During the 1999-2000 season, Kobe Bryant was starting to establish himself as arguably the NBA’s best all-around player, but he hadn’t yet proven he was clutch.
As the Los Angeles Lakers were playing the Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals that June, he would get his biggest opportunity yet. But the story started with what seemed to be a disaster.
Bryant badly sprained his ankle early in Game 2 and was forced to exit the contest. The injury was so bad he was held out of Game 3 in Indiana, which the Pacers won.
The Lakers were holding a tenuous 2-1 series lead when the decision was made to allow him to play in Game 4.
Early on, he looked like he had significant trouble moving around the court. But as his ankle loosened up, he started to get into his normal rhythm.
With 2:33 left in overtime, Shaquille O’Neal fouled out, and with L.A. clinging to a three-point lead, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for Indiana to tie the series.
But Bryant decided to instead turn it into one of his first great performances.
He made consecutive long jumpers to keep the Lakers in front of their opponent, and with five seconds remaining, he rebounded a Brian Shaw miss and put it in the basket.
Reggie Miller’s game-winning 3-point attempt missed, and L.A. took a 3-1 series lead with a 120-118 victory.
With 28 points, five assists and two blocked shots, Bryant had announced that he was America’s newest sports hero. It would forever stand as his signature performance in the championship series.
Little did anyone know at the time that he would consistently turn in performances like this for more than the next decade.