In describing Kobe Bryant, Charles Barkley once said, “He’s not Michael Jordan, but he’s close.”
From the time a brash high schooler from Philly declared for the NBA draft, his eyes have been squarely fixated on the Jumpman.
Showing no fear for the reigning king in the All-Star Game, Kobe showed everybody what, or more specifically whom, he was aiming for.
He turned some off by brushing away screens in meaningless exhibitions, and drew laughs when tossing up airball after airball in a deciding playoff game, but yet, Kobe was undeterred.
One of the few who didn’t wilt under the shadow of the statue, Kobe was the only one who had the audacity to want to be greater than the greatest.
So much of Kobe’s early career was fixated on being like him, Kobe took “Be Like Mike” to a whole other level. Of imitation. Inflection. Past the point of flattery, to where it was nearly scary.
Developing an own identity took a backseat to an obsession of MJ, which brought upon some scorn from fans.
Of course, Kobe learned lessons and applied them. Michael welcomed Kobe to the national stage with perfect fadeaways and flawless fundamentals and then years later, Kobe said his goodbye to the greatest in such a ruthless way, 55 in L.A.
To compare, Kobe was a better shooter than Michael, with deeper range. And Kobe made more tough, contested shots. But Michael always got the shot he wanted, and almost always authored a storybook ending.
That’s not to say Kobe didn’t get his pounds of flesh, or gold.
From the first ring to the fifth, Kobe shined on the Finals stage despite enduring some heart-wrenching and humbling defeats.
Kobe had the ego to prove he could win on his terms, as the sole headliner without a 330-pound shadow on the floor with him. And while he had some individual moments in the interim - 60, 61, 62, 65 and of course, 81 - the game taught him doing it alone sounds much better in theory than application.
He almost landed in Chicago, but the Bulls and Lakers couldn’t agree on a deal and Kobe wound up better for it. Two more rings after the first three earned more respect and for himself, validation and entrance to the short table of special champions.
Somewhere along the way you found yourself and became a golden standard in your own right without being a second-rate imitation of anyone.
Father Time has prevented the ultimate storybook ending, with injuries grabbed Kobe at the worst possible time, but they’ve revealed a humanity few thought existed in such a maniacal competitor.
The perfect ending, many hoped, was him riding into the sunset like Peyton Manning, at least with a shot at a championship ring.
But if that happened, we wouldn’t see the elder statesman, the mentor, the player who’s embraced his basketball mortality and grateful for the journey, potholes and all.
Instead Kobe would be singularly focused on winning all over again, obsessed with the goal that he would miss the moments of playing one on one with opponents’ children, passing on lessons to the next generation while showing the public that he wasn’t afraid to show his heart.
One by one, players and teams, many of them former rivals, have come to pay respects. Fans have paid homage in a tribute that’s been most unexpected but seemingly most appreciated by someone not many thought had a sentimental bone in his body.
In a way, as Kobe says goodbye, it’s a perfect ending for an imperfect superstar.