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Kobe Bryant death elicits fond memories of Lakers greatness

Watching a boy become a man

Merdies Hayes Managing Editor | 1/30/2020, midnight
When Lakers General Manager Jerry West announced in June 1996..

When Lakers General Manager Jerry West announced in June 1996 that the team had agreed to trade popular center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for a high school phenom, Jeanie Buss, at the time an assistant with the organization, went to her father and asked bluntly: “Dad is this true? You traded Vlade for this kid? Is he any good?” Dr. Jerry Buss replied: “He certainly is. Just wait and see.” To that, Jeanie Buss demonstrated rare insolence toward her father in replying: “He'd better be.”

And with that, the storied saga of Kobe Bean Bryant began its indelible mark on Los Angeles sports history.

And what a history it was. Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine persons killed last Sunday morning when their helicopter crashed into a hillside amid heavy fog over Calabasas. The bitter irony that they were on their way to a basketball game at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks has not been lost on anyone around the world who has been following the tragic event.

Bryant made an immediate mark on the NBA. In short order, he was named to the 1996-97 NBA All-Rookie team where he won the All-Star Weekend slam dunk contest, despite not playing in the game. He made up for that the next year by being selected as a starter in his first NBA All-Star game. And then began his legacy as one of the fiercest and most competitive athletes of his time in helping the Lakers win the first of three consecutive world championships (2000-2002), capped off by a convincing four-game sweep of the New Jersey Nets.

Perhaps Bryant's most startling game took place in 2006 when he broke Elgin Baylor's (Lakers) single-game scoring record with 81 points against Toronto. That performance was merely 19 points shy of Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in 1962.

Bryant had a series of scoring titles to his credit, but the team began to flounder after the departure of superstar center Shaquille O'Neal and head coach Phil Jackson following the 2004 season.

Shortly after the 2006-07 season in which the Lakers were again eliminated early from the playoffs, a frustrated Bryant asked management for a trade. Buss gave that request due consideration, but decided not to trade Bryant and, instead, added more help in the front court and the Lakers would return to the finals only to lose to historic nemesis, the Boston Celtics. It was in 2007-08 that Bryant would win his only league MVP award.

The accolades kept pouring in for Bryant, by now recognized as “The Mamba” because, as he once explained: “You never know when the black mamba will strike” in reference to his near-uncanny ability to complete some of the most amazing and pressure-packed shots in professional basketball. Soon Bryant would earn a gold medal at the Bejing Olympics as a member of the U.S. Men's basketball team. He'd win his fourth title in 2009 and was named finals MVP as the Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic in five games.