lie blog (miss u) take it from here:

With time winding down at the end of the first quarter, Bryant crossed over journeyman guard Jimmy Oliver and set his sights on the basket. Ben Wallace — either not knowing any better or proving that he didn’t give a damn even back in 1997 — stepped up in the paint and became the first person to find himself on a Kobe poster. Bryant took off from inside the free-throw line and demolished Wallace with a ferocious dunk that got Hall of Fame broadcaster Chick Hearn just a wee bit excited:

Slaaaaaam dunk! Wooooo!”

24. Welcome to the NBA (Finals), Todd MacCulloch

Calling the 2002 NBA Finals anticlimactic is like saying snow is inconvenient for drivers. But in case there was any remaining suspense, this Kobe slam in the third quarter of Game 1 vanquished it. Eleven years later, ABC commemorated this dunk with one of the coolest Finals promos in recent memory.

23. Not yet, Kevin Durant

I’m a sucker for young buck vs. old head duels. This one wasn’t the most artful contest, nor was it the one that ended a playoff series. Kobe and KD both dropped more than 30 points, but they weren’t guarding each other. Both made big shot after big shot, but neither made a field goal in the final two minutes. It was ultimately Jeff Green’s missed three that ended things. Still, this game foreshadowed a passing of the torch and was a sign that the Thunder were going to be a damn problem for years to come. As Kobe told Durant and Russell Westbrook after Game 6, “Glad we’re done with you guys.”

22. Quiet, Denver fans

This was another epic Bryant performance against a younger peer (Carmelo Anthony) that has been lost to history. The scissor-kick three Kobe hit over J.R. Smith to give the Lakers a one-point lead with just over a minute left is still seared in my mind. So is that scowl, a Kobe specialty that peaked in that moment.

21. Speaking of sucking the energy out of the building

With 16 words, TNT’s Kevin Harlan simultaneously captured a single moment in Kobe’s career and the enduring quality that made him such a basketball villain to so many non-Lakers fans.

20. The buzzer beater on Dwyane Wade

Kobe had many regular-season buzzer beaters, but this one stands out because he redeemed himself for missing a game-winning attempt a few seconds prior.

19. Scoring 61 at Madison Square Garden

The Madison Square Garden mystique was cool, but I’ll most remember the spin move and jumper Kobe made on Wilson Chandler to cap the night off. Technical brilliance mixed with ingenious creativity.

18. Kobe Bryant 62, Dallas Mavericks 61

During the third quarter, Lakers TV analyst Stu Lantz delivered a prophetic line. “The only guy that can stop No. 8 tonight,” Lantz proclaimed, “is Phil Jackson.” It turns out Kobe was the one who declined Jackson’s invitation to re-enter the game in the fourth quarter, but the point still stands.

17. The infamous non-flinch

Like many Kobe moments, this one ended up being too good to be true. Still, I had to include it.

16. Vanquishing the “Kobe Stopper”

Ruben Patterson was once an end-of-the-bench Laker who, according to legend, nicknamed himself the “Kobe Stopper” for the way he defended Bryant in practice. (As with other Kobe stories, this one is more myth than reality). Patterson eventually left the team and established himself as a key defensive player for Seattle and then Portland.

That brings us to the 2003-04 season finale. The Blazers had just been eliminated from the playoffs for the first time in 22 years, while the Lakers needed a win to clinch the Pacific Division. Still, Portland played hard, and would’ve stolen a victory had Bryant not hit two impossible long threes to end regulation and overtime. The first was with Patterson in his jersey, while the second was a moonball that fell into the hoop as Patterson and Theo Ratliff rushed to close out.

With the win, the Lakers rose to the No. 2 seed and dropped the Kings to No. 4. That made a big difference in their eventual NBA Finals run.

15. The Magic never had a chance

Another brilliant Kobe playoff performance that has been lost to time. It wasn’t his most prolific or most important, but it set the tone for a series that was only going to go one way. I most enjoyed Kobe performances that showcased his all-around game, and this one was a textbook example. Here’s an old Silver Screen and Roll breakdown that’s well worth your time.

14. The 50-point streak

The league’s current pace-and-space trajectory may render this streak less impressive with time, but it was absurd in the moment. Here’s a summary.

