ICON SERIES: KOBE BRYANT
Updated: Feb 12
This article was originally published on January 29th, 2020.
Kobe Bryant was not just a Los Angeles Lakers great, he was an NBA great, and a world-wide phenomenon who was an inspiration to many.
The sudden news of his death following a helicopter crash, that took the lives of all nine people on board, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, the world, not just the NBA world, seemed to stop for a moment, trying to process the enormity of the tragedy.
The tragic accident came just a day after Bryant had been passed by LeBron James (@KingJames) for third place on the NBA all-time scoring list.
Bryant may be one of the greatest to ever step foot on a basketball court, however, was sometimes a flawed character off it.
Bryant was born in Philadelphia, on 23rd August 1978, the youngest of three children and only son of former NBA player Joe Bryant and Pamela Cox Bryant.
In 1984, his father would retire from the NBA and would move the family to the Italian town of Rieti, so that he could play in the Italian basketball league. The family would later move around the country first to Reggio Calabria and then to Pistoia and Reggio Emilia.
While in Italy Bryant took a great passion for both soccer and basketball. Bryant's grandfather would mail him videos of NBA games so that he could study the game.
When Bryant returned to Philadelphia, in his teens, he would attend Lower Merion High School. He would become the first freshman in decades to start for Lower Merion's varsity team, although the team would finish with a 4–20 record.
The team's fortunes would improve and the following three years would see them compile a 77–13 record. In his senior year of high school, Bryant led the team to their first state championship in 53 years.
Bryant would receive several awards for his outstanding performance during his senior year at Lower Merion. Including being named Naismith High School Player of the Year, Gatorade Men's National Basketball Player of the Year, a McDonald's All-American, a first-team Parade All-American, and a USA Today All-USA First Team player.
Bryant's success made him a highly sought after recruit for colleges across the country. However, after seeing high schooler, Kevin Garnett being selected in the first round of the 1995 NBA draft he decided to skip college and go directly to the NBA, becoming only the sixth player in NBA history to do so.
NBA Early Days
Before the 1996 Draft, a 17-year-old Bryant was invited to a workout in Los Angeles, where he was able to scrimmaged against former Lakers players Larry Drew and Michael Cooper. Jerry West, the then Lakers manager, is said to have stated that it was the best draft workout he had ever seen.
Bryant would be selected 13th overall in the 1996 Draft, by the Charlotte Hornets. He was then sent immediately sent to the Lakers, in exchange for their starting center Vlade Divac. Bryant became the first guard drafted directly out of high school.
Since Bryant was still only 17 years old at the time, his parents had to cosign his contract with the Lakers until he was able to sign his own when he turned 18. Bryant's three-year rookie contract totaled $3.5 million.
In his rookie season, Bryant became the youngest player ever to play in an NBA game, aged only 18 years and 72 days. However, his appearances remained limited, mostly coming off the bench, behind guards Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel, and ended the season with an average of only 15.5 minutes per game.
During the All-Star weekend, Bryant participated in the Rookie Challenge and won the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest, becoming the youngest dunk champion at the age of 18.
In his second season, he started to receive more playing time and began to show off more of his abilities as a talented young guard. Bryant would receive enough fan votes to become the youngest NBA All-Star starter in NBA history.
The following season Bryant would emerge as one of the best guards in the NBA. After starting every game for the lockout-shortened 50-game season.
It wouldn't be until the Lakers hired Phil Jackson as their new coach in 1999, that they began to find the perfect storm of talent, led by the superstar talent of Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.
Jackson would immediately produce results, with the Lakers going 67–15 during the regular season, topping the league. Going on to defeat the Indiana Pacers to win the 2000 NBA championship.
Alongside O'Neal, Bryant would win a further two more successive NBA championships in 2001 and 2002.
After O'Neal left the Lakers, Bryant's career entered its next phase.
He became a relentless scorer famously dropping 81 points in a game against the Toronto Raptors. It is the second-most scored in a single game ever, surpassed only by Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in 1962.
Despite Bryant achieving scoring records, the Lakers would suffer years of playoff heartbreak.
