The day Kobe Bryant played his first game against the Atlanta Hawks in the city of Atlanta, 2 Pac’s Makaveli album was positioned at the top of the charts, Jamie Foxx’s slapstick comedy Booty Call had just been released, and Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston were a tandem in the film The Preacher’s Wife.
Or to put things in a better perspective, Bryant’s teammate D’Angelo Russell was only 10 years-old during Bryant’s rookie campaign. Indeed, a lot has changed since 1997 when Bryant first laced up his sneakers to take on the Hawks in Atlanta. But there are some things that remains the same.
Bryant has always had the ability to play the perfect villain or hero. You either hate his guts, or you cheer for him as if he’s your favorite sibling.
When Bryant walked onto the Philips Arena court for the final time, he was meet with a mixture of overwhelming applause and a few boos. Even on a night when it seemed like a going away party for Bryant more so than a basketball game, some Hawks fans wanted to make sure Bryant still wasn’t a welcomed guest.
On the other hand, the Hawks organization pretty much rolled out the red carpet in many ways for the Lakers great. The team collaborated with Zoo Atlanta to name the Black Mamba snake after Bryant. And the team also showed a video montage of Bryant’s achievements on the JumboTron.
During the game, there were a few moments of brilliance where Bryant shot back-to-back three-pointers and his Jordanesque fade away jump shot. But when the Hawks’ Thabo Sefalosha blocked Bryant’s shot late in the 4th quarter, it was apparent that we weren’t witnessing the same guy who made his debut in 1997.
Bryant still has the knowledge and ability to score, but his legs aren’t as powerful. He only hit four shots out of 19 and finished with 14 points. The Hawks won by a score of 100-87 in a game that was only close because of Lakers fans in Atlanta who often gave the team more energy to compete.
After the game, Bryant discussed playing in Atlanta and his career. “It’s always fun here because there is always so much energy in the building,” Bryant said. “Dominique Wilkins has always been one of my favorite players. The tribute and naming the Black Mamba at the zoo was pretty cool too. [But when it comes to my career] I’m most proud that I was able to stick with it. There are a lot tough times and self doubt and criticism and moments where you feel discouraged. Being able to stay with it has been the most important thing to me.”
Bryant will never be the same on the basketball court and the NBA may never again have such a polarizing figure. He was willing to accept the adulation and also embrace the hate if the storyline called for him to be the perfect villain.
Photos: A.R. Shaw