Perhaps you’ve heard by now, Kobe Bryant celebrates his 35th birthday today. More than 16 years ago – January 28, 1997, to be exact – a young Bean, not yet known as Mamba, started his first game as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. What’s amazing to realize is that Kobe’s professional basketball life extends nearly as long as his life pre-NBA. And to offer a sense of perspective of what was happening around this day in history, feast on these fun facts:
1. Bill Clinton’s second inauguration happened eight days earlier. Meanwhile, some guy named Barack Obama was a rookie too – in the Illinois state senate.
2. Biggie was still working on the final touches of what would become Life After Death. Kendrick Lamar was nine. Chief Keef was one.
3. America was still coming to grips with the murder of Ennis Cosby.
4. Charles Woodson won the Heisman (Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf and Randy Moss placed second, third and fourth, respectively).
5. Tiger Woods would win his first Masters some two and a half months later.
6. A comet almost hit Earth, yo!
7. Steve Jobs returned to Apple later that year. And the rest was history.
..and get ready to pound your face into a desk…
8. The average cost of a gallon of gas was $1.22. Oh, and rent? $576.
So, yeah, a lot has changed since Kobe made his first appearance into the starting lineup; a game in which he tallied a respectable 12 points on 5-11 from the field to go along with three rebounds, two assists and two steals. Without pissing off Lakers fans and comparing Bryant’s first start totals to other prodigies who’ve come into the league wet behind the ears, feast those eyes on a moment even Kobe likely calls a career highlight. The night following the Lakers 102-83 drubbing of the Dallas Mavericks – improving their record to 32-12 – the legendary Chick Hearn sat down with the then-wide-eyed rookie gauging his feelings and how he handled such a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Briefly place whatever disdain for the man aside. The clip represents a fascinating segment to go back in time and see one of the greatest players ever before we knew he’d become one of the greatest players ever. The confidence was there on full display. Kobe knew in his heart of hearts he was the best player on the floor. He just had to convince the rest of the free world, even if it meant later alienating teammates (or publicly belittling them in the case of Smush Parker) and fans along the way. And also keep in mind this was a few weeks before he’d capture the 1997 Slam Dunk title in Cleveland.* Not a bad couple of a weeks for a guy still not even a year removed from senior prom.
On a day like today, maybe Kobe takes a brief rest from rehab and becomes like the rest of us and gets lost on YouTube for awhile. He’ll remember the times when athleticism was the name of his game. He’ll remember the times when his career seemed as if it’d last forever. He’ll remember the times when he still had everything to gain and even more to prove. He may even remember his brief, yet storied rap career. Or “the case” which nearly crippled him.
And then he’ll return to the present thinking how much of a toll this season will take on him, coming off a ruptured Achilles and ESPN saying not only will the Lakers miss the playoffs, they’ll be the 12th seed at that. Maybe he’ll ponder what his 2K14 rating will be. And how he’ll have to rely heavily on his PDA buddy Pau Gasol and a year-older Steve Nash and not much else after that.
But hey, in similar fashion to how his entire career’s been thus far, it’ll be controversial. It’ll be unpredictable. More than anything, it’ll be must-watch television whether Kobe proves every doubter wrong or the Lakers burst into flames (also because the Lakers have more nationally televised games than anyone this season). No one knows until it happens. There were times, however, when life and basketball really were all so simple.
Like January 28, 1997.
* – Kobe won fair and square, but good grief the field that year was as deep as a Twitter philosopher. The NBA didn’t bring back the dunk contest in 1998!