Kobe the reason my generation fell in love with basketball
The recently departed basketball superstar Kobe Bryant made a big entrance into the NBA when he won the 1997 Slam Dunk competition at the All Star games.
This was at the time when basketball was growing in leaps and bounds in SA. We had a popular professional league, the Professional Basketball League, (PBL) running and there was also regular access to NBA games on national television in the late hours of Sunday or the early hours of Monday. Basketball was SA's fastest growing sport at the time.
Many basketball fans had felt that during that same 1997 NBA All Star weekend, young Kobe should have been crowned the most valuable player in the rookie all-star match.
He lost out to talented point guard Allen Iverson from the Philadelphia 76ers who would go on to win the 1997 Rookie of the Year title at the end of the season.
However, aged just 18, Kobe had already made history as he became the youngest slam dunk champion ever. Not only did Kobe make a big entry onto the NBA, he also made a big entry into our hearts, as we were young basketball players from Siyabuswa in Mpumalanga who had just fallen madly in love with the sport.
As we were teenagers, many may argue that we fell in love with Kobe because he was also a teen himself, but that wasn't the case. There was just something very special about him, even from an early age.
Kobe came onto the scene at the same time as Iverson, and found himself overshadowed by The Answer, as Iverson was affectionately called.
Although they were different, Iverson was all about the swag, flair, showtime and a bit of arrogance while Kobe was more about discipline, work ethic and drive. The two became fierce competitors on court but off court they were good friends.
When Iverson paid tribute to Kobe following his death from a helicopter crash, he referred to an incident that took place during their rookie season, which sums up what the Los Angeles Lakers' legend was all about and more.
Iverson said upon his first visit to Los Angeles to face the Lakers, Kobe visited him at his hotel.
"He [Kobe] came to my hotel, picked me up and took me to a restaurant. When we returned before he left, he asked me, 'what are you going to do tonight?' My reply was, 'I'm going to the club, what are you going to do?' He said, 'I'm going to the gym'.
"That is who he always was, a true student of the game of basketball and also the game of life. He prepared relentlessly."
Kobe worked very hard to be the superstar that he became. Stories of him spending more time at the gym than any of his teammates inspired us although we were thousands of kilometres away and on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
As youngsters trying to come to grips with this new sport we loved dearly, we drew inspiration from the Black Mamba, as Kobe nicknamed himself.
Kobe grew in front of us, from a young dunking sensation to a superstar who won championships, the last two almost single-handedly.
Kobe had throughout his 20-year career, season after season, forever getting better.
He was just one championship short of Michael Jordan's record, who he often gets compared with. He has, however, scored more points than Jordan, who's considered by many as the best player the game has ever seen.
Although he's gone, Kobe remains one the main reasons I fell in love with the sport of basketball.
A sport that truly rewards hard work like it was the case with Kobe, who will go down as one of the best basketball players in history.
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