January 26, 2020: it was one of the exceedingly rare moments in life where you’ll always remember where you were when you heard the news. News so shocking that at first, seemed like it had to be hoax.
No NBA figure was more larger-than-life than Kobe Bryant. Between his instant superstardom, 5 NBA titles, “Mamba Mentality,” and position as the greatest-ever player on the NBA’s most iconic franchise, Kobe was a god. He had an air about him not seen before or since.
Kobe’s historic career spanned from the classic NBA of the ‘90s to the Twitter/House of Highlights era we’re in today. The players in the league upon Kobe’s arrival? Many began their careers in the early 80’s. The players in the league during Kobe’s last season? Many are still considered young – even almost 6 years later. A young Kobe played in All-Star Games with the likes of Kemp, Payton, and Jordan and ended his career battling young stars like Jokic, Embiid, and Booker.
There’s simply no quantifying Kobe’s impact on basketball; he inspired two whole generations of NBA fans around the globe. The fact that Kobe won’t be in the building for the Sonics’ eventual return to LA is heartbreaking. From Gary Payton to Kevin Durant, #8 and #24 gave the Sonics so many incredible battles over the years.
The Sonics were among the first NBA teams to experience the playoff buzz saw that was the Kobe Bryant Lakers. The year was 1998, and, despite the departure of Shawn Kemp the offseason prior, the 97-98 Sonics racked up 61 regular-season wins, good for the 2nd seed in the West. After dispatching of Minnesota in the first round, the Sonics were pit against the Lakers in a series that quickly became one-sided. Although Kobe played sparingly in the series, the Lakers’ victory marked the first time in the Shaq/Kobe era that LA knocked off a formidable playoff opponent (first-round wins over Portland in ’97 and ’98 don’t make the cut). The stage was set Kobe’s meteoric rise and the Lakers’ ’00-‘02 three-peat.
Following their defeat by the Lakers, the Sonics dominant 1990’s run was officially over. Although Gary Payton still had several excellent seasons ahead of him, the Sonics never quite achieved the right mix to re-exert their hold over the Western Conference. For the next ~15 years, the Lakers and Spurs would vie for supremacy in the West (with an occasional appearance from Dallas).
The Sonics next great run? It remains to be seen. January 26th serves as a reminder that the NBA is a different league today than it was when the Sonics left in 2008. However, despite change, the Sonics will one day return. And we can’t wait for the ride.