The Incredible (and Complicated) Legacy of Basketball Legend Kobe Bryant
There’s no denying it: Kobe Bryant’s death shocked the sports community and the world. There’s also no denying that he was one of the most accomplished and one of the greatest players in NBA history. He wasn’t a perfect saint, but his family loved him, and he created infinite memorable moments as part of the Los Angeles Lakers, both on and off the court. These are the moments that defined the legend of the “Black Mamba.”
Kobe Bryant was named after beef and jelly beans
One of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game, Kobe Bean Bryant, was born on Aug. 23, 1978, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He had basketball pedigree from the start, as his uncle “Chubby” Cox played for the Washington Bullets, and his father, Joe Bryant, also played in the NBA.
Joe Bryant, aka “Jellybean,” passed his nickname on to Kobe, making his middle name “Bean.” And as for “Kobe,” the rumors are true: Joe and Pamela Bryant named their third child after the famous Japanese beef. Bryant would later become an ambassador to Kobe, Japan, from 2001-2011, as the mayor of Kobe said that “(Bryant) helped make Kobe Beef known throughout the world.”
Bryant watched the NBA from Italy on videotape
It’s been said that Bryant started playing basketball at the age of 3, and given that his dad played for three teams in his eight seasons in the NBA, this came as no surprise. What was surprising was when Bryant and his family moved to Italy in 1984, so his father could continue playing professional basketball.
While in Italy, Bryant became fluent in Italian and Spanish, and played soccer and basketball. His grandpa would mail him videotapes of NBA games for him to study. He watched Jordan’s moves, and learned when to use them, and how. Bryant paid attention, and quickly became a “baller” himself.
Bryant never lost his connection to the United States, as he would return during summers to participate in various camps and tournaments. He returned for good in 1991, joining the Lower Merion High School basketball team in Philadelphia. This was truly where his legend began to grow.
After a losing freshman season, Bryant went 77-13 the rest of the way. During his senior year, he was named Gatorade Player of the Year, was a McDonald’s All American, and won the Pennsylvania State Championship. He also scored nearly 3,000 points in high school, and he believed he was ready for the NBA, though many disagreed.
No big deal, just going to prom with Brandy
In 1996, Kobe Bryant wasn’t the megastar that he was in his prime, but that didn’t stop him from dreaming big. According to a classmate, Bryant was reading a magazine with singer and TV star Brandy on the cover, and he said, “I’m bringing this girl to prom.”
She accepted his invitation and the two had a great time. They never really dated before or after but they enjoyed each other’s company. In fact, Brandy says they kissed twice, and she later said, “His lips were so soft.” It must’ve been a special evening, because Brandy still has her corsage and dress from the magical night.
NBA draft debacle
Bryant was a four-star college recruit, but decided he was ready for the NBA and entered the draft in 1996. He was originally drafted 13th overall by the Charlotte Hornets, but he later claimed that “The Hornets told me right after they drafted me that they had no use for me and were going to trade me.”
A deal was worked out with Lakers legend and general manager, Jerry West, and Bryant headed to Los Angeles. Bryant’s career was so accomplished that he broke records in both his first and last NBA games, as he became the youngest player in NBA history (at the time) to play in a game (18 years and 72 days).
Rookie year highs and lows, but mostly lows
Bryant had mixed results his first year in the NBA. He showed promise as a player, but was restricted to coming off the bench. On Dec. 17, 1996, he squared off against NBA legend Michael Jordan. In his first opportunity, Jordan put the moves on him, and spun baseline for a dunk.
Bryant ran down the court laughing at himself. The Lakers were a good team with talented players, having just signed massive center Shaquille “Shaq” O’Neal. But in the playoffs, when all the stars were out from fouls, injuries, or ejections, it was just Bryant. How did he respond? He put up four air balls in the final minutes of the game, and lost 98-93 to the Utah Jazz.
Youngest Dunk Contest champion in NBA history
Of those air balls, Shaq said, “(Bryant) was the only guy who had the guts at the time to take shots like that.” It embodied his never-quit mentality, which was on full display during the All-Star break. There, he made the All-Rookie Second Team, and participated in the famous Slam Dunk Contest.
Kobe’s first dunk was a monster one-handed reverse slam. He missed his second, but made the third one count. For his final dunk, he moved the ball to his other hand between his legs, then slammed it home one-handed. Kobe Bryant, the future NBA champion, had arrived. He became the youngest Dunk Contest winner in NBA history (18).
