Like him or not, Kobe Bryant has been the face of basketball for most of the past two decades. Sure, there have been other notable stars during that time like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and his longtime teammate Shaquille O'Neal, but no one else quite matches Bryant's sustained fame over such a long period of time. His 20-year career almost perfectly coincided with that of baseball's answer to Kobe, Derek Jeter.
Social media was flush with links between the two icons last night. There is admittedly a nice symmetry between them. Both were highly touted draft prospects out of high school, both lasted 20 years in their leagues with the same team, both won three championships in a row and five overall, and both transcended their sports (though Jeter thankfully did not have any assault allegations). They both rose to prominence in the same year, as Bryant made his NBA debut just over a week after Jeter's Yankees won the 1996 World Series. Both also unfortunately had severe season-curtailing injuries late in their career that sapped them of their abilities, taking their old perennial playoff teams out of the picture.
Nonetheless, both Bryant and Jeter shook off their age to make memories during the final games they would play in front of their home crowds:
As Yankees fans, we have very clear memories of Jeter's farewell to Yankee Stadium and the exultation of watching him win one more game in style. Watching the similarly celebrated Bryant throw down shot after shot last night brought back those feelings.
Since the game itself hardly mattered to the woeful Lakers, stumbling to their worst season in franchise history, it allowed Bryant to get the ball even more than normal. Bryant's accuracy has faded just as Jeter's hitting declined over his past few years, so he needed an unbelievable 50 field goal attempts to reach his final point total. That's not what most fans are going to remember though. Sure, it was a byproduct of who Kobe was by the year 2016, but since the game was otherwise meaningless, who cares? In the end, Kobe Bryant dropped 60 points, a mark he only reached six other times in his career.
As a bonus, Bryant also spurred the Lakers on to a comeback, and the three-pointer that moved his total to 58 was outstanding--a perfect shot that gave L.A. a 97-95 lead over the Utah Jazz. Kobe iced it with two free throws and, amusingly, an assist on a full-court pass to Jordan Clarkson.
Somewhat lost in Jeter's finale is that he would never have been in position to win it if he had a poor game. In the first inning with the cheers raining down at Yankee Stadium, he scorched a double to left-center field that scored Brett Gardner with the game's first run, and came around to score himself shortly thereafter. Those two runs made it possible for him to step up in the bottom of the ninth against Orioles reliever Evan Meek and line that classic Jeter opposite-field single to score Antoan Richardson with the winning run (also for a non-playoff team). Both of his finale's hits were crucial to the victory.
For 20 years, it's been baseball/Jeter and basketball/Kobe. Although Jeter has more of a bond with Michael Jordan, both Jeter and Kobe clearly still recognize each other's greatness. Jeter posted about Bryant's departure from the game, and Bryant was one of countless celebrities to appear on the video board in Jeter's finale to wish him well. Kobe even used Jeter's Player's Tribune platform to announce his upcoming retirement. They have both been inextricably linked to their sports through phenomenal performances, championships, video game covers, commercials, and just about everything else.
It's been cool to watch them for so long, but the show must go on. The Mike Trouts and Steph Currys of the world are fortunately there to grab the torch. So long, Kobe.