By Atty. Ricardo E. Escanlar III
It was Kobe Bryant’s birthday a few days ago, which brought back memories of when I first knew of the late legend.
It was 1996.
The Chicago Bulls had just finished what was arguably the most dominant season in basketball history, anchored by Michael Jordan’s first full season from his retirement.
And since the season ended, it was time for the NBA Draft, wherein the worst-performing teams of the previous season selected from a pool of rookies in the hopes of making their way into respectability and maybe challenge the Bulls in the future.
Back then, there was this thing among kids my age in which we “chose” a rookie to support. And since basketball cards were big back then, we bought and collected cards of our chosen rookie. It was some sort of juvenile approximation of market speculation where we made bets on which player was to became a superstar.
Obviously, many of my friends gravitated towards the first overall pick, Allen Iverson, who was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers. Since I was a Milwaukee Bucks fan, I chose Ray Allen, who was the fifth overall pick. There were the draft picks from the two new Canada-based teams, Marcus Camby of the Toronto Raptors, who was drafted second, and Shareef Abdur-Rahim of the Vancouver Grizzlies, drafted third. There was also the best player of the 1996 NCAA champions Kentucky Wildcats, Antoine Walker, who was chosen sixth. And then there was Kobe.
For someone who was drafted thirteenth overall, Kobe generated so much hype. Maybe because he was drafted out of high school. Maybe because he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, which was- and is- arguably the most popular NBA franchise. Maybe because he drew comparison to Michael Jordan because of his size, skill and athleticism.
I really don’t remember how we got the information that Kobe was the next big thing. The internet wasn’t really a thing back then. We only had to rely on newspapers, the occasional TV shows, and magazines like Sports Illustrated. But somehow, collectively, my circle of friends and I understood, at least as far as 8 year-olds can understand, that Kobe was special.
For the generation of NBA fans who were born in the late 80’s, Kobe was “our” star. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were already retired when we started to have an idea of what basketball was. Jordan was already in his prime; we knew he was good. Shaquille O’Neal was great; but we never really warmed up to big guys, especially us height-challenged Filipino fans. And we were already on our way to adulthood when LeBron James emerged.
Sure, there were other superstars in Kobe’s generation of NBA players; Iverson was the counterculture icon, but he was arguably too brash for the average fan. Tim Duncan was perhaps the better basketball player, but he was more about the fundamentals than flashiness. Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway were also among those anointed as the next face of the NBA, but injuries derailed their careers. And none of them played under the bright lights of Los Angeles, and for the Lakers, like the Black Mamba did. Thus, Kobe was the iconic superstar of this generation, my generation. And thus, even if we did not “choose” Kobe, we “grew up” with Kobe.
When Kobe was drafted in 1996 with all the expectations foisted upon him, I was in third grade, figuring out the pressures of being an Iskolar ng Bayan at a young age in UP Integrated School. In 2000, when he won his first championship together with O’Neal, I also managed to pass the entrance exam for Philippine Science High School. During the post-Shaq era in the mid-2000s when Kobe slogged through playing for mediocre teams, I also found myself in my own academic struggles. In 2009, when he won his first championship “on his own”, I also finished second in the Board Examinations. And in the 2010s when he eventually had to concede that his body no longer had what it took to be great and retire, I also left the physically demanding world of geology and entered law school.
Kobe was navigating his life after retirement while we were also starting to figure out own responsibilities as young adult. And he did it well; he won an Oscar. He was on his way to achieving his legacy outside of the court. And then tragedy struck.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Kobe was supposed to grow old along with us. But maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Nonetheless, to a generation who asked for his hustle, he gave us his heart. And for that, he will forever be in our hearts.