Kobe Bean Bryant
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A lone, slender figure bounces a basketball late into the night, dreaming of the glory and career that would soon follow. This was before Hollywood, before the rings, before the MVPs, before Shaq, before being booed by his own hometown when he won the All Star Game MVP in 2002, and of course, before his tragic death earlier this year that brought the entire world to its knees.
Kobe Bean Bryant was born in 1978 in the Philadelphia suburb of Lower Merion, the only son and youngest of three children, to former NBA player Joe Bryant and Pamela Cox Bryant. He was recognized as the National High School Player of the year in his senior year in 1995. He was scouted and recruited by the who’s who of Colleges including Duke, Michigan, North Carolina, and Villanova, but he decided in 1996 that he would skip college and enter the NBA draft straight out of high school. The Los Angeles Lakers made a deal to send center Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for the player the Hornets drafted at pick 13. Well, the rest, as they say, is history.
For many of us, Kobe was the Michael Jordan of our generation. As Lebron or Curry are today, Kobe transcended basketball altogether, he was pop culture, at the crossroads of athlete and celebrity. It helped that he was in Los Angeles; would he have had the same popularity had he been drafted by his hometown 76ers? Probably not. Allen Iverson, who was drafted by the 76ers over Kobe that year, was a tremendous player and NBA legend, but there was only one Kobe.
When he first took the NBA spotlight he was young, brash, and cocky. Kobe fans loved him and others loved to hate him. He was polarizing to say the least, but he was the epitome of greatness defined, and everybody knew it. Kobe was talented, a natural scorer with one of the purest shooting strokes you’ll ever see, but it was his work ethic and refusal to give anything less than all he had that set him apart. Stories of Kobe icing his knees as a 12 year old after pickup games against other teenagers quickly became basketball lore. As a child, when his family moved with his father to Italy after his NBA career was finished, he’d ask for tapes of NBA games to study, like some adolescent scholar, already a true student of the game. Kobe would continue to share this relentless work ethic with others throughout his career: his teammates, his competitors, to young hoopsters, and of course his daughters.
We watched Kobe as a player and as a champion for all those seasons. We watched him grow up and become a mature player and leader for the next generation of players in the NBA. But perhaps what we missed along the way is what will be undoubtedly the greatest legacy he leaves: his family. The news of Kobe Bryant dying in a helicopter crash will forever be etched into our memories. It will be for our generation a defining moment in many of our lives, a point in time where we will remember where we were, what we were doing, and how long we were frozen in that spot. When it was announced that Gianna Bryant, Kobe’s 13 year old basketball loving daughter was with him in that helicopter and had also passed away with her father, it became too much to handle. This was no longer the basketball player Kobe Bryant, this was now many of us, a parent taking their child to a game. It was relatable on a whole new level of humanity, whether you loved him or hated him as an NBA player, knowing that he and his daughter passed away together is a pain undeniable.
Kobe taught us the Mamba Mentality. He was cold-blooded on the court and warm-hearted off of it. He dedicated his life after his basketball career to his children and coaching young girls play basketball. This was not to cash in on his own celebrity, but to be the best father he could be and a role model to youths everywhere. Many NBA players and teams paid tribute to Kobe after his death. It is a testament to how many lives he touched in the game and the overwhelmingly universal respect he had from players, coaches, and ownership alike. For some it will be a pain that will never go away. Kobe was a legend on the court and will forever be a reason that millions of people around the world became obsessed with the sport of basketball. Next time, whether you’re crumpling up a ball of paper to throw away, or on the court, backing a defender down for a baseline fade away jumper, shout out “Kobe!” as you do, so we never forget the name that made us fall in love with the game.
Rest in peace Kobe and Gigi.