Kobe Bryant’s 20 Career-Defining Moments

Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: Of all the things that I dislike in this world, hindsight bias might just be my single biggest pet peeve, especially in sports. I hate when fans use what they know now to ridicule decisions from the past, like when they criticize the Portland Trail Blazers for taking Greg Oden first overall in the 2007 NBA Draft, or when they laugh at the Washington Wizards because they took Kwame Brown first in the 2001 Draft.

Why does it bother me so much? Well, at the time, those were just the right picks to make. In 2007, for example, the Trail Blazers were in desperate need of a center and Oden was widely-believed to be the best all-around player in the draft, making him a no-brainer at No. 1 overall. Nobody could have possibly known that he would need approximately 827 knee operations while Kevin Durant would be busy winning three consecutive scoring titles, quickly becoming one of the game’s best young talents.

Similarly, when remembering the 1996 NBA Draft and realizing that 12 players were drafted before Kobe Bryant, it’s hard to really rip into the teams and general managers that passed on him. However, just for the heck of it, let’s take a look at the guys who made up those first 12 picks: Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, Antoine Walker, Lorenzen Wright, Kerry Kittles, Samaki Walker, Erick Dampier, Todd Fuller, and Vitaly Potapenko, in that order. Iverson and Ray Allen each had great careers for the most part, but it’s almost impossible to believe that Kobe Bean Bryant was overlooked for those 12 players.

But, really, could it have happened any other way? I, for one, think it was so fitting that he fell into the middle of the first round. Kobe has always been someone to use every doubter as extra motivation, and I guarantee that the 1996 NBA Draft has fueled him during his time in the league.

After those 12 picks, the Los Angeles Lakers traded Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the 13th pick, the one that was used to draft Bryant. Kobe Bryant for Vlade Divac? Forget calling that a steal, it was flat out highway robbery. As we all know, Kobe would go on to become one of the 10 best players in league history, stockpiling accolade after accolade and helping lead the Lakers to five NBA championships. Oh, and as he turns 35 years old today, he still isn’t done. During this past season—his 17th in the league—Kobe was nothing short of vintage Kobe, averaging 27 points and six assists per game throughout the year.

And, despite the fact that Bryant tore his Achilles against the Warriors in April, it probably wouldn’t be too smart to bet against him coming back as strong as ever in his 18th NBA season. It would just be one more accomplishment for him to add to his laundry list of moments that have defined him as a basketball player and as an athlete.

Speaking of that list, let’s dive right into it and take a look at the top 20 of his career-defining moments since he entered the league in 1996. Here we go:

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20. April 12, 2013: Bryant makes two free throws moments after tearing his Achilles
I watched the entirety of this Lakers-Warriors game live, and seeing Kobe fall down and subsequently tear his Achilles in the fourth quarter was one of the worst things I’ve ever witnessed since I began following sports. And, no, that is in no way an engagement in hyperbole.

Sure, there have been plenty of other injuries to superstars, many much worse than a torn Achilles, but this was Kobe Bryant. It wasn’t supposed to happen to him.

Worst of all was seeing the look on his face—a look that showed everyone just how bad his injury was. Even though he has always been one of the best at disregarding injuries, he knew he couldn’t play through this one. It was a look that said knew he was done, done for a long time.

He could barely walk, but somehow he managed to stay in the game and knock down each of his two free throws, tying the score at 109 before slowly limping off the court.

Seeing Kobe make those free throws left me speechless. Granted, I was watching the game alone, but you get the idea. This was the ultimate competitor, and even on one leg he was able to help his team win the game.
To say that the free throws were inspirational wouldn’t even come close to capturing the level of emotions that could be felt in that instant. Kobe Bryant was just a fighter.

19. 2004: Performances on same day as court appearances
While fighting a sexual assault case against him during the 2003-04 NBA season, Bryant faced the difficult task of having to juggle playing basketball with making appearances in court.

It’s fair to say that most players in the NBA, and most athletes for that matter, would have seen a vast decline in the quality of their performances, but not Kobe Bryant, one of the mentally-toughest players that the sport has ever seen.

