The man known by many as the “Black Mamba,” Kobe Bryant, is playing his last season in the NBA, ending a 20-year career played entirely in the Los Angeles Lakers’ purple and gold. Kobe’s legacy involves the third all-time record in career scoring and five NBA championships; he is a 17-time NBA All-Star (second most all-time), one time NBA MVP, and two-time Finals MVP — the list goes on and on.
The league won’t be the same without him, but seeing the Lakers in their current, horrendous state (16-64 on the year), it sort of feels OK that Bryant made the decision to step away from the game. In tribute to one of the best players to ever hold a basketball, here are five of the greatest moments in Bryant’s legendary career (ranked in no particular order).
5. The Achilles tendon free throws
This injury seemed to be the beginning of the end for Bryant. Once he tore his Achilles tendon about two-and-a-half years ago, many felt that his career was coming to an end. Still, on April 12, 2013 — before missing a majority of the next season — Bryant proved his greatness. After suffering the injury, the Black Mamba stayed in the game against Golden State to shoot his free throws after he was fouled. Not only did he shoot those two free throws, but he made them, helping the Lakers secure a 118-116 victory that was key in their pursuit of a playoff berth.
4. June 17, 2010: Game 7, NBA finals vs. Boston
On June 17, 2010, during the renewal of the greatest rivalry in the league’s history, the Lakers battle against the Boston Celtics was pushed to seven games as Bryant sought the fifth title of his career. It wasn’t his best night (only 6-of-24 from the floor), but Bryant managed 23 points and an impressive 15 rebounds (along with a critical assist late in the game) to lead Los Angeles to a tight, 83-79 victory to capture the championship.
3. First Olympic gold
Aside from being an ultra-decorated member of the NBA, Bryant also owns two Olympic gold medals, the first of which came back in 2008. In what was a tight final game against Spain, Bryant came up huge in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 of his 20 points to lead Team USA to a 118-107 victory and secure the gold. Some call it one of the most clutch performances of his entire basketball career.
2. Not one, not two, but four consecutive 50-point games
This was part of a several-season stretch of Bryant’s career where he was absolutely, bar none the most unstoppable scoring force the league has possibly ever seen. During the 2007 season, the Black Mamba managed 65 points against Portland, 50 against Minnesota, 60 against Memphis, and 50 against New Orleans — a four-game average of more than 56 points per game. His numbers fell short of Wilt Chamberlain’s streak of seven straight 50-point performances, but it was impressive nonetheless. Bryant’s streak ended in his next game when he was “held” to just 43 points.
1. The 81-point game
The Laker’s 2005-06 season involved one of those moments in sports that witnesses will never forget. Bryant’s 81 points against the Raptors (second only to Chamberlain) is something we may never see in the NBA again. While the stats seem absurd in some ways (28-46 from the floor, 7-13 from the three-point line, 18-20 from the free-throw line, and two assists), this game was the perfect portrayal of the type of player Bryant is; give him the ball and he will get you the game. (The Lakers won that night, 122-104.)
In his prime, the Black Mamba was the best scorer that the league has ever seen, and it’s likely that we won’t ever see another player quite like him. Simply put, there will only be one Kobe Bryant.