Back when the Cleveland Cavaliers hosted the All-Star Game, Kobe Bryant kicked the weekend off by sending his star into orbit in the Slam Dunk Contest.
After news spread of Kobe Bryant’s tragic death in a helicopter crash near Los Angles, I began thinking about Bryant’s early years playing in Cleveland, and one moment leaped to mind.
Kobe Bryant was a scrawny, 18-year-old rookie out of high school–still a rare thing back when the Cleveland Cavaliers hosted NBA All-Star weekend in February of 1997.
That ’97 All-Star Game was special, mostly because the NBA honored its 50 greatest players of all time. All but a couple of legends were on hand. It was a memorable moment you still see highlights of.
You’ve also got to think back to the Cavs of that era. Playing for Mike Fratello, it was a big deal when the Cavs eclipsed 90 points as a team. Fratello’s pace-of-play was so slow…the All-Star Game was welcomed alternative to what was usually on display at The Gund.
And then there was Bryant. Kevin Garnett had successfully jumped to the NBA in 1995, but Bryant was a different type of player. He was barely a lottery pick, traded from the Hornets to the Lakers for Vlade Divac.
There was hype surrounding Bryant. Less than a year earlier, he took Brandy to prom! On the court, you could assume he could play, or, why would he be drafted?
As a rookie, Bryant averaged 15.5 minutes and 7.6 points per game for the 56-win Lakers. While he wasn’t winning any MVPs that first season, the star potential was there and it finally exploded on a Saturday at Gund Arena when he won the Slam Dunk Contest.
In the final (you can watch here), Bryant went in-between his legs mid-air, slamming it home so effortlessly, he totaled a 49 out of 50 score from the judges. He missed his second attempt, another in-between the attempt from the baseline, but it didn’t matter.
Finley wasn’t able to match Bryant’s first dunk, and the product of Lower Marion High School was named the champ.
Bryant would go onto be a household name and Cleveland was just the start. Bryant went onto to play in 18 All-Star Games, while winning the 2008 MVP, five championships and two Finals’ MVPs.