At the start of the 2006/07 season, Bryant announced that he would change his jersey number from 8 to 24, after his first high school number. The following season would see Bryant win his only NBA MVP as the Lakers made it all the way to the NBA Finals only to fall to the Celtics.
In 2009, the Mamba mentality was embodied. The Lakers earned their second straight trip to the NBA Finals, defeating Orlando Magic in five games. Bryant was awarded his first NBA Finals MVP trophy upon winning his fourth championship, achieving series averages of 32.4 points, 7.4 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals, and 1.4 blocks.
The following year the Lakers would advance to the NBA Finals for a third straight season. In a rematch against the 2008 Champion Boston Celtics, Bryant, despite shooting 6 for 24 from the field, led the Lakers back from a thirteen-point third-quarter deficit in Game 7 to win the championship; he scored 10 of his game-high 23 points in the fourth quarter and finished the game with 15 rebounds.
Bryant won his fifth championship and earned his second consecutive NBA Finals MVP award. This marked the first time the Lakers won a Game 7 against the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
Bryant sought a sixth NBA title to match Michael Jordan's record. However, after tearing his Achilles tendon in 2013, Bryant's basketball career changed, and would be plagued with injuries.
Two years later Bryant wrote the poem "Dear Basketball" to announce his retirement from the NBA. In his last game for the Lakers, Bryant put on a show scoring 60 points, becoming the oldest player to do so.
On the court, Bryant was known to be a selfish player, missing more shots in his career than any other player in NBA history. Proudly admitting that he would rather miss 30 shots in a game than nine because it showed that he would never give up.
He would remain in the gym at all hours working out alone, on an empty court, with a bunch of folding chairs serving as defenders as he practiced a variety of moves to get to the basket.
He would sometimes play with rage, determined to prove himself right and everyone else wrong, not caring who or what got chewed up along the way. His obsession fuelled his greatness but magnified his shortcomings too.
After watching the film Kill Bill, Bryant began calling himself Black Mamba, seeing in himself an assassin's ruthlessness on the court, and ability to strike repeatedly when others could not.
Bryant didn't just dominate the game, he inspired others to do the same. An entire generation of NBA stars, from DeMar DeRozan to Kyrie Irving to Joel Embiid, counts Bryant as its role model, its inspiration.
In 2003, Bryant received accusations of rape from a 19-year-old woman.
While at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in Edwards, Colorado for knee surgery, Bryant asked the concierge for a tour of the hotel. According to reports, he invited her back to his room and, according to the woman, groped her, grabbed her neck to prevent her from leaving, turned her around, pushed her against a chair, and raped her.
Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault, potentially facing four years to life in prison, if convicted.
Criminal charges were dropped, and a civil case was settled with a nondisclosure agreement that has prevented the woman from speaking about the incident.
After the dismissal of the case, Bryant issued a statement read in court by his attorney. It said, in part, "Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."
The accusation tarnished Bryant's reputation, and the public's perception of him started to fall. Endorsement contracts with companies such as McDonald's and Nutella were terminated and sales of Bryant's Lakers jersey also fell significantly.
Life After Basketball
After retiring in 2016, Bryant proved that Mamba mentality was bigger than basketball. He became heavily involved in a number of business ventures, including establishing Kobe Inc to own and grow brands in the sports industry. Alongside business partner Jeff Stibel, he would also launch Bryant-Stibel, a venture capital firm focusing on a variety of different businesses such as media, esports, and technology.
In 2018, he would win an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for his film Dear Basketball.
Most of Bryant's projects were designed to cut himself free from basketball. However, he would regain a passion for basketball through his daughter Gianna's eyes. He began coaching her middle-school basketball team, watching Lakers and college games with her courtside. From that came a wider commitment to women's basketball, advising the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks, holding coaching camps for younger players. Furthermore, he opened a basketball campus, the Mamba Sports Academy.
During his career, Bryant's win at all cost philosophy helped him to fulfill all of his crazy potential.
Bryant didn't just dominate the game, he inspired others to do the same. An entire generation of NBA stars, from DeMar DeRozan to Kyrie Irving to Joel Embiid, counts Kobe Bryant as its role model and its inspiration.