Even when he had court appearances and games on the same day, Bryant found ways to stay energized and put forth some of the most memorable showings of his career.

On December 19, 2003, for instance, Bryant spent most of his day in a Colorado courtroom, only to return to Los Angeles that night for the Lakers game with the Denver Nuggets. He came off the bench in the second quarter and finished with subpar statistics of 13 points and five assists, but as fate would have it, the night saw the most fitting ending of all—a game-winner by Bryant himself.

With two seconds remaining, Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony hit two free throws to tie the game at 99, and on the ensuing Lakers’ possession, Kobe hit the fadeaway jumper at the buzzer to end it.

Over four months later, Bryant and the Lakers found themselves in the postseason as the second-seeded team in the Western Conference, but the embattled superstar was still attempting to balance basketball with his trial.

One court appearance even caused Kobe to arrive to Game 5 of the first round series between his Lakers and the Rockets just 30 minutes prior to the tipoff, but that didn’t stop him from being the typical Kobe Bryant; he scored 31 points and dished out 10 assists, helping Los Angeles win the game and clinch the series.

Before Game 4 of the following series with the defending-champion San Antonio Spurs, Bryant had yet another court appearance that resulted in him again showing up to Staples Center not long before the tip, but—like in Game 5 of the Houston series—he seemed unaffected by the brutal travel schedule and what most normal human beings would consider to be an immense distraction.

This time, Kobe had 42 points on 15-of-27 shooting, didn’t commit a single turnover, and led the Lakers to a decisive Game 4 win, evening the Western Conference Semifinals at 2-2.

To me, that 2003-04 campaign said as much about Kobe as any other season during his career. His ability to play through the distraction that was his sexual assault trial—and play at a high level, too—was just incredible. Say what you want about Kobe Bryant the man or Kobe Bryant the person, but it was impossible to not have respect for Kobe Bryant the professional during that season.

18. Entire month of February, 2003
It was over 10 years ago, but Kobe’s historic run that he embarked on in February of 2003 was so unforgettable that it almost feels like it was yesterday.

He averaged 40.6 points per game for the entire month and even had a streak spanning from February 9 through February 23 in which he scored at least 40 points in nine consecutive games.

During the streak, Bryant scored 46 points against the Knicks, 42 and 51 against the Nuggets on back-to-back nights, 46 against the Spurs, 40 against the Knicks the second time, 52 against the Rockets, 40 against the Jazz, 40 against the Trail Blazers, and 41 against the then Seattle Supersonics.

To realize how impressive he was during that streak, just think of it this way: Even on an average day, Kobe is a Hall of Famer, making a red-hot Kobe (which he was for that whole month) about as close to unstoppable as it gets.

17. Last game of the 2003-04 regular season:
Kobe has been many, many things during his career, and we’ve already covered some of them—from mentally-tough to the ultimate competitor to a prolific scorer—but something I have yet to touch on is that he’s also one of the best clutch players in NBA history.

Since he made his debut in the fall of 1996, Bryant has made big shot after big shot in late-game situations, and two of the most memorable of those shots came on April 14, 2004, the Lakers’ final game of the 2003-04 regular season.

And despite having already won 55 games prior to game number 82, Los Angeles still had everything to play for in that final game, as a win against the Trail Blazers meant the Pacific Division crown and the second seed in the Western Conference Playoffs.

Trailing 87-84 towards the end of regulation, the Lakers had their final possession, and Kobe used it to come through in the most crucial of ways, as he hit the tying three to send the game into overtime. The best part about that shot? Believe it or not, it was only Kobe’s second best and second most important of the night.

That’s because, with only a second left on the clock and the Lakers down 104-102, he hit another three-pointer, this one winning not only the game, but also the Pacific Division title.

16. 1998 All-Star Game: Kobe vs. MJ
At just 19 years old, Bryant became the youngest player to ever play in an All-Star Game when he made the Western Conference’s roster in 1998. Perhaps even more notably, it was also the one only All-Star Game that featured both Kobe and Michael Jordan while Jordan was still with the Chicago Bulls.

The Eastern Conference won the game and Jordan was named MVP after he scored a game-high 23 points, but Kobe made sure to leave his own mark on the game. He led the Western Conference in scoring with 18 points (second in the game only to Jordan) on 7-of-16 shooting and added six rebounds.

