Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest athletes of all time, at the age of 41, tragically lost his life, alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant and seven other people in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California the morning of January 26, 2020. Early reports attributed the crash to weather conditions that included poor visibility. The victims of the crash included; John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, their daughter Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester, her daughter Payton Chester, and Ara Zobayan.
The news of Kobe’s sudden death sent shockwaves across the globe. The outpouring of grief was palpable as his celebrity and reach was far beyond the confines of the basketball world. ‘Kobe Bryant’ the man, the legend, meant everything to little black boys and black girls who witnessed what was possible with a relentless work ethic like his.
Kobe’s name was synonymous with winning. It is a common practice amongst millennials to declare ‘KOBE’ before launching any object into a target. From shooting a jumper to tossing a piece of paper into a can, declaring ‘KOBE’ almost guarantees the shot will be made. It’s just known that Kobe gets buckets.
Kobe Bryant was born in 1978 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, Joe Bryant played professional basketball overseas in Italy. Living in Italy from the age of 6 to 13, Kobe learned to speak Italian fluently. He returned to Pennsylvania for high school and played basketball at Lower Merion High School. At the age of 17, upon graduating, Kobe became the youngest player in NBA history to get drafted. He was the 13th pick of the Charlotte Hornets in 1996. Shortly after getting drafted he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers and a Laker he remained throughout the entirety of his brilliant 20-year NBA career.
At the top of the year Kobe joined fellow former NBA players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on their podcast “ALL THE SMOKE” to reflect on his time in the NBA and talk about his life after basketball. One of the lesser known facts about his prolific career is that it got off to a pretty slow start. Kobe talked about how frustrating it was for him being benched the first three years of his NBA career. He referenced that as a low moment in his career explaining that, “Coming in as a rookie and saying man if I knew [it] was going to be like this I would’ve went to school. Because I felt like my coach Dell Harris, at the time, was trying to make sure he did not show favoritism to the young kid and as a result, he swung completely [in] the opposite direction doing things that weren’t really fair… So like my first two-three years were nightmares.”
He went on to say, “It was tough. I sit around and watch all my peers going out there playing 35, 37 minutes. You know A.I [Allen Iverson], Ray Allen, they’re all doing their thing. Shareef [Abdur-Rahim], they’re all doing their thing and I’m sitting here glued to the bench getting really, really pissed off and ticked off thinking I should’ve just gone to college. That was the hardest part.”
Kobe’s number was finally called to play during the lockout season after Rick Fox and another player were injured. Believe it or not, Kobe was the third choice. “..He [Harris] had no choice but to start me at small forward.” Kobe explained, “So I started the first ten games at small forward. I think I started with like 7 straight double-doubles and I’ve been in the starting line-up ever since.”
“I’m not playing. It’s like you’re sitting down not playing and you’re watching everybody else kill the league and you know you should be doing that. It still pisses me off to this day because like ultimately…what numbers would you have put up? …Everybody wants to go to that ‘Oh let’s go to career numbers’… I wish somebody would have told me that back then. So those three years of not playing and sitting on the bench…just watching…it was frustrating.”
A fierce competitor always, when Kobe’s number was finally called up he went on to become one of the game’s greatest players and elite scorers. In 2003, Kobe adopted the nickname the ‘Black Mamba’ drawing inspiration from Quentin Tarantino’s film ‘Kill Bill.’ In the film there is an assassin whose code name is ‘Black Mamba.’ After researching more about the animal itself, known to be quick, venomous, and lethal when cornered, Kobe explained, “This is the perfect description of how I would want my game to be.” He followed that explanation up saying, “What I am when I step on that court, I become that, I am that killer snake.” He went on to coin his work ethic that consisted of an intense level of focus, desire to win, and pursuit of excellence as the “Mamba mentality.”
In 2016 Kobe retired as a five-time NBA champion. Three of these championships he earned consecutively alongside Shaquille O’Neal in 2000, 2001, and 2002. After O’Neal left the Lakers, Kobe nabbed two more titles in 2009 and 2010. He earned regular season MVP honor and was twice named an NBA Finals MVP. He is an Olympic Gold medalist having won with USA Basketball at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Kobe was selected as an All-Star 18 times and was named the All-Star MVP 4 times. He went on a number of scoring streaks and famously scored a personal best of 81 points in a single game.
When Kobe retired he was the third-leading scorer in the history of the NBA, a record that was broken Saturday night by Lebron James hours before his tragic death. In fact, the last thing Kobe tweeted was a salute to Lebron that read, “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother #33644”
Players across the league were in disbelief and shed tears as they learned the news of his passing while warming up for their respective games. Teams honored Kobe’s memory by taking 24-second and 8-second violations as he wore the numbers 8 and 24 on his jersey over the course of his career.
