Our man Jason Rowley, a youth basketball coach who has done some behind-the-scenes work for this site over the years and even wrote a classic Kobe Top 50 piece for us back in 2010, has started an online store called Farewell Kobe to raise money to start a new program. He wrote the following essay as a way of explaining his motivation for the site.—Ed.

With all due respect to Lance Stephenson, Kobe Bryant is the one that should be nicknamed Born Ready.

Kobe grew up in a basketball family, with a 6-9 father who was an NBA first-round pick and long-time pro player. His mom’s brother (“Chubby” Cox) also played in the League. And he got exposed to global opportunities living in Italy as a kid. Kobe moved back to America and became the best high school basketball player in the country. He took Brandy to the Prom. And then he got drafted. That sounds born ready to me.

Who else has a similar background? All-Star Klay Thompson comes close. But one ring, a couple All-Star appearances, a winning streak and some hubbub about scoring 43 points in three quarters really does not compare to five rings, 18 All-Star games or 55 points in a half.

I remember where I, a SoCal native, was when I heard the news that Magic Johnson was going to retire. That he had HIV, which, at the time in 1991, was a death sentence. My favorite basketball player and role model on my favorite team was not only retiring, he was going to die. I was a senior basketball recruit at Ribet Academy in Los Angeles, sitting in my living room, crying.

Five years later, when I was the starting point guard at Brown University, the Lakers drafted a guard a few years younger than me named Kobe Bryant straight out of high school. No guard had ever been drafted straight from high school. This was before you could see videos of top high school players online, and the video I saw on TV was the McDonald’s All American game, where another younger guard I had busted up in an AAU game (Shaheen Holloway, now Associate Head Coach at Seton Hall University) got MVP over Kobe, and my high school AAU teammate’s little brother Cory Benjamin also outplayed Kobe. Needless to say, my personal opinion at the time was that he wasn’t going to be that good.

And now, twenty years later, I think Kobe is the best non-center ever. Better than Magic (still my favorite player.) MJ. LeBron. Kobe’s nickname shouldn’t be Black Mamba—it should be The GOAT.

Before you stop reading…just think about, or ask yourself or anyone that has played a team sport: How much does who you play with and against matter in the outcome of the games? If Kobe had played with the sort of deep talent these other guys had, I believe he would’ve had even more titles and the way people think about his game compared to others would be quite different. (I feel the same way for guys like McGrady and Dominique who were not lucky enough to play with a Shaq or Kareem.)

Putting Kobe’s basketball career into context isn’t easy. Guys of this generation with nicknames like The Answer, Jesus and The King can put all six of their hands together and not total as many rings as Kobe has. The previous generation—Magic, Mike and Larry—all played with more talented teams. A select few might have better stats or more rings, but after watching Kobe’s entire career and comparing his total skill set to the other greats, I think he is the most skilled ever. More range, better ball handler, better shooter than MJ. More athletic, better scorer and defender than Magic and Bird. Better shooter than LeBron. And Kobe obviously would’ve scored on Byron Russell, too.

Instead of Hall-of-Famers as your 3rd or 4th options, guys like Worthy, Kareem, McHale or Rodman, Kobe had a mishmash of role players soon to be out of the League. Guys we thought might be nice for a minute, like: Smush Parker, Devean George, Kareem Rush and Andrew Bynum. A lot of soon-to-be coaches: Byron Scott, Brian Shaw, Tyronn Lue, Derek Fisher, Mike Penberthy, Mark Madsen, Ime Udoka, Luke Walton, Nick Van Exel and Larry Krystkowiak. And/or soon-to-be TV guys: Jon Barry, Rick Fox and John Salley. And, um, some criminals: Javarris Crittenton, Corie Blount, JR Rider. And some people say Kobe didn’t make anyone better!!!

What makes Kobe Bryant the best basketball player of his generation, and perhaps any generation, isn’t just his unique background and makeup, or the stats and the rings and win-loss record, it’s the skill set he has clearly worked so diligently to achieve. We all have unique starting points. We don’t all make 1,000 jumpshots each day in offseason workouts. Kobe worked hard enough to become a lottery pick out of high school and to have a better practice-developed skill set (footwork, shooting, ball-handling, moving without the ball, etc.) than any other player ever has.

Having watched Magic, Mike, LeBron and Kobe’s entire careers, it’s pretty clear to me that Kobe was born ready to become the greatest of them all. And he did. And I bet he feels that way, too.

If you feel even half as strongly as I do about Kobe’s career and legacy, I think you’ll like the cool gear I’m selling at farewellkobe.com. Use Discount Code “SLAM” to get 10% off your next order.