To Understand the End of Kobe Bryant, You Must Understand Where It Began

Kobe Bryant was 18 years old when he formally introduced himself as a budding star to a national audience. It was in Cleveland, Ohio, at the league's 47th All-Star Weekend; a celebrity-studded event to commemorate the NBA’s 50-year anniversary. 

Up until the midseason break, Bryant’s NBA career was but a blip—more spectacle than substance. In 39 games with the Los Angeles Lakers, he averaged 7.0 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.0 assist per game, with a field-goal percentage that barely cracked 40 percent. He came off the bench in all but two games and was hardly a dependable figure in head coach Del Harris’ rotation, stuck behind Eddie Jones and a 35-year-old Byron Scott.

But at 1997's All-Star Weekend, Bryant was everything.

The Saturday night Rookie Challenge featured unforgettable names like Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Antoine Walker and Marcus Camby. 

The legendary Red Auerbach led the Eastern Conference rookies, while New York Knicks icon Red Holzman coached Bryant’s Western Conference squad. Holzman first mentored Phil Jackson nearly 30 years before the Zen Master coached Bryant to his first championship in 2000.

Iverson, the 1996 draft's first overall pick, scored 19 points, dished nine assists and was named the game’s MVP—in part because the East won by five. It’s a meaningless contest, though, so who cares who won MVP?

Well, Kobe cared. He scored a game-high 31 points (then a record in the Rookie Challenge) on a game-high 17 shots and went 13-of-16 from the free-throw line (in an exhibition!). Later on, Bryant was asked by TNT's Craig Sager if not getting the MVP award psyched him up even more for the dunk contest. Mamba's response was the same then as it would be now.

"Sure. You want to win as much as you can. Coming into the NBA Slam Dunk contest I was psyched up as it is, so, you know it jus...

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