By Mark Schremmer
A lifelong Boston Celtics fan, I begrudgingly stood outside Kansas City’s Kemper Arena with my older brother waiting for the Los Angeles Lakers’ team bus to arrive.
Little did I know that arriving hours before tipoff of a 1997 exhibition between the Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers would provide me one of my most vivid sports memories.
At first, the arrival was a bit of a letdown for my brother, who has rooted for the Lakers since the days of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. When the team bus emerged, only a few players were passengers. The stars of the time, such as Shaquille O’Neal, Robert Horry, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel, likely took a personal vehicle or entered through a private entrance.
However, the player who ultimately developed into the best player of his generation was on that bus.
A youthful and excited Kobe Bryant appeared as the bus door opened.
Bryant, a 19-year-old prospect at the time, wore a massive smile as he realized a slew of Lakers fans were there to greet him. The former high school star who was one of the first guards to make the leap directly into the NBA proceeded to distribute high fives to several of the fans lined up outside the area. My brother was one of the recipients.
You may wonder why such a presumably insignificant moment has stuck with me, but the scene contained a level of purity so rarely seen in professional sports. The fact that Bryant turned out to be one of the game’s all-time best only heightened the impact of the moment as the years passed.
The memory has played in my mind numerous times in the past week as Bryant recently announced this will be his final NBA season.
One of the best careers of all time is coming to a close. Bryant will finish his career with five championship rings, more than 11,000 field goals and more than 32,000 points.
It’s also been a career with its share of controversy. Allegations in Colorado in 2003 created a tarnish that could never completely disappear. Feuds with O’Neal and other teammates were made public. Bryant’s 30 field goal attempts per game didn’t always make him appear like a team player.
Regardless, Bryant will retire as an all-time great who deserves to be on the short list with such legends as Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as the best of my era.
And no matter how insignificant the moment may seem to others, I was able to witness a legendary career in its beginning stages.
Mark Schremmer has been a sports reporter since 2000 and has covered games at the professional, college and high school levels for the Topeka Capital-Journal and The Joplin Globe.
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