13. Take that, Alvin Gentry

It’s easy to forget how close the Lakers came to losing the 2010 Western Conference Finals. They dominated the first two games, only to be flummoxed by a daring Suns tactic to use a 2-3 zone to limit LA’s inside dominance. LA never really solved the Suns’ wrinkle, but maintained a 3-2 series advantage after Metta World Peace’s serendipitous buzzer-beating putback in Game 5.

That set the stage for Kobe to brutally shut the door in Game 6. After mostly deferring in the first half, he staved off a furious Suns comeback with a series of impossible shots. His second-to-last bucket was a spinning fadeaway 21-footer over Grant Hill and Channing Frye to push the Lakers’ lead back to five. His final hoop: a pump-fake, rise-up jumper over Hill from nearly the same spot as the shot clock expired. As it dropped through the net, Kobe gave Suns coach Alvin Gentry a gentle butt tap, as if to say, Nice try.

“There’s an intense game going on and you almost have to laugh at what he does,” was Gentry’s interpretation. “I mean, I thought we played great defense on him. He just made tough shot after tough shot.”

And Kobe’s?

“It looked like a much tougher shot than it was.”

12. See ya, Sacramento

My favorite Kobe playoff performance once you separate out the stakes. It had everything we’ve come to know about Kobe.

  • He flew back to Los Angeles during the one-day break after Game 3 because Vanessa was in the hospital. Once he felt confident she was OK, he returned to Sacramento late on the night before an afternoon Game 4.
  • He embarrassed nemesis Vlade Divac with a thunderous poster dunk early in the game.
  • During the second quarter, he told an enraged Chris Webber not to chuck the ball away after an offensive foul because he wanted to beat the Kings at full strength. NBC’s Jim Gray said this was “a real good show of sportsmanship.” That’s one way to put it.
  • When interviewed at halftime, Kobe told Gray he was happy the Lakers were losing because they needed a challenge.
  • Kobe bullied his way for 19 free throws and 16 rebounds.
  • His final bucket involved him splitting an attempted double-team for a layup to put the Lakers up four.
  • He told reporters that he viewed the game as “a life-or-death situation,” even though the Lakers already had a 3-0 series lead and had won their previous 14 games. (Not to mention Vanessa’s real-life health scare).

11. See ya, San Antonio

All of the above, distilled into one play.

10. The unofficial passing of the torch

We all figured this would be Michael Jordan’s last game against Kobe Bryant. The stars were aligned for something special. It still exceeded expectations.

It looked to be MJ’s night early on. He nailed his first four jumpers, then picked off a lazy Shaquille O’Neal pass and took it to the house. But then Kobe started shooting and scoring, and shooting and scoring, and shooting and scoring, and shooting and scoring. Twenty-five points in five minutes. Forty-two at halftime. Fifty-five in the end, mirroring the double nickel Jordan dropped against the Knicks in 1995.

“It came to a point where there was that curiosity factor: was he going to hit 80? I’m sure it went through his head,” said Phil Jackson, foreshadowing the future.

(There’s a story going around that Kobe wanted to get payback on Jordan for dissing him after an early-season Wizards win, but the timeline doesn’t quite add up).

9. That 6-24 game

Let’s keep it 100 for a second: Kobe was awful in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals and was ultimately saved by Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. But the Lakers’ ultimate triumph was also a fitting tribute to Kobe’s determination in the face of failure.

8. The alley-oop to complete the Portland comeback

History remembers this play as a symbol of the Kobe-Shaq relationship before it got messy. The reality is more complex, yet also makes the moment even richer. From Roland Lazenby’s 2016 book Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant:

Witnesses could hardly believe what they were seeing — a bonding moment between the center and the guard — but the victory was proof. It was as if Bryant had refused to get discouraged, and that paid off by season’s end. ‘I think they came to respect each other,’ [longtime Phil Jackson assistant coach Tex] Winter said, although the coaches could never be sure what the players were merely doing as a public gesture and what they truly felt. Scoop Jackson, for example, saw O’Neal running around at game’s end, looking to celebrate with anyone but his foil.

