By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. December 21, 2015

However extraordinary his physical talents, ferocity, perseverance and force of will on the court, Kobe Bryant has always been about more than just basketball to Southern California.

No matter what else has been going on in our lives, for the last 20 seasons we could all tune into the Lakers with the expectation of, “What special thing is Kobe going to do tonight?” Not simply whether the Lakers were going to win — a given during most of the Kobe Era — but, “What seemingly impossible limits was Kobe going to surpass?”

The exhilaration of exceeding limits has long been a defining feature of Southern California life. Whether through the opportunity to create or recreate oneself without the burden of social expectations from “back East,” or the giddiness of 70 degrees at the beach in January — while much of the rest of the country is buried in snow — life in Southern California is often an exultation of the freedom to be anybody and anything you want.

Kobe Bryant’s transcendent ability to impose mind over matter, and to achieve the seemingly impossible on an ongoing basis, feeds directly into that. Because he has been on Our Team, his extraordinary achievements have also been a validation of our belief in our own endless possibilities.

Which is not to say that the Kobe Era has been without controversy.

Did Kobe shoot too much?

Kobe is an indisputable alpha-male, and these dominant personalities are among the most polarizing in society. For those that dislike them, all of the alpha’s accomplishments don’t seem to matter. In the vernacular of the NBA, these are the Kobe Haters.

Despite making it to seven NBA finals and winning five NBA championships, the Kobe Haters didn’t like the way Kobe did it. They complained about his shooting percentage, or that he didn’t pass enough. If only Kobe played the “right way,” they argued … somehow things would have been … better.

Kobe Haters

What the Kobe Haters didn’t understand (being sometimes confused by their arguably irrelevant analytics), or just didn’t want to accept, is that Kobe is like the kid when you were growing up, who was the best athlete in your neighborhood. When he or she was playing on your team, the whole game shifted around them, and everyone played off of that rhythm and energy. In the end, whatever sport it was, you loved it when your team won, and only the losers worried about statistics and style of play. And in the end, Kobe’s team has won as much as almost any in the history of all four major North American professional sports.

Part of the beauty of sports is the clash of styles, especially deep into the playoffs when the best of the best are paired against each other. Part of the thrill of watching Kobe has been that there would come a time in a game (or a series) when he would just take over. You could feel the moment coming — often Lakers announcers Chick Hearn and Stu Lantz would call it out in the same instance you were thinking it — and once it did, it was time to grab a seat and hold on for the ride.

For the Kobe Haters, they didn’t like that someone could seemingly turn it on and dominate a game by sheer force of will and individual talent. Sports, they argued, is supposed to be about teamwork, and the way Kobe was doing it was just wrong.

Yet as much as Kobe raged within (and sometimes outside of) the limits of the Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, he co-existed and thrived there with another über alpha-male, Shaquille O’Neal. For those who saw Kobe as selfish and undisciplined, he subjugated and blended his individual game enough to work with others to win multiple championships.

Cutting out the heart of the opponent

Ever since Kobe officially announced his retirement effective at the end of the season, the media has rebroadcast many of his amazing moments. The following against arch-rival San Antonio deserve mention as particularly Kobe-esque.

The Lakers won their first Kobe Era title in 2000, but didn’t face the previous year’s champion, the San Antonio Spurs — Spurs star player Tim Duncan was injured, and San Antonio was eliminated in the first round.

In 2001, however, the Spurs were back in force, and the Western Conference Finals opened in San Antonio. In Game 1, Kobe almost single-handedly destroyed the Spurs with a 45-point, 10-rebound game that he dominated from start to finish, playing 47 out of 48 minutes.

Game 2 was a different story, with the Lakers trailing most of the game in a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair. In the last minute, Kobe — again playing 47 of 48 minutes — hit a clutch dagger three from the top of the key to put a close game out of reach, cutting out San Antonio’s heart in the process. The demoralized Spurs were swept by the Lakers by 39 points in Game 3 and 29 points in Game 4 in Los Angeles, with Kobe averaging 33 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, two steals and one block a game in the series.

The next year the Lakers again met the Spurs in playoffs. Game 4 on the road in San Antonio was another grind-it-out affair. San Antonio led most of the game and was poised to tie the series 2-2. Down 84-74 with five minutes to go, the Lakers began an 11-1 run, with Kobe hitting two deep threes to tie the game. With five seconds left on the clock, Kobe came from beyond the top of the key to follow a missed jumper by Derek Fisher, skying above a sea of Spurs to grab the rebound with his left hand, and lay it back in with his right to win the game.

The poem

Kobe announced his retirement by posting a poem online, written not to any particular person or team, but to basketball itself. Near the end, he wrote: “I’m ready to let you go. I want you to know now. So we both can savor every moment we have left together. The good and the bad. We have given each other. All that we have.”

We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have Kobe Bryant as a defining part of our culture. He’s embraced both the joy and the agony, and used them both to fuel his insatiable desire to live to the fullest.

Thank you, Kobe Bryant. It’s been a great ride. Let’s all savor these last moments together.


Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004).  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.