This year, 2020, marks the 20th anniversary of his very first NBA title that he earned in 2000. Kobe, who this year became eligible for Basketball Hall of Fame induction, is anticipated to be a lock for a first ballot. Though it is not uncommon for players to be inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame, Kobe not being there to speak for himself seems surreal.
Kobe was a student of the game of basketball and like many people, idolized Michael Jordan. The influence is deep and is evident when observing how similar their styles of play were. He shared with ESPN’s Baxter Holmes how there weren’t enough words to explain how much Jordan meant to him as a player.
He said, “Because as a kid growing up in Italy, all I had was video, so I studied everything. I studied every player. Then once I came back to the States, [and] I realized I wasn’t going to be 6-9, I started studying Michael exclusively.
“And then when I came to the league and [was] matching up against him, what I found is that he was extremely open to having a mentor relationship and giving me a great amount of advice and an amazing amount of detail, strategies, workout regimen and things like that. Seriously, I don’t think people really understand the amount of impact that he’s had on me as a player and as a leader.”
Jordan made a statement regarding his mentee/friend’s passing, saying, “I am in shock over the tragic news of Kobe’s and Gianna’s passing. Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling. I loved Kobe – he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force. Kobe was also an amazing dad who loved his family deeply – and took great pride in his daughter’s love for the game of basketball. Yvette joins me in sending my deepest condolences to Vanessa, the Lakers organization and basketball fans around the world.”
What makes this tragedy that much more tragic is that Kobe was traveling with his beloved daughter, Gianna “GiGi” Bryant, en route to her basketball game. She was set to start on the ‘Mamba’ team that her father, Kobe, coached. Kobe who had left basketball behind, came back to the game when Gianna expressed interest and showed great promise and talent. The father-daughter duo were often spotted courtside smiling and chatting as he appeared to be mentoring her on the game. Gianna’s talent was undeniable, as Kobe, in all of his proud Dad glory, often shared clips displaying her skills. Gianna’s skills had just begun to get a bit of buzz and she had every intention of one day making it to the WNBA. Kobe fondly referred to Gianna as the heir to his basketball legacy. Not only was he a member of the NBA community; he was a longtime supporter and proponent of the WNBA. Kobe championed the women’s sport by being vocal about it; he also attended the games regularly, talked with players and had just begun coaching the up and coming generation that included Gigi.
Kobe was a self-proclaimed storyteller and business mogul whose legacy reached beyond the basketball court. He penned a poem on ‘The Players’ Tribune’ titled ‘Dear Basketball. ’ He teamed up with animator Glen Keane and legendary composer John Williams to create an animated short. He went on to win an Oscar for ‘Best Animated Short’ at the 90th Academy Awards. Additionally he won a Sports Emmy and an Annie Award.
He expounded on that experience when talking with Barnes and Jackson on their podcast saying, “It’s different because in competition it’s a direct competitive thing. You know who your competitors are. You know who you’re likely to face…it’s a direct competition. When it comes to the arts, it’s not that. You just try to create the best thing you possibly can and then see how, in this case The Academy, responds to it. It’s very different, sitting there Oscar night, there’s nothing you can do. There is no need to be nervous…[because] things are what they are. It’s out of your hands, you did the best job that you could possibly do and you go from there. But the biggest lesson learned from it is you work with brilliant people that see the world the same way and magical things happen. And that’s true across industries.”
In an interview with ESPN that preceded his retirement, Kobe expressed in his own words how he would like to be remembered. He expressed, “I’ve always said that I wanted to be remembered as a player that didn’t waste a moment…didn’t waste a day, and I felt extremely blessed by the God-given talent. But at the same time I didn’t take it for granted. So, if I could be remembered as a person who was born with a lot of talent but did everything he could to try to overachieve and lived every day as if he was the 12th guy on the bench. You know, I think that’s a very powerful message to have, and something that hopefully the players that are now and the players that will come later choose to embody as well.”
While it’s true that there were many people that looked up to Kobe and many lives that he touched, he was always a family man first. While basketball was undoubtedly his first love, his greatest love was his family. He leaves behind his beloved wife, Vanessa Laine Bryant, and three daughters; Natalia Diamante Bryant, 17, Bianka Bella Bryant, 3, and Capri Kobe Bryant, who is only seven months old.
Kobe was a complex individual whose gifts will continue to inspire generations. He was so much more than an athlete and he lived a full purposeful life. The legacy he leaves behind is that of staying curious, working hard and always pursuing excellence.