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“That was a defining moment in his career” — Jerry West recalled the time he realized Kobe Bryant was destined for greatness

Jerry West knows how important Kobe Bryant's humiliating airball game in Utah was to his evolution as a player.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and NBA great Jerry West

Kobe Bryant and Jerry West

Even without his spectacular moments with the 2008 “Redeem Team,” Kobe Bryant’s all-time NBA highlights alone could already be a docuseries. And if someone decides to produce it, he should know that Bryant’s infamous airball party game in Utah must be in it too.

Kobe messed up

Taking a quick trip down memory lane, it happened on May 12, 1997, in Game 5 of the second-round playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz. LA was down in the series 1-3 and struggled the entire game. With the game on the line, the rookie Bryant stepped up. However, instead of helping his team win, Kobe airballed four times in the final five minutes.

As we all know, Bryant took off after his rookie season and became one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But for then-Lakers GM Jerry West, it is important not to forget that terrible game as no matter how ugly it was, it was “a defining moment” in Bryant’s Hall of Fame career.

That was a defining moment in his career,” West said in a press conference in 2016 via Highlights Gaming Hub. “If somebody would have shot an air ball on our team and they had shot a second one, they would only shoot a third one. He was fearless. I think that’s one of the things that spurred him to greatness. He wasn’t going to allow himself to fail.

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Taking the good with the bad

Though Bryant’s airballs resulted in the Lakers getting eliminated that season, Shaquille O’Neal said he never looked down on Kobe because of that. Instead, he even offered some words of encouragement for the then-teenager.

He was the only guy that wanted the shot,” Shaq said of the Utah game. “He wanted to be great; he wanted to be in that moment… When he missed, I was the one who grabbed him and said, ‘Hey, everybody’s laughing at you now, but one day people are gonna fear you when you get the ball in the last second.’

On the other hand, the man himself admitted that he used to look at it as a dark memory. But over time, Kobe learned to take the good with the bad.

It was an early turning point for me in being able to deal with adversity, deal with public scrutiny and self-doubt,” Bryant said in 2016 via Los Angeles Daily News. “At 18 years old, it was gut-check time. I look back at it now with fond memories of it. Back then, it was misery…It helped shape me.

As Kobe fans, that humiliating airball game in Utah has long been buried in the past. Because undeniably, the late Bryant had left us memories that are way greater than just a series of airballs. 

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