Much to the dismay of basically everyone, it was impossible to ever see an All-Star Game that pitted Michael Jordan in his prime against Kobe Bryant in his prime, but that ’98 contest was pretty darn close.

15. Game-tying three in Game 2 of the 2004 NBA Finals:
Remember that clutch thing that I mentioned earlier? Yeah, well, Kobe might never have had a more clutch shot than the one he hit at the end of regulation in Game 2 of the 2004 NBA Finals.

The Lakers were attempting to win their fourth championship in five seasons, and after dropping Game 1 of the series to the Pistons, they found themselves in another fourth quarter hole and looked on their way to falling into a 2-0 series hole. But, after a three-point play from Shaquille O’Neal and a missed jumper by Chauncey Billups, Los Angeles was left with 10 seconds on the clock to attempt to get the game into overtime.

On the play that proceeded, Kobe freed himself using a screen set by O’Neal, allowing Luke Walton to hand the ball off to the league’s best shooting guard. Bryant used the next few seconds to dribble around the perimeter before drilling the game-tying three that sent the Lakers and Pistons into an extra session.

The Lakers won the game, and for the time being, it seemed as if Bryant’s three-pointer to end regulation was going to be the turning point in the series. Instead of a 2-0 series lead held by Detroit, the two teams were deadlocked at one game apiece, with all of the momentum seemingly shifted to the side of Los Angeles. Unfortunately for the Lakers, that wasn’t the case at all, as the Pistons ended up winning the series by taking the next three games.

14. 2006 NBA Playoffs: Lakers vs. Suns, Game 4
Here’s everything you need to know about what transpired during this first-round matchup between Phoenix and Los Angeles: the Suns won the series in seven games, but the Lakers win in Game 4 is the moment that has been remembered and relived over and over since its conclusion, while the fact that they ended up losing the series just feels like a footnote.

With the Lakers holding a 2-1 series lead, the two teams went back and forth throughout an intense fourth game, and a Kobe Bryant layup in the final second of regulation tied the score, forcing what felt like a very appropriate overtime.

In that very overtime, it was once again Bryant making the final shot of the period, this one perhaps the most famous game-winner of his basketball career. The Suns had a 98-97 lead with six seconds left, and after the Lakers won a tip-ball at midcourt, Bryant dribbled from beyond half-court to the opposite elbow before pulling up and knocking in a jumper as the buzzer sounded, giving Los Angeles a 3-1 advantage in the series.

13. Game 3 of the 2002 NBA Finals:
He may have always been the Robin to Shaq’s Batman when the two were teammates in Los Angeles, but Kobe had more than his fair share of renowned moments even before he was the number one option on the Lakers.
One of his best games during the unforgettable run with Shaq that saw three consecutive championships came in Game 3 of the 2002 NBA Finals, when the duo won their final title together.

Kobe scored 36 points to go along with four rebounds, six assists and two blocks. His final two points came on a 10-foot jumper that put the Lakers ahead by four, 104-100, with under 20 seconds left, leaving the New Jersey Nets with no chance at making a comeback. Bryant’s efforts put the Nets in an insurmountable 3-0 series deficit, and the Lakers would go on to sweep the Finals by winning Game 4 just three days later.

12. 2008 and 2012 gold medals:
I know, I know. This is what you’re thinking: Those 2008 and 2012 USA Men’s Basketball teams were so loaded with talent that they could have surely won gold even without Kobe, so how can this even be considered career-defining?

It’s a good question. Kobe was one of a plethora of American superstars on each of those teams, and while he did play well in each Olympic tournament, the gold medals probably would have been won even if he weren’t on the team.

But, here’s my point: it was the freakin’ Olympics, and Kobe did play well, especially when it mattered most; against Spain in the two Gold Medal Games, Bryant compiled an average of 18.5 points per contest and shot 50 percent from the field.

And regardless of his individual performance, the Olympics were and still are the greatest that sports have to offer. Winning two Gold Medals or even one Gold Medal—no matter the competition and no matter the sport—is so special that it had to be on this list.

