When news of Kobe Bryant’s upcoming jersey retirement first hit hoops circles yesterday, not a few quarters wondered what number the Lakers would opt to hang in the rafters. Will it be “8,” which he wore en route to claiming three championships and eight All-Star, four All-NBA First Team, and four All-NBA Defensive First Team selections? Or will it be “24,” which he headlined in taking two championships, two Finals Most Valuable Player awards, and 10 All-Star, seven All-NBA First Team, and five All-NBA Defensive First Team spots? Based on stats and accolades, not to mention the transformation of his career narrative from selfish baller to ruthless competitor, the latter would seem to be a better choice.
Not that Bryant didn’t have bad days wearing either number. Number 8 was a cocky a — hole who placed self above team, as evidenced by the tug-of-war with acknowledged top dog Shaquille O’Neal that submarined a dynastic run, by the recalcitrant tanking in the rubber match of the first-round series against the Suns in 2006 (not coincidentally his last game in “8”), and, off the court, by criminal and civil cases of sexual assault. Number 24 fared better as a veteran mentor, but a stubborn refusal to command anything less than max salary and starters’ minutes even in the waning years ultimately dealt blows from which the Lakers have yet to fully recover.
In any case, the answer became clear some three hours after the story broke: Both numbers are slated to be honored, which effectively means that Bryant will be the first player in the National Basketball Association to have two jerseys retired for the same franchise, and on the same day. And, to be sure, the Lakers have cause to do so; as he himself noted last year when ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne queried him on the matter, “it’ll be pretty hard for someone else to wear” the number that won’t be joining those of Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, James Worthy, Jerry West, and Jamaal Wilkes.
In the final analysis, Bryant deserves to be feted for his accomplishments. He will find his uniforms raised on Dec. 18, and it’s not wrong to surmise that, sometime after, he will then see the unveiling of his statue outside Staples Center. These days, hardly anybody remembers that he once demanded to be traded, and that he once cut the figure of a petulant showboat who produced more style than substance. These days, he’s a certified winner, destined to be in the Hall of Fame.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is the Senior Vice-President and General Manager of Basic Energy Corp.