• Matthew Golda

Kobe Bryant Showdown: 8 vs. 24

Only Kobe Bryant could get two numbers retired. Earlier in the week, the Los Angeles Lakers announced they would retire both Kobe’s 8 and Kobe’s 24. There has been speculation for years on which number the Lakers would choose to retire and choosing both numbers only seems par for the course for the type of career Bryant had in Los Angeles.

Bryant started his career as a Laker with number 8 and in that time he won three championships with the club alongside Shaquille O’Neal. However, that number 8 was a disguise. Bryant’s first number in high school was 24, but it was unavailable when he started with the Lakers. So he opted for alter-ego 8. But waiting in the wings to be unleashed was Mamba, or, in other words number 24.

Kobe officially changed his number from 8 to 24 at the start of the 2006/07 season and shaped a new identity for himself. One where he was the unquestioned top dog on the Lakers and the team would be carried by him, for better or for worse.

Kobe has said in the past that if he had to choose a number, he’d choose 24. It’s his childhood number, so that makes sense. But, “[Whichever number is chosen] it’ll be pretty hard for someone else to wear the other one,” Bryant said when asked last summer what the Lakers should do about this predicament. A pretty perfect response by Mamba and one in tune to the type of player he was for the Lakers.

Which brings us to an unforgettable career. A career of two Kobe’s. Which begs the question: which number did he wear best? Let’s take a look at some career highlights.

Number 8: Kobe’s Rise

1) Three-Peat (With Shaq)

The Lakers, led by Shaq and Kobe, won three consecutive NBA championships from 2000-2002. They were an electric duo and dominated the league together. But during this run, it was seen more as Shaq’s team than Kobe’s, as Shaq won the NBA Finals MVP all three years. O’Neal also won the league MVP in 2000. So, despite a ton of team success, Kobe was essentially second fiddle to the dominating force that was Shaquille O’Neal. And I don’t think any highlight during this run captures the large shadow casted by Shaq than this one:

You can even hear it in the broadcast given by Bob Costas, who says: “Kobe Bryant’s 2 free throws and then a jumper gave the Lakers a 4 point lead. And his assist to Shaquille O’Neal makes it a 6 point difference.” This alley-oop from Kobe to Shaq is a memorable moment, as it clinched their first trip to the NBA Finals together. However, lost in this is the fact that it was Kobe who gave them that 4 point lead. Instead, this powerful dunk by Shaq is what people remember. Heck, I am even guilty of forgetting. But it is a reminder of how much of a presence Shaq was when you were his teammate. He was a force of nature and hard to shine past his gigantic shadow.

2) Slam Dunk Champion

In 1997, as a rookie, Kobe Bryant became the youngest player to ever win the dunk contest. Simply put, this event put Kobe on the map and gave him a spotlight to showcase his individual talent. He did not do much his rookie year in the league, averaging only 7.6 PPG in 15.5 minutes per game,but this dunk contest was his chance to show the NBA world his athletic ability and potential as a player for the years to come.

3) 81 Points against Toronto on January 22, 2006.

There is no better example of Mamba basketball than the night he dropped 81 points against the Raptors. Remarkably, he only had 26 points at halftime, which means he dropped 55 points in the second half. This performance showed the all-around scoring ability he possessed. When he came into the league, he was known more as the guy who would take the ball to the rim as opposed to a sharp shooter. But like any great player, he developed an all-around game.

On the night, Kobe went 28-46, which is 61% shooting. That number includes his 7-13 from three point range. And on top of that he went 18-20 from the free throw line. Honestly, you’d think someone would need to hit more than 7 three’s to score 81 points, but he made it work. And you watch that video and he see the sheer skill Kobe had at the time. Players didn't know how to defend him. If they got too close, he drove to the basket. If they gave him space, he would nail the jumper. There is even some great off-the-ball movement to create chances and even one steal where he took it on a break. He really did it all that night, en route to the second highest single game point total, behind only Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game.

Number 24: The Mamba

1. 2 Time NBA Champion (without Shaq)

Winning an NBA championship without Shaquille O’Neal was a driving force that fueled Kobe and his competitiveness. There is no doubt he wanted to be “the guy” on the Lakers, which eventually led to O’Neal’s trade to the Heat during the 2014 summer. In his second season with the Heat, Shaq won another NBA title, this time with Dwyane Wade at his side. (In a quick side note: Looking back at the Shaq/Kobe relationship, it is hard to not be reminded of the recent LeBron/Kyrie situation, where Irving lived under the shadow of James in Cleveland and asked to be traded because he, too, wanted to be “the guy.”)

But enough about Shaquille O’Neal, this is about the Mamba and his journey to win without the big Aristotle. Bryant eventually overcame that hurdle, winning in 2009 over the Orlando Magic. He followed that up by repeating in 2010, where he and the Lakers got redemption over the Boston Celtics, who topped the Lakers two seasons earlier in 2008.

Against the Magic, Kobe average 32.4 PPG en route to a 5 game series win. The following year, against a stingier Celtics defense, Bryant only averaged 28.6 PPG. However both years he took home the NBA Finals MVP and ultimately finished his career with one more NBA championship than former teammate Shaquille O’Neal. That must feel sweet.

2) 2008 NBA MVP Season

In his quest to win a 4th NBA championship, Kobe Bryant hit the peak of his career. He won back to back scoring titles in 2005/06 and 2006/07. Then, in 2008, he won his first and only NBA MVP award. That season he averaged 28.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, and 5.4 APG, while while leading the Lakers to the top seed in the Western Conference.

Also noteworthy during this season was Bryant’s career point total, as he became the youngest player in NBA history to reach 20,000 points at 29 years, 122 days (a record later broken by LeBron James). It was a fun year to watch Bryant.

3) 60 point final game performance

What a way to go out. Kobe Bryant’s final season did not go as well as planned, both on the team level as well as on a personal one. The Lakers weren’t expected to compete for a title, but they only mustered a 17-65 record. Good for second worst in the league. And Bryant only averaged 17.6 PPG, his lowest full season total (he averaged 13.8 PPG in an injury shortened six games in 2013/14) since his second year in the league when he averaged 15.4 PPG.

However, in typical Mamba fashion, he came up big one last time. The highlight reel for this final game is a marvel. He summons all he had left to give the NBA one last show. Heck, he had a clear lane to dunk and had to lay it up, because he just didn’t have that leaping ability anymore. But man, did he shoot. A lot. 50 times to be exact. And 21 three point attempts!

His 60 points was the most scored by a player that season. In a way, Kobe Bryant might have been the last of a dying breed. The type of player who cared more about winning than making friends. A drive to not only beat an opponent, but to embarrass them. A man with a killer instinct, who craved the next challenge. He will be defined by his legendary competitiveness. Sure, players today want to win. But none had the edge Kobe had when he was on his game. And whether he was number 8 or number 24, he was always one thing: Great.

So, when you remember Kobe Bryant, will you remember the number 8 years or the number 24 years? What moments were your favorite? Let us know on Twitter @otgbasketball

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