Asked about O’Neal, Bryant shrugged. ‘We just do it our separate ways,’ he said. ‘That’s all we did all season long. It just depended on what we needed in certain situations. So even though we go our separate ways, it all linked up in the end.’

In 2009, blogger Jason Kottke noticed something funny on the unedited version of the clip, which has sadly been removed from YouTube: (That last part is a stretch, alas).

O’Neal throws it down and the camera follows him as he heads down the court yelling in celebration, totally blowing right past Kobe, who has his hand out to high-five Shaq. Kobe half-heartedly grabs at O’Neal’s forearm as he passes; Shaq doesn’t even notice. […] The unedited clip of the play1 shows an awkward ending to this awkward moment. After celebrating with the Lakers bench, Shaq looks for Kobe and the two finally acknowledge the play together. But it’s a brief moment; they slap hands and go their separate ways, foreshadowing Shaq’s departure four years later.

Knowing this only deepens my appreciation of the moment. The beauty of basketball is that two people without much real-life chemistry can become simpatico in an instant when they step between the lines.

7. Saving the Redeem Team

Kobe’s most notable impact on Team USA was intangible. He was the last star to commit to playing in the 2008 Olympics, and his commitment signaled the importance of reclaiming basketball supremacy to a younger crew of stars that included the future Banana Boat crew. His leadership and work ethic rubbed off on those players, elevating them to levels they may not have reached otherwise.

But I’ll remember the way Kobe pushed them over the finish line in the fourth quarter of the gold medal game when Spain’s zone confused everyone else. Whenever Spain got close, Kobe had the answer. They couldn’t stop him.

Months later, he hung his gold medal in Pau Gasol’s locker during Lakers training camp in an attempt to motivate him. Ruthless, uncomfortably cruel, and ultimately successful: straight out of the Kobe playbook.

6. “Bryant, for the win. Baaaaaaang”

This was when Kobe’s individual supremacy peaked. A few reasons why:

  • It came at the end of Kobe’s best individual season, when he averaged 35 points a game in leading a decrepit Lakers roster to 45 wins and a postseason berth. Imagine Russell Westbrook’s MVP season, but even more individually overwhelming. That was Kobe’s 2005-06.
  • The Suns actually wanted to play the Lakers in the first round. According to Jack McCallum’s book :07 Seconds or Less: My Season on the Bench with the Runnin’ and Gunnin’ Phoenix Suns, the Suns believed they could easily exploit the Lakers’ transition defense and bait Kobe into selfish play. They even rested key players for a late-season ABC contest to help facilitate the matchup.
  • The final 12.6 seconds of regulation were wild. With the Suns up five, the much-maligned Smush Parker, who was 1-14 from downtown in the series to date, hit a standstill three to cut the lead to two. Steve Nash, of all people, turned it over on the ensuing inbound, and Kobe sidestepped around Raja Bell and hit the game-tying floater over Boris Diaw’s outstretched arms. Absurd shot. (D’Antoni then drew up a beautiful out of bounds lob play for James Jones that failed because the officials ignored Luke Walton’s blatant hold.)
  • The Suns still led by one in the closing seconds of overtime when Nash bizarrely dribbled to the sideline. He attempted to pivot away from Walton and Lamar Odom and signaled for a timeout. But instead of calling a foul or honoring Nash’s request, the officials called a jump ball, even though a still photo later revealed Walton’s foot was out of bounds as he tied Nash up. Walton tipped it to Kobe and you know the rest.

At the time, it felt like the Suns were cursed and Kobe was destined to find a way to win no matter the circumstances. Which, of course, made Phoenix’s rally from a 3-1 deficit to win the series even more improbable.

5. The free throws after tearing his Achilles

Longtime Lakers trainer Gary Viti once said that this was Kobe’s “gutsiest moment.” I don’t think Viti was referring to Kobe’s physical pain — a fully ruptured Achilles actually hurts less in the moment than many other serious injuries. Instead, I think he was noting Kobe’s strength to fight through his mental anguish at the thought of his body finally breaking down after years of feeling indestructible.

Watching Kobe’s postgame interview only drives home that point. He looks like a man finally coming to terms with his own athletic mortality.