Kobe Bryant, five-time NBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist. Now that sounds legendary.

11. Feud leads to Shaq’s departure:
Being one of the few blemishes on Kobe’s track record, I hated putting this on the list and, quite frankly, really didn’t want to. But, as I thought about it, I realized there was no decision for me to make; this was a list composed of his most career-defining moments, and the feud between him and Shaq that lead to O’Neal being trade was undoubtedly one of Bryant’s most defining moments.

Shaq and Kobe were such an incredible duo, something that will be discussed more in-depth later, and if they had stayed together, I truly believe they could each be sitting on at least six or seven championships. They were just the perfect guard-center combo, and when the two of them were on the same page, they were nothing short of unstoppable—teams just didn’t have an answer.

It was Shaq, the most dominant force in the game, and Kobe, the best pure scorer in the league. As Shaq says time and time again, it will never be duplicated.

Unfortunately, I think Kobe deserves more blame than anyone for Shaq’s departure. Kobe always has been and still is a little selfish, and he wanted to be the man—he wanted to be the number one option and win championships as the number one option. He wanted to be the next Michael Jordan.

Of course, Kobe did go on to win two more championships while Shaq won only one more title, but it’s undeniable: if had they stayed together, those Lakers teams had the potential to become one of the greatest dynasties in the history of sports.

But, that’s all it will ever be, a sad tale of if this, if that, then this. If, if, if. We’ll never truly know just what else the two could have accomplished together.

10. 61 points at MSG:
If you’re unaware, and you probably are, I’m a lifelong Knicks fan. And, if you’re unaware, my birthday is February 2nd.

What do either of these things have to do with Kobe Bryant?

Well, on February 2nd, 2009—my 13th birthday—Kobe and the Lakers marched into Madison Square Garden to face my beloved Knicks.

The Lakers won the game, but it was almost an afterthought, because the real story of the night was Kobe. He scored 61 points on 19-of-31 shooting, setting the single-game scoring record for an individual at Madison Square Garden.

This would have hardly been noteworthy if Bryant scored 61 points at any other arena on that night, but this was Madison Square Garden. This was the world’s most famous arena, the Mecca of basketball, and Kobe was now in possession of the single greatest individual performance at the arena, at least from a scoring standpoint.

The funniest part of all? I actually found myself, on my birthday, rooting for Kobe to set the record. The 2008-09 Knicks were a disaster, so a loss to the best team in the league was expected, but such a historic performance by one of my favorite all-time athletes wasn’t even something I had dreamed of seeing on my birthday.

Call me a disloyal fan as much as you want, but with his individual performance, Kobe delivered a great birthday gift to me on that special night.

9. Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals:
In 2000, the Lakers won their first of three straight consecutive championships, but the road to the ring was far more difficult than it would prove to be in the following season.

They needed the maximum five games to disperse of the eighth-seeded Sacramento Kings in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs, and after needing only five games to rid themselves the Phoenix Suns in the best-of-seven Western Conference Semifinals, the Lakers were again pushed to the brink in the Conference Finals by the Trail Blazers.

After Los Angeles took a 3-1 series lead, Portland answered by winning Games 5 and 6 to force the deciding seventh game. And, in that seventh game, the Blazers were even able to pull ahead by as much as 15 points in the second half, as they appeared on their way to the NBA Finals.

It appeared that way, at least, until the Lakers answered—as they had all season long—with a 31-13 fourth quarter blowout to win the game, 89-84. Quietly, Kobe Bryant had his first great playoff performance and one of the most underrated games of his entire career, recording 25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, and even four blocks. Of his seven assists, the last came on an alley-oop to Shaq that clinched the game and earned the Lakers a berth in the NBA Finals.

Even at just 21 years old, Kobe proved to the basketball world on that night that not even the biggest of stages could strike fear into him. He was simply incapable of feeling pressure.

8. Games 4 and 6 of the 2000 NBA Finals:
As mentioned earlier, Shaq might have been the most dominant force of all time, but like most big men, he often had issues with foul trouble.

