Kobe Bryant entered the NBA straight from high school in 1996, the year I was trying to declare a major in college. Back then, I was told the future was ahead of me. I could do anything I wanted. Picking a major was just like folding a page in a book. You were not settling on the rest of your life.
I grew up in Southern California, a child of the Lakers, a child of “Showtime.” The team defined Los Angeles. They were Los Angeles. They even played in a structure modeled after the Colosseum in Rome. They showed that building a lot on TV. The columns outside, the rich and famous inside. All exporting the Lakers brand of basketball: run and gun. Exhilarating entertainment in the entertainment capital of the world. Fast breaks. No-look passes. Fast scoring. The Lakers won five championships during that era. And the players of my youth were known by single names . . . Magic, Worthy, and Kareem.
The Lakers were not winning championships when I entered college. Most of the Showtime players had retired. But then 1996 happened. The Lakers signed Shaquille O’Neal and they traded for Kobe Bryant, the 13th pick in the NBA draft that year.
I think about that now. Almost 20 years later. Most of us have had many starts and restarts, many ends and new beginnings. Many W-2 forms. Many 401(k) rollovers. Many different health insurance providers. But not Kobe. He’s a rarity in sports. A single team for 20 years. Derek Jeter did that. But in today’s climate—of TV contracts, free agency, salary caps—players often come and go. The team shirt you bought at the beginning of the season becomes vintage because the player has moved on.
Of course, it helped that Kobe has played for one of the best franchises in all of sports. Specifically, he has played more than 47,000 minutes for the Lakers. And he really played every minute. You’d watch him hustle, bark at his teammates, demand that they perform at his level. Sometimes you felt like you were watching a game within a game. There was the opposing team playing at the Lakers’ level. And then there were the Lakers players trying to play at Kobe’s level. Even in off games—like Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics—he played without fear of losing. The Lakers were down by 13 points in the third quarter. And Kobe was shooting poorly the whole night. Six of 24 from the field—a rut. You could sense the headline coming: Lakers Lose Championship on Kobe’s Dismal Shooting. But then he did what he always does—he figured it out. He played knowing he could beat anyone at any team. That’s confidence and will. He scored 10 points in the fourth quarter in a game to decide the title. Ten points when it matters most. Who does that?
He wrote a poem to announce his retirement. My dad and I laughed. My dad retired a couple of years ago after being a college professor for more than three decades. He also wrote a poem that he read during his retirement party. One of my dad’s lines reminded me of Kobe: If you reach the peak having no longer the fire/say goodbye to your job and keep your dignity higher. Truth is, Kobe may be retiring, but he has been paid handsomely and can do anything he wants. His life in a lot of ways feels like the blank slate you have as a college student: Your future is ahead of you; don’t worry about your major.