At 17, Kobe Bryant arrived for the first time at The Forum in Inglewood and looked up, up, up.
His eyes moved past the 10-foot rim he would assault night after night in his quest to become a star; past the orange and gold seats that would be occupied by people who would wear his jerseys and name pets and children after him.
His gaze settled on the row of retired numbers hanging from the ceiling, stars in the sky.
“I had seen it on video so many times because I was such a big Laker fan,” Bryant told the Southern California News Group last week, “but to actually step on the hardwood floor at The Forum and see them for the first time, it gave me goosebumps.”
His career was a celebration of excess. He scored 81 points in 2006 and attempted 50 shots in his final game little more than a year ago. So, of course, he won’t just become the 10th Laker to have his number retired, but the first to have two numbers retired. The festivities will include a street fair the Lakers are calling “Kobeland.”
“I’m glad he’s getting both jerseys retired,” Lakers star rookie Lonzo Ball said. “I think that’s fitting for him.”
A number is an identity. Bryant had two of each. As No. 8, he was the fun-loving sidekick to the greatest center of a generation.
Ten years into his career, Shaquille O’Neal had been shipped off to Miami and Bryant was rehabbing his image after charges were dropped in a headline-grabbing sexual assault case. That’s when he became No. 24.
He won three titles as No. 8, two as No. 24. As 8, he scored 16,866 points; 24 poured in 16,777 (in 145 fewer games).
Soon, both identities will hang alongside the legends he previously knew only through the grainy VHS tapes his grandparents sent when he was growing up in Italy. When he was traded to the Lakers on draft night in 1996, he knew there was a chance.
“OK,” the 17-year-old told himself, “if I do my job, if I work, then one day my name will be up there.”
Fast forward a generation or…