This was no different in Game 4 of the 2000 NBA Finals, as the 7-1 former LSU Tiger fouled out midway through the overtime period. With the Lakers hanging by a thread with a one-point lead, Bryant scored baskets on three straight possessions—three of the most important made baskets of his career—to keep his team ahead and ultimately clinch the Game 4 victory.

Two games later, in Game 6 of the Finals, Kobe was again turned to down the stretch to play the role of closer, and his five made free throws in the final minutes proved to be the difference in the score, as the Lakers took the game, 116-111. Bryant finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds, helping clinch the first of what would end up being three straight titles for Los Angeles.

7. Kobe-Shaq duo / three-peat:
I heavily criticized Kobe for his role in the feud that lead to the Lakers trading Shaq following the 2003-04 season, but I would be remiss to not remember just how good it was in Los Angeles for the limited time that the two did play together.

Like I said before, the duo was flat out unstoppable at their peak, with the perfect dominating center in Shaq to pair with the pure scorer in Kobe Bryant.

Under the guidance of the Shaq-Kobe partnership, the Lakers were able to take complete control of the NBA, three-peating as champions from 2000 through 2002. They literally could not be beaten.

And, even when the feud between the two reached its peak in 2004, the Lakers still won the Western Conference and came just three wins shy of another NBA Finals victory.

That’s how good they were; even with the feuding and with the distractions, the Kobe and Shaq partnership was enough to reach the NBA Finals. If that doesn’t tell you something about the compatibility that they had, at least just as basketball players, then nothing will.

6. All-time leading Lakers’ scorer and youngest to 30,000
Before anything else, Kobe Bryant has been and always will be a scorer. He is an underrated passer and a great defender, but Kobe has made his name in the NBA for his ability to score in ways that rival every great scorer to ever play.

He might not be the best Laker of all time, but he is certainly a better pure scorer than any other player in franchise history. He had been on pace to break Jerry West‘s record for most points in franchise history, so when he did it during the 2009-10 season, it wasn’t celebrated as much as it should have been.
But, let’s quickly recognize how impressive that accomplishment really is. The Lakers, who are second only to the Celtics in championships, have seen so many legends and Hall of Famers wear the purple and gold, but none scored more points than Kobe Bryant.

Three seasons later, in December of 2012, Bryant became the youngest player to reach 30,000 points for his career, joining the pristine club that has only four other members: Michael Jordan, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Karl Malone and Wilt Chamberlain.

5. Leading Lakers to 2013 postseason
How disappointing were the Lakers in 2012-13? So disappointing that, with all factors considered, I was incredibly impressed with Kobe’s ability to lead a team that had a core of him, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash to the seventh seed in the playoffs.

Why was I impressed? Well, to be straightforward, the team was just a mess. Dwight never really wanted to be there, Mike D’Antoni never seemed to know what he was doing, and Pau Gasol and Steve Nash fought injuries all season long.

Things got so ugly and so messy that, at the All-Star break, the team that most had predicted to win the West had a record of 25 wins and 29 losses, and the playoffs seemed to be a lost hope.

But post All-Star break, Kobe put together two of the most thrilling months of his career, willing the Lakers to victory after victory while playing close to 48 minutes each night, and suddenly Los Angeles was in position to actually make the playoffs.

They improved from 25-29 before the All-Star break to 43-37 after the game against Golden State in which Kobe tore his Achilles.

In his final six games, all of which were in April, Bryant averaged 30.5 points per game and the Lakers won five of six to get into playoff position.

It was so impressive that, other than LeBron James, I would have argued that Kobe was the league’s MVP during the second half of the season. He did that much for a Lakers team that was otherwise a disaster.

4. 81-point performance:
What is there to really say about this one? Not much, to be honest.

We all remember it. On January 22, 2006, against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto, Bryant made 28 of his 46 field goal attempts en route to scoring 81 points, the second best single-game total in the history of the league, second to only Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point effort in March of 1962.

But here’s my take on Kobe’s 81-point performance: It was even more impressive than Wilt’s 100-point game.
Why? Because, as a guard, Bryant scored most of his 81 points on jump shots in a game that took place in 2006, a year in an era with much better athletes than were ever around in the 1960s. Chamberlain, on the other hand, was a seven-foot tall center playing in 1962, scoring his points on high percentage shots against weaker competition.

