John Riordan: An impressionable generation developed their games while adoring Kobe Bryant

The La Lakers star passed away three years ago in a helicopter accident. 
John Riordan: An impressionable generation developed their games while adoring Kobe Bryant

DREAM TEAMS: Steph Curry, LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo facing formidable opponents, Magic Johnson, Kobe, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Shaq, who shared the image online. Picture: @SHAQ

It's already been three years since the death of Kobe Bryant. Three of the longest years, admittedly.

The LA Lakers all-time great's brutally tragic passing - a Sunday morning helicopter crash that cut short a 40-minute commute to his daughter's basketball game - was the sort of stop-what-you're-doing newsflash that seems in hindsight to have prepared us for what was coming down the track six weeks later.

Thursday was his anniversary and the NBA still pines for his absence, still mourns for the family and inner circle which lost him, 13-year-old Gianna, and the eight others killed that fateful day.

One of the best sports documentaries of last year featured Kobe heavily. The Redeem Team is a little bit of glossy propaganda but nonetheless an interesting and entertaining inside story of how the battered and bruised ego of the US national team was rebuilt just in time to win gold at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

At a time when the NBA was being dragged towards a cliff edge by overpaid mediocrity, the mid-2000s delivered two limp outcomes on the international stage, a pair of bronze medals at the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 FIBA World Championship.

This was embarrassing and something had to give. Naturally, the country where James Naismith invented basketball needed to find a way of restoring order. The country that had given the world the Dream Team in 1992, the first ever set of professional players to be permitted to take part at the Olympics, needed to sit the European and South American underdogs back down.

Former Phoenix Suns chairman and CEO Jerry Colangelo was handed the weighty task of pressing the reset button. By this time, Mike Krzyzewski had already coached Duke University to three national collegiate titles so he was clearly as ideal a choice as possible to wrangle the egos of the young millionaires being assembled.

That they were able to convince Bryant to join the setup as captain sent a true signal of intent.

If you can stomach the American exceptionalism of it all, it's a good way to spend a couple of hours. Kobe Bryant is the most magnetic element of the entire production and his allure here is a necessary reminder of what was lost three years ago.

Flawed and problematic, it would be remiss to skip over the 2003 sexual assault of which he was accused. The victim ultimately changed her mind about testifying against him and he subsequently publicly acknowledged that the 19-year-old did not view their encounter as consensual. The 2008 redemption mission wasn't just about the on-court fortunes of his teammates but also about his own personal quest to claw back his reputation.

By the time he died, he was fully back in America's favour.

A couple of weeks ago, his former friend and foe at the Lakers, Shaquille O'Neal, posted an image on Twitter which was a mock-up face-off between five current superstars and five greats who shone during his own era and the one slightly preceding him.

It was a bit of sporting magic realism, an overwrought animated still with Steph Curry, LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo a little sheepishly, a little uncertainly, facing their imaginary opponents, Magic Johnson, Kobe, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and of course Shaq himself.

The older era team members have their backs to us, unconcerned about our gaze and ready to feast on the young pretenders across the way. "Four games to two," is how he claimed the virtual seven-game series would end. "You already know who I’m with. Don’t ask me. Also who’s guarding me?!"

It was a playful prod at the constant battle to compare and contrast NBA generations. Impossible to answer and enjoyable to argue about. Impossible because, for one, the game has so dramatically changed in the 20 years since Jordan and Shaq retired, a time when Kobe was hitting his peak and long after the halcyon days of the Bird Magic rivalry.

The game has changed mostly because of the current crop assembled in that image which Shaq lobbed into the angry Twitter debate mob.

Going from left to right, you have Curry whose three-point expertise has spread the game out unrecognisably and has moved the sport towards a situation where the traditional positions have been rendered meaningless. James, meanwhile, found a way of morphing between each of those positions, at his peak excelling or leading the way in every aspect of the game, the total basketballer.

The other three have achieved feats with their outsized bodies which are almost unprecedented. The gangly 6’ 10” Durant is as pure a shooting force as has ever been witnessed in the NBA. Meanwhile, the even taller and more physical Embiid and Antetokounmpo can each offer much more than just the old school centre their bodies projected them to be.

The NBA has a similar issue to the GAA when it comes to trying to select their All-Star teams. There are positions to consider and if you want to try and get Embiid and two-time reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokić into the same first five, something somewhere else will have to give.

Barring injury, Jokić is widely expected to win his third MVP in a row in the Spring and he is also currently projected to take the Denver Nuggets all the way to the Eastern Conference finals.

But he doesn’t appear in Shaq’s imaginary rendering.

Nor does Luka Dončić who is shattering scoring records at the Dallas Mavericks and is on pace, fitness notwithstanding, to surpass all the milestones set by LeBron James since he landed like a spaceship straight out of highschool.

But that’s projection for a 23-year-old who has a lot of road and a lot of uncertainty to navigate. King James has been there and is still doing it, set to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer over the next two weeks, maybe even the weekend of the Super Bowl, maybe even at the home of the current champions, the Golden State Warriors, and quite possibly with one of his successors, Curry, on the other side of the court.

When James is selected among his fellow All-Stars in the next few weeks, he will overtake Kobe and join another Laker, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, at the top of the rankings with an astonishing 19 nominations.

Suffice to say that even though he has lost an edge, as one should at 38, he belongs on that Shaq photo.

But were someone to draw up a scenario where the best of the US-born batch were asked to take on a five drafted from the NBA’s overseas talent, the series outcome is not such a foregone conclusion.

If you can find a way of allowing Cameroonian Joel Embiid and Serbian Nikola Jokić exist together on the same court in their uniquely malleable big man roles, Greek Power Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and Slovakian Point Guard Luka Dončić would give the Americans all sorts of headaches and you could make up the numbers with another Serb, Bogdan Bogdanović.

And we haven’t even arrived at the fact that the most coveted young recruit to enter the NBA draft in recent memory is another once-in-a-generation talent also born overseas.

Victor Wembanyama, 19, is currently lighting up the French league, unencumbered in his shooting prowess by his 7’ 2” frame. Whichever of the NBA’s worst earns the right to secure his services for next season and beyond will be the envy of everyone else.

He will add himself to an unheard of list of skilful centres, none of whom grew up in the States.

The NBA’s profile worldwide has been huge for quite a while now and maybe it’s no surprise that this has translated into overseas talent truly excelling.

But it’s entertaining to watch the homegrown players try to figure out these accented opponents, battling against them with a competitive combination of fear and awe. Most of them are the young and impressionable generation which developed their game while adoring Kobe Bryant.

Bryant’s most vital Lakers team mate, Pau Gasol, was his Spanish opponent in 2008 and the highlight of the Redeem Team’s campaign was his aggressive opening play foul on the Spaniard. It set the stall out for a ruthless romp towards the gold medal.

The current young stars who have helped rebuild the NBA’s reputation, grew up watching Kobe take on the world and win but now the rest of the world is fighting back.


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