- The 'Black Mamba' was arguably the greatest NBA player of all time, winning five championships with the Lakers
- His career has been defined by clutch performances on the grandest of stages, including two finals MVP trophies
The death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash on Sunday sent shock waves throughout the basketball and sporting world. The 41-year-old is widely regarded as one of the greatest National Basketball Association players of all time, and his sudden death left millions of people in shock.
Bryant's career spanned two decades, all with the Los Angeles Lakers, and included five NBA titles, two finals Most Valuable Player awards, one regular season MVP trophy and 18 All-Star appearances. Bryant made his name as being a deft shooter in clutch situations, hitting multiple game-winning shots in high pressure situations and coming up huge in big games.
His career was defined by his undying love for the game of basketball, and it showed on the court. With that in mind, here are his most illustrious moments on the hardwood which made the "Black Mamba" who he was, and why he was so revered as an athlete.
1997 Slam Dunk Contest
Bryant's first season in the league (1996-97) was far from legendary as he played a supporting role for the Lakers. There were flashes of brilliance from the 18-year-old who was straight out of Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia, as he quickly adjusted to the league and playing against much bigger and tougher opponents.
Arguably his most memorable came during the All-Star weekend in Cleveland, Ohio, when he put on a clinic in the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest, letting all the league's mega stars know they were going to have to make room for one more.
First title with Phil and Shaq
Bryant notched his first NBA title during the 1999-2000 season, as the Lakers downed the Indiana Pacers in six hard-fought games. Bryant and big man Shaquille O'Neal, coached by "Zen master" Phil Jackson, made for a formidable one-two punch, as the two gave defenders fits both in and out of the paint.
It was during the Western Conference final against the Portland Trail Blazers that we got one of the era's most iconic plays. With the Lakers up 83-79 with less than a minute left, the series was already in the bag for Bryant and his teammates. But that didn't stop him from throwing up one final alley-oop to O'Neal for an exclamation point for the ages.
Three-peat is complete
The Lakers won their third title in a row during the 2001-2002 season and Bryant tore up the league right behind top scorer Allen Iverson. But once again, it was in the play-offs where Bryant truly shone, as he led the Lakers to a sweep of the New Jersey Nets in four straight games.
During game three on the road, Bryant notched 36 points while O'Neil had 35, and Bryant hit a clutch two pointer with the shot clock at one to give the Lakers the lead late in the fourth quarter for the final dagger. He had proven himself as the go-to guy by this point, and was atop the basketball world.
81 in one
When it comes to individual games, this one is tough to top, even though it was in the regular season.
It was January 2006, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Toronto Raptors 122-104. Bryant, who must have had an extra bowl of Wheaties that morning, decided to drop a bomb on the basketball world and rack up an astonishing 81 points. The thing about Bryant, is that he did not take his foot off the gas even when it was assured the Lakers were going to win. In typical Kobe fashion, he plunged the dagger as deep as it could go and sent a statement to every corner of the NBA.
There was arguably no more a spectacular season and play-offs for Bryant than the 2008-09 campaign. Bryant tore up the league, and continued his red-hot play into the play-offs, earning his first finals MVP trophy in the process as the Lakers downed the Orlando Magic in five games.
This included a statement game to open the finals against the Magic where Bryant dropped 40 points. It was a spectacular, clinical game in which Bryant continued to pound the Magic, turning up the heat quarter by quarter. Bryant was back on top, winning his fourth title, almost seemingly by himself, sans a clutch three pointer from teammate Derek Fisher.
Back to back, again
The following season Bryant continued his dominance as the Lakers cruised into the play-offs during the 2009-10 season. Bryant and his teammates, which included Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace (then simply known as Ron Artest), would find themselves in tough against the Boston Celtics in the finals.
The series would go to seven games and go down as one of the most hotly contested of the modern era. Of course, Bryant was right in the middle of the mayhem, as the Lakers forced a game seven and Bryant spread the floor and showed the love with some timely assists in a deftly played chess move to throw the Celtics.
One last statement
While Bryant would never win another title, he would come close to matching Michael Jordan's six championships on a few occasions, but at that point, injuries and Father Time were starting to catch up with the superstar. Of course, the Black Mamba would have one final statement to make, in his final game.
On April 13th, 2016 Bryant would drop 60 points against the Utah Jazz in his last professional appearance on the court. It was a defining moment to close out his legacy, showing the world he still had some juice left for one more flurry of magic.
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