When Kobe Bryant was asked last year which of his two jersey numbers—8 or 24—he would prefer to see retired, he summed up the dilemma perfectly: “It'll be pretty hard for someone else to wear the other,” he said, referring to the one that didn’t get retired.
Well, it looks like future Lakers won’t have to worry about it. The Lakers are reportedly retiring both this upcoming season.
Which is a perfect fit considering the legacy left behind. Sure, a Hall of Fame case could be made for Bryant in either jersey. But for a career that will likely be remembered most for a unique ability to power past limitations, even when it might not have been such a good idea, why choose the prudent approach now?
My first memory of Kobe was, perhaps, the perfect introduction to who we now think he was as a player. On Sunday, April 30, 2006, I remember a friend turning on Game 4 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, with the Lakers and Suns headed into overtime.
I remember the Lakers, in their Sunday whites, being down three points with fewer than 16 seconds left and Kobe driving to the hoop to cut the lead to one instead of pulling up to shoot a 3. I remember the jump ball Luke Walton won on the next possession over Steve Nash and how Kobe nodded right before it, almost as a precursor to what he was about to do. And then I remember Kobe harnessing the rebound that, of course, went his direction, dribbling with not even a glance at any other teammate, and pulling up from the elbow, double-covered by Boris Diaw and Raja Bell, and draining the game winner.
That’s the Kobe I’ll always remember. He was wearing no. 8 back then, but that free-wheeling, questionable-shot-selection, clutch version of Kobe came to form after he changed to no. 24 the following season.
That 2005-06 season was marked by not just the game-winner against the Suns; it was also the season when Kobe really became Kobe. In his second season without Shaq, Bryant took a career-high 27.2 shots per game and averaged a career-high 35.4 points per game. That’s peak Kobe.
And he kept going. After changing his jersey number, Bryant strung together seven straight seasons in which he attempted 20 shots or more per game. That Suns series began a run of 82 playoff games over the next five seasons, during which Kobe averaged 22.2 shots and nearly 30 points per game. Kobe’s transition into full Kobe mode, the one we’re most familiar with now, came at the intersection of no. 8 and no. 24.
Picking one number would have been subjective to your own Kobe experience anyway.
If you’re someone who grew up with the dominant Lakers of the early 2000s or you subscribe to the #RINGZ way of living, then no. 8 may take the slight edge. If you believe Shaq’s talents and personality overshadowed Kobe and clouded his accomplishments in those early years, or if you simply fell in love with the gunning version of Kobe that developed over the second half of his career, then no. 24 is for you.
When it comes down to it, we all remember our own versions of Kobe, just like we do any other player. Mine is 24, with a dash of 8 that shed light on just how good he was—an experience that undoubtedly became one of the roots of my basketball fandom. But just like there are young people who know Michael Jordan only for being on awkward Hanes T-shirt commercials, there are kids now who will remember Kobe only for his Musecage. And now, they’ll remember him for being the only NBA player to have both of his numbers retired.
Kobe being Kobe till the end.