Sure, I’m a huge Kobe supporter, but I’m not a prisoner of what is a much more recent moment than Chamberlain’s 100-point game. With all factors considered, Kobe’s 81-point game was just more impressive.

3. Fourth championship, first Finals MVP:
In June of 2009, Kobe finally did what he had been envisioning throughout his entire basketball career. Without the help of Shaq or any other superstar, Kobe led the Lakers to an NBA championship.

By winning that title against the Magic in ’09, Kobe took home his first Finals MVP award and completely erased away the “he can’t win a championship on his own” reputation that had followed him for so long
He put together one of the most complete series of his career, finishing with averages of 32.4 points, over seven assists, and nearly six rebounds per game.

In Game 1 of the series, Kobe scored 40 points to go along with eight rebound and eight assists in a Lakers win that set the tone for the whole series, as it never really felt like the Magic had a legitimate chance to win the championship.

And, to be fair, it probably felt that way because they didn’t have a real chance, even before Game 1. After the Lakers humiliating loss in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals that culminated in a Celtics championship, the Black Mamba was on a mission in 2009, and there wasn’t a player nor a team that was going to prevent him from winning that elusive fourth championship.

2. 2008 MVP:
Before the 2007-08 season, I might have told you that Kobe Bryant was the best player of all time.
Well, the best player of all time to not win the league MVP since the award was introduced in 1956, that is.

He had finished near the top of the voting on several occasions, but through his first 11 seasons in the NBA, he was still without an MVP award to call his own.

The way I see it, at that point, lacking an MVP was an even larger blemish than having not won a championship without Shaq.

Sure, players—and especially superstars—are judged foremostly upon their number of championships, but it wasn’t as if Kobe hadn’t won any. He might have been the second-best player on each of the Lakers’ title teams in the early 2000s, but his role in those three championships was enough to prove that he could win the big one.

Meanwhile, every great player in the history of the league won MVP awards. Jordan won five, Magic Johnson won three, Larry Bird won three, and even Allen Iverson won the award in 2001.

So, for Kobe to be considered in the same class as guys like Jordan and Magic and Bird, winning that MVP award was an absolute necessity.

He deserved it, too. Bryant scored over 28 points per game during the 2007-08 season and led the Lakers to a Western Conference best record of 57-25. Obviously, it took him another year to win his fourth championship, but winning that regular season MVP award was exactly what he and his legacy needed.

1. Fifth championship, second Finals MVP (2010)
For Kobe Bryant, this was it. In fact, the 2010 NBA Finals should just be referred to as the pinnacle of his Hall of Fame career.

Two years after his Lakers fell to the Celtics in the ’08 Finals, the two teams met once again on basketball’s biggest stage, giving Kobe the perfect chance to avenge what he surely considered the most painful loss in his career.

This time around, the series went the distance and ended with Los Angeles winning a thrilling Game 7, 83-79, at Staples Center.

Bryant was a mere 6-of-24 from the field in the final game, but did score 10 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter to catapult the comeback orchestrated by his Lakers, who trailed by four points after three quarters.

He averaged 28.6 points per game for the series to win Finals MVP, and scored 30 or more points in three separate games, but this wasn’t about the statistics.

Remember, this Celtics team had the heart of a champion and was much more formidable than the Orlando Magic one that the Lakers had beaten in 2009. The Celtics gave the Lakers and Kobe everything they could handle, and forced Bryant to beat them in a Game 7 of the NBA Finals, something he had never had to do while winning his first four championships.

To me, it was Kobe’s will to win that was the difference in the series. He just wasn’t going to let the Lakers lose this one, even against the likes of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, two other superstars who have always had that similar mentality of refusing defeat.

Most importantly, the championship pulled him within one of Michael Jordan’s six championships, a number that he has openly acknowledged he wants to both get to and surpass.

I’m not sure that Kobe will ever again see glory in the NBA Finals, but nothing will ever take away all of the great things that he has been able to accomplish, namely that 2010 championship.

Happy birthday, Kobe Bean Bryant.

What do you think?

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