4. A legend is born

Most remember Kobe’s first championship run for the Game 7 comeback against the Blazers, but the six-game NBA Finals series win over the Pacers was no walk in the park. Kobe badly injured his ankle in a Game 2 victory when Indiana’s Jalen Rose slid under him on a mid-range jumper. (Years later, Rose admitted he did it on purpose). Kobe missed Game 3, an easy Indiana victory, and was a doubt for Game 4. He refused to shoot layups during pregame warmups, telling NBC’s Ahmad Rashad that he was “saving it for the game.” The game went to overtime, and with 2:29 left, Shaquille O’Neal fouled out jumping for a rebound with Rik Smits.

Remember: the Lakers hadn’t won a title yet and were up against a vastly more experienced team on the road. Lose this game, and the series would be tied 2-2 with Indiana hosting Game 5. The MVP was on the bench, and his co-star was operating at less than full capacity. The series swung in the balance.

Kobe’s response:

  • A vicious crossover and pull-up jumper on Reggie Miller on the next play.
  • A rise-up shot from nearly the same spot over a flummoxed Mark Jackson.
  • A crucial block from behind on an Austin Croshere layup that would have cut the lead back to one.
  • A reverse tip-in after the Pacers successfully denied him the ball with 5.9 seconds left to shove the advantage back to three.

This was when his clutch legend was born.

3. A curtain call for the ages

A cartoonish mockery of the game of basketball for three quarters that turned into something magical by the end. That it upstaged the Warriors breaking the goddamn single-season wins record made it even more memorable.

What a perfect way for Kobe to go out.

2. 81

Kobe’s basketball reputation is built on the premise that he plays his best when the moment is biggest. It’s ironic, then, that his best individual performance came in one of the most anonymous settings of his career.

The game took place on Jan. 22, 2006, a Sunday that was cleared for the NFL’s two conference championship games. Regular Lakers announcer Joel Meyers was calling the NFC title game, leaving backup Bill MacDonald to fill in. Jack Nicholson didn’t show up. Several other regular celebrities begged off the game.

Early on, there was little indication that Kobe was about to have one of those nights. The Raptors came out in a 2-3 zone that cut off the rest of Kobe’s teammates. They took a double-digit lead and swelled it to 18 to start the third quarter. Kobe had 26 first-half points: noteworthy, but hardly unusual.

In fact, it was part of the plan. As Toronto point guard Jose Calderon told ESPN:

People always ask me, “How is it possible to let one guy score 81 points?” Because we were winning almost the whole game. He can keep scoring as long as we’re up. Yeah, he’s killing us, but the rest of the team is doing nothing, and we’re winning. We didn’t think he would keep scoring like he was.

Once Kobe started heating up the third quarter, Raptors players pleaded for a change in strategy. Instead, coach Sam Mitchell stayed the course. “It was the most frustrating thing,” guard Mike James told ESPN. “Maybe that should have been one of those times where we were rebellious and went against Coach’s will.”

To this day, Mitchell defends his decision. As he told CBS Sports’ James Herbert in 2017:

It’s always funny to me ‘cause I look at the other side, if we win the game. Because it’s not like we got beat by 30. We were winning the game. My thought process during that was one, how can we slow him down?, and two, we can still win the game. As great a game as he was having, I thought we had just as good a chance to win the game. We were winning. So, you know, you’re trying to stop him because if you can stop him, it increases your chance to win. But also, you’re saying even if we don’t stop him, we can still win this game.

He gives himself too much credit, but he also has a point. Whatever the Raptors were doing was working for a large stretch of the game. Then, out of nowhere, Kobe caught fire and directed the sports world’s attention to a game they otherwise would have ignored.

And yet, as magical as this night was, it won’t stick with me as much as …

1. Kobe and Gigi, geeking out

… a father and a daughter — a teacher and a student, a mentor and mentee — gleefully sitting courtside while nerding out over a piece of basketball minutiae in a mundane regular-season game between two losing teams.

I’ve watched this sequence hundreds of times in the last 48 hours, and it still gets me. The world didn’t just lose a basketball star Sunday. It lost a past icon and a future legend. It lost a proud father and a happy daughter, sharing in a routine moment while doing what they both loved.

Rest in peace, Kobe and Gianna Bryant.

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