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For 20 years, when the Los Angeles Lakers have needed a shot in crunch time, they've looked so often in Kobe Bryant's direction. And it was no different on the night of May 12, 1997, with the game on the line and the Lakers needing a win to extend the Western Conference semifinals and take the series back to L.A.

But before the five championship rings, the MVP award and the 17 All-Star appearances, the four airballs that came off Bryant's 18-year-old fingertips that night in Salt Lake City helped shape his Hall of Fame career.

"I think it was an early turning point for me being able to deal with adversity, being able to deal with public scrutiny and self-doubt and things of that sort," Bryant told reporters this week in California ahead of Saturday's visit to Utah. "Eighteen years old, it was gut check time. I look back at it now with fond memories of it, but back then it was misery."

Bryant averaged 7.6 points in 15 minutes a game over the 1996-97 season, his rookie campaign. But just a year removed from high school, and playing alongside stars like Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant had already shown flashes of his brilliance. The shooting guard scored 19 points against the Jazz during Game 3 of the series to claim a win in L.A.

By the fifth game, however, the Lakers trailed Utah 3-1 in the series and needed a win to avoid elimination.

Lakers coach Del Harris turned to the 18-year-old Bryant for a game-winner. With the game tied at 89, Jazz veterans Bryon Russell and Jeff Hornacek guessed that Bryant would get the call.

"Me and Horny, we said they were going to go to Kobe Bryant," Russell explained to The Tribune after the game. "I said, 'Let's switch.' And we did."

Bryant dribbled the ball up the court, drove right and took a fadeaway from the elbow of the key. He missed everything.

Overtime wasn't any kinder, with Bryant shooting 1-of-5 in L.A.'s extra-time loss.

He airballed a 3 from the left angle. He fired another 3-ball, this one from straightaway, and failed to even draw iron. Then with time winding down, Bryant heaved another 3 from the left side.

"Another airball!" Jazz broadcaster Rod Hundley shouted.

The Jazz clinched the series, but even then longtime assistant coach Phil Johnson came away impressed with Bryant's courage.

"You could tell then that he was very confident for a young player," Johnson recalled this week. "That's what I can remember, how confident he was as a kid that just came out of high school."

After the loss, "Bryant displayed a remarkable maturity, handling every question with the same ease that he normally displays on the court," one Tribune reporter wrote.

"I'll just work hard this summer and keep this game in mind," the teenage Bryant said. "Like my father always told me, to win some you've got to lose some."

Upon returning home, Bryant told reporters this week, he went straight to work on his game at a nearby high school.

"I didn't have an offseason," he recalled. "I went straight to Palisades High that night as soon as we landed. I went straight to the gym. Knew the janitor, he opened up the gym for me and I was there until the sun came up. I was back there again the next day, then the next day and the next day after that."

What came next for Bryant has made him a basketball legend. The shooting guard has claimed five NBA titles, MVP honors for the both the regular season and the Finals. He is now third all time in scoring, with more than 33,000 career points. A month from now, he'll make his 18th career All-Star appearance.

Bryant's 20th and final NBA season has turned into a farewell tour that on Saturday will make its first of two stops in Utah.

He has not suited up against them since January 2013 and Bryant, who made the trip to Salt Lake City, has been bothered of late by an Achilles strain that has made his status uncertain. Still, the legendary guard has said he believes he owes it to fans in every NBA city to play if he is able.

And his shared history with the Jazz is a rich one.

Bryant and the Lakers had fierce battles and terrific personal performances against Utah over the years. On 20 occasions, he scored at least 30 points against the Jazz.

But for all the success, he'll remember his failures-and those four airballs in Salt Lake as well.

"It helped shape me," he said. "A lot of times as a young player, you really don't see how something like that, a situation like that can payoff in the end. But if you use it to drive you, use it to motivate you, then you can kind of stand where I'm standing now and look back with a lot of fond memories."

Twitter: @tribjazz —

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