Kobe Bryant is the Los Angeles Lakers. He's been the face of the franchise pretty much since he joined the team as an 18-year-old straight out of Lower Merion High in suburban Philadelphia back in 1996.
His flashy play, good looks, arrogance and undeniable talent have made him one of the most loved and hated NBA players of all time. He, along with Shaquille O'Neal, led the Lakers to three straight NBA titles from 2000-02. When O'Neal and Bryant could no longer stand to play together, Lakers owner Jerry Buss sent Shaq packing to Miami, showing once and for all that Kobe was the biggest basketball star in Hollywood.
But then during the Jazz's Western Conference Finals series against the Spurs last spring, Bryant said he wanted out of L.A. Trade rumors involving the Lakers star have been the talk of the NBA ever since.
While it seems hard to imagine, Bryant could be making his final Salt Lake City appearance in a Lakers uniform tonight when Utah hosts L.A. in an 8:30, ESPN-televised game at EnergySolutions Arena. The Jazz won't host the Lakers again until March 20 by which time Bryant could be playing for the Bulls or some other NBA franchise.
With that in mind, here's a look back at some of the most memorable Jazz vs. Lakers games during Bryant's career:
JAZZ 98, LAKERS 93 (OT) (May 12, 1997) This was the fifth and deciding game in the conference semifinals in the Delta Center. Bryant was just a non-starting rookie at the time, but he showed that, for good or bad, he wasn't afraid to take the big shot at crunch time.
While veterans such as Byron Scott, Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones watched, Bryant tried to will the Lakers to the victory. The rookie took the potential game-winning 3-pointer at the end of regulation, but it was an airball. He then shot three more treys in overtime all of them airballs. In all, Bryant, then 18, took six shots in the final moments of regulation and overtime and missed five of them as his first playoff experience ended on a sour note.
"I had some good looks," Bryant explained afterward. "I just didn't hit the shots."
Added Shaquille O'Neal, "I've seen a lot of all-stars shoot airballs like that."
Perhaps Shaq was talking about himself shooting free throws.
JAZZ 112, LAKERS 77 (May 16, 1998) For the second straight year the Jazz beat L.A. on their way to the NBA Finals, this time in a four-game sweep. Bryant was still coming off the bench, but his ability to get to the foul line was one of the only positives for the Lakers in the Game 1 blowout at the Delta Center. Bryant scored 16 points in 31 minutes, making 8 of his 12 free-throw attempts.
During this series Bryant showed his dedication to basketball. Still just 19, he passed up the chance to go to a high school prom.
"I had to turn it down," Bryant said of his prom invitation at the time. "I'm in the playoffs."
LAKERS 105, JAZZ 101 (Nov. 1, 2001) and LAKERS 100, JAZZ 96 (Nov. 4, 2001) By this time Bryant was a star, having already led the Lakers to two NBA titles. The NBA schedule maker played a late Halloween trick on the Jazz, making them play the two-time defending champs twice in three nights early in the 2001-02 season.
Both times Bryant led the Lakers to four-point wins.
First, Bryant scored 39 points in a 105-101 victory in the Delta Center. Three nights later Bryant was "held" to just 38 in a 100-94 Lakers win.
For those mathematically challenged out there, that's 77 points against the Jazz in two games in one weekend.
"We're pretty good," said Bryant after the Delta Center win. "And we'll be getting much, much better."
LAKERS 99, JAZZ 87 (Feb. 1, 2003) and LAKERS 93, JAZZ 87 (Feb. 19, 2003) The games weren't quite so close together this time, but Bryant showed the Jazz they couldn't guard him twice in one month during the final season of the John Stockton/Karl Malone era.
Kobe scored 42 in the Staples Center in an eight-point Lakers win on Feb. 1 and followed it up with 40 in a six-point L.A. win 18 days later in Salt Lake City.
Late in the second game, chants of "Ko-be, Ko-be, Ko-be" could be heard in the Delta Center, of all places.
"I never thought I'd see the day after shooting those airballs (during the 1997 playoffs) that they'd be chanting my name in this building," Bryant said.
Actually, it shouldn't be that surprising. While most Jazz fans don't like Bryant or anything Lakers related, for that matter there are plenty of Lakers fans in Utah, Southern California transplants and others, who come out of the woodwork each year and get tickets to the games against L.A.
JAZZ 104, LAKERS 78 (Nov. 3, 2004) The 2004-05 season was Utah's worst in 23 years. The Jazz would only win 26 games that season.
But it didn't get off to a bad start. Utah blasted the Lakers by 26 points in the season opener in the Delta Center despite Bryant's 38 points, just two points fewer than the rest of his teammates combined.
LAKERS 103, JAZZ 101 (OT) (Dec. 1, 2005) This is the game that really ticks off many Jazz fans and cemented in their minds that Bryant gets all the calls. In a game scheduled for 8:30 due to TNT coverage that actually started at 8:51, the Jazz rallied from 14 points down and led by a bucket in the finals seconds in the Delta Center.
That's when the Lakers got the ball side-court with 4.3 seconds left. Bryant, of course, was going to be the hero or goat. He shot a long, 2-point jumper and missed, but he extended his shooting arm and hit Jazz defender Devin Brown with it. Brown, with 0.4 on the clock, was called for the questionable foul. Bryant made both free throws to send the game into overtime. From there, the Lakers went on to win.
"I didn't see the foul," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who started to head to the locker room with what he thought was a win.
JAZZ 98, LAKERS 94 (Jan. 1, 2006) and JAZZ 90, LAKERS 80 (Jan. 3, 2006) Utah beat the Lakers twice in three days first in L.A. and then in Salt Lake in games most notable for Bryant scoring a combined zero points.
There is an explanation and it doesn't involve strong defense on Utah's part.
David Stern and the NBA gave the Jazz a huge after-Christmas gift when it suspended Kobe two games for elbowing Memphis' Mike Miller in the throat. It was just a lucky break for the Jazz that both games of Bryant's suspension were against them. Utah took advantage of the situation, too, with a pair of victories.
LAKERS 132, JAZZ 102 (Nov. 30, 2006) This game one year ago to the day was so lopsided Bryant didn't need to play in the fourth quarter.
And he still scored 52 points.
Bryant had a big first half, netting 22 points, but his third quarter was awe-inspiring. He scored 30 points in the third on 9-for-9 shooting from the field. Bryant's 30-point quarter tied his own franchise record and is tied for fourth-highest in NBA history. He finished 19-of-26 from the field for the game.
Tonight may, indeed, be Bryant's last game in a Lakers uniform in Salt Lake City.But even if it's not, history shows it is still likely to be memorable.
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