By Cameron Zeluck
Remember Brandon Roy? The guy who was supposed to start a dynasty with a young Portland Trail Blazers team; the guy who cried walking off the court after scoring 18 in the 4thagainst the soon-to-be-champion Mavericks in the 2011 Playoffs; the guy who could have become Kevin Durant’s biggest rival in the West?
What about Tracy McGrady? The guy who scored 13 points in the final 35 seconds for a win against the Spurs; the guy who Marv Albert said “sucked the gravity out of the building” with his vicious dunk over Shawn Bradley; the guy who in the early 2000s was supposed to be 1b to Kobe’s 1a dominance over the league?
And Gilbert Arenas? Remember him? Scored 60 against the Lakers (10 in the overtime period alone!); then shot a game winning three against Utah, famously turning around and raising his hands in triumph before the ball even went in; the athlete with the coolest nickname in sports: Agent Zero?
These were the stars of the 2000s, the ones who came and went, never reaching the potential expected of their careers. Stephon Marbury, Chris Webber, Steve Francis — the list goes on. Their careers defined great moments of the decade, but they themselves were never able to define the 2000s.
A high school friend once told me the NBA was like the WWE, a scripted story that was written by the bigwigs. He was obviously wrong, but one thing he said did resonate with me: the NBA indeed is a storytelling league. We’ll remember the Malice in the Palace, Yao Ming’s arrival in the United States, 2002’s Western Conference Finals, etc. These were the stories of a generation of basketball, a legacy that began and has continued on with Kobe, Timmy D, Iverson, KG, Dirk and many more.
This week, Kobe Bryant announced that he will retire at the end of the season, marking the end of a career and the end of an era. While certain members of the aforementioned list left the league years ago, none of their careers defined the decadence of the 2000s quite like Kobe’s did. Take a basketball force like Tim Duncan and add that to a social force like The Answer and you get Kobe Bryant.
He entered the league with a roar, winning the dunk contest as a 19-year-old rookie straight out of high school, won three championships with Shaq, scored 62 points in three quarters in 2005 and then achieved the second highest scoring output in NBA history with 81 points just a month later, won MVP in 2008, won 2 more championships without Shaq… His accolades seem endless but are not what define his public persona.
Kobe was the player everyone loved to hate: his attempts to be Jordan 2.0, his egotistical volume shooting isolation plays, his Colorado incident, his hatred of Shaq, the best-loved player in the league — everything seemed to suggest that what he did went against the grain, and yet we were all drawn to him. His work ethic and killer intensity were unmatched. Even as the league became a brotherhood, where players patted each other on the back after games and helped each other up, Kobe treated every opponent like an enemy whose throat he was ready to step on. As the NBA tried to recover from Jordan’s departure, Kobe was the guy who was on the front line, paving a new wave of basketball history.
The legends of the 2000s maintained the league’s image, kept the gears whirring when everyone thought it was breathing its last breath. They brought new life to basketball, stories where athleticism soared to new heights and the three-point shot became a real weapon. Vince Carter is the greatest dunk artist the NBA has ever seen, Iverson delivered his famous “We talkin’ ‘bout practice” speech, The Celtics Big 3 teamed up to revive the Lakers-Celtics rivalry and so on. So many stories arose from this decade and helped solidify the NBA as a global sport. Now? All the stories have been told.
We knew it was coming. Some of the guys already came and went. Some ended their illustrious careers recently, others long ago. The likes of Nash, Kidd, Allen simply fell victim to old age. Others like Roy, McGrady and Arenas were washed out by injuries. There are even those who are still around, albeit reaching the tail-end of their career: KG, Pierce, Carter and Duncan. But when the ringleader, the Black Mamba, says that father time has finally caught up to him, that’s when you know that it’s over. That’s when you know the generation we grew up with has ended.
In 2010, my dad took me to see the newly formed LeBron-led Heat play against the defending champion Lakers at Staples on Christmas Day. We sat behind the Heat bench. LeBron had a triple-double that game and blew out the Lakers, but what I remember most from that day wasn’t his play on the court — it was Kobe. Despite being way down early on, Bryant wouldn’t give up. He bantered and trash talked with James, calling out “I’m the real King” and drained a shot in LeBron’s face. He was relentless. After his loss he walked up to Bron, patted him on the back and said “Good game, bro.” It was the ultimate passing of the torch, from one legend to the next. That moment marked the end of the 2000s. From that day on, the Lakers began their downward spiral, highlighted by a first-round exit in the playoffs; James’ Heat went on to make history and win two championships of their own.
While Kobe and the 2000s legends’ legacies will forever live on in the basketball annals, their end still shakes me a little. This is the first era I’ve witnessed come to a stop. I never understood why my grandpa was so caught up with the Chamberlain-Russell rivalry, or why my dad always reminisced about the days of Jordan, Magic or Bird, people that they grew up watching. I think I get it now.
It dawned on me that I’ll never be able to see Kobe’s grimace and under-bite as he enters “Mamba Mode” again, watch him strive to be better than MJ or see him play just once more. It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally come to terms with his imminent departure. It’s now time to turn the page away from this chapter, say goodbye to the stories of my generation and look forward to the new ones to be told… Goodbye Mamba, TMac, BRoy, Agent Zero, you will be missed.