The greatest Carolina athlete that never was

Published 5:20 pm Friday, January 31, 2020

Truth-time, folks. I didn’t start out being a Kobe Bryant fan, he grew on me.

There were several reasons. Among them, I had watched Michael Jordan evolve from a wiry Wilmington, NC teenager on a trajectory that took him to the Basketball Hall of Fame. It was a journey with up-and-downs; tragedies, like the loss of his father, but way more triumphs – many of which continue today. Surely Kobe would never equal, or better, that.

But another reason, and a torch I carried for way too long, was because I didn’t want this ‘upstart kid’ from Philadelphia eclipsing Jordan as ‘the Greatest’.

And especially not a kid who turned down a chance to be the savior of the Charlotte Hornets pro basketball franchise; an immortal in the Queen City with accomplishments that would last beyond the test of time and the best of times.

You may not remember, but it was the Hornets, with the 13th pick overall in the 1996 NBA draft, that tabbed this high school player from Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. Charlotte passed on guys now in the Hall of Fame, or perhaps headed there one day, like Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen. Then they turned around and traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers less than two weeks later.

I screamed ‘foul’, ‘bloody murder’, ‘a fix’. For darned good reason, because as the cliché says, the rest is history.

When you think about it, much of Kobe’s history of basketball in North Carolina is filled with near-misses.

If he had decided to go to college, Kobe would have gone to Duke; actually, he was an early recruiting target of Coach Mike Krzyzewski. Then there are those 20 years he could have spent in Teal-and-Blue compared to just over one week. In fact, the guy they traded Kobe for, Vlade Divac, had threatened to retire rather than accept a trade to Charlotte.

The last time Kobe played in Charlotte was Dec. 28, 2015. He was 37, in the midst of his 20th and final NBA season, and every place he visited for the last time was a coronation.

That included the Queen City, where a tribute video from Hornets owner Michael Jordan was unveiled before the game. Jordan has often referred to Kobe as his “little brother,” and he did so that night, too.

“I’m pretty sure you’re just like me,” Jordan had also said during the video.

For MJ, there’s no higher praise than that.

Gates County’s Charles Revelle, whose sports photos you’ve seen grace these very pages, took in that game and some of his images from that night we ran in the News-Herald. A night Kobe was a shell of his old self. He had a terrible game: shooting 5-for-20, scoring 20 points and the Lakers lost.

But Kobe loved basketball, and he would go on to be one of his sport’s best ambassadors.

As a player Kobe had a trademark snarl. He played basketball like he was going to war.

“Kobe was a once-in-a-generation player who will forever be remembered for his competitive nature and his will to win,” current Hornets general manager and former UNC star Mitch Kupchak, who served in the Lakers’ front office for Kobe’s entire career, told the Charlotte Observer. “They threw away the mold when Kobe Bryant was born. There will never be another like him.”

No, there won’t be. Kobe was unique. He could do about anything: win NBA titles, then win an Oscar; start a basketball school, then inspire millions. He could have burned brightly in the sports universe for decades. Even in his passing Kobe’s star will always shine. He soared for decades, and it’s such a cruel twist of fate that he died falling from the sky.

But now the world is left wondering, because he came to such a bizarre ending, leaving us wanting answers about so many things that could – and should – have gone differently.

And the world is asking the same two-word question:

What if?

But you can never put a question mark where God has placed a period.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.