Kobe meets the love of his life, but his parents weren’t happy
Bryant had a love for music, and was even part of a rap group in high school. On Nov. 28, 1999, he was on the set of a music video for Tha Eastsidaz. The song was “G’d Up,” and during the shoot, Bryant caught a glimpse of a 17-year-old named Vanessa Urbieta.
Bryant courted Vanessa, then proposed to her in 2000 when she turned 18. He was only 20 years old at the time, and his parents were upset that he was so young. Nevertheless, Vanessa and Kobe were the loves of each other’s lives, with 18 years of marriage, and four beautiful daughters.
The making of ‘Black Mamba’
Bryant’s second season in the NBA was decidedly more successful, as he started seeing more playing time. His point total more than doubled, averaging 15.4 points per game (PPG), and his abilities as one of the NBA greats were starting to show. He wasn’t the “Black Mamba” yet, but everyone could see the talent.
The 1998-99 season ended just like the season before, as the Lakers were beaten by the Utah Jazz once again in the Western Conference Semifinals. The next season, Bryant, now 20 years old, became the team’s premier starting guard, and was now a focal point of the team (teammate Shaq being the other).
All-Star honors, and boos
In 1998, Bryant was selected to start in the All-Star Game. It was the beginning of something great, as his 18 All-Star appearances are the second-highest (behind fellow Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and his four MVPs in those games are tied for best of all time (equal to Bob Pettit’s). In 2002, the All-Star Game was held in Bryant’s hometown of Philadelphia.
Dawning his father’s old 76ers jersey, he was excited to play, until he was received with boos from the Philadelphia fans. Though he won MVP of that game, afterward he said, “My feelings are hurt … I’m just trying to play and have a good time.” But make no mistake, “boos” inspired the man that liked to play the villain.
The Kobe and Shaq feud
Prior to Bryant playing his first NBA game, the Lakers signed superstar Shaq to the team. Much has been discussed regarding their relationship, but at the time, it was noticeably strained. “They didn’t even look at each other,” one teammate commented.
In the 1999-2000 season, Shaq was MVP of the league, and certainly was the focal point of the team. But Bryant was young, and hungry to be the best player in the league. Every year, his role increased, and success actually brought more turmoil. They needed a zen master to quell the feud — a coach to bring them together.
Phil Jackson had already won six NBA championships (plus two as a player) as the coach of the Chicago Bulls when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1999. He brought with him his famous triangle offense, and both Shaq and Bryant flourished in the new scheme.
Bryant improved statistically in every aspect of the game (even earning All-Defensive Team honors), and the Lakers won 67 games. They traveled a rough road to the championship, and thanks to some clutch performances, and fighting through painful injuries, Bryant and company won their first NBA championship in 2000 when they defeated the Indiana Pacers in six games.
Three-peat, and bye-bye Shaq
In the 2000-01 season, the Lakers were slightly less than sharp, winning 11 fewer games than the year before. However, they followed that up with the greatest performance in NBA playoff history, when they won another championship with a 15-1 playoff record. They beat the New Jersey Nets in the Finals the next year, and the three-peat was complete.
Shaq won MVP honors in the Finals all three years, but the fans and media dubbed the Lakers increasingly as Bryant’s team. After losing in the playoffs in 2003, and in the Finals in 2004, both Phil Jackson and Shaq left the Lakers, which was seen as a concession to their chosen one, Kobe Bryant.
Putting the past to bed
Despite coming off the hangover of being defeated after a three-peat, Bryant rebounded by growing his family. In January 2003, Kobe and Vanessa welcomed Natalia to the world. The pregnancy and subsequent birth would lead to Bryant making amends with his parents.
Vanessa gave birth to Gianna “Gigi” Bryant the following year. Gigi was very much her daddy’s girl, and played basketball with the same intensity as her father. The two were nearly inseparable, and seen so many times at Lakers games together. When Bryant retired years later, he had two more daughters.
Turning the tide
With the team in turmoil and off-the-court issues affecting his life, Bryant had a decidedly subpar 2004-05 season. Clouding the issue was a recently published book by former coach Phil Jackson, called, The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul, in which he called Bryant “uncoachable.”
But the two titans of basketball set aside their differences the next season, as Jackson returned to Los Angeles for the 2005-06 season. It turned out to be the best statistical year of Bryant’s career. The Lakers lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Phoenix Suns, but Bryant was back, and demanded a better supporting cast in order to win another championship.
Count ’em: 81 points
On Dec. 20, 2005, something amazing happened: In a game versus the Dallas Mavericks, when the fourth quarter started, Bryant had outscored the entire Mavericks team by himself. He had 62 points to the Mavericks’ 61, the only time that has happened since 1954.
Then, a month later, on Jan. 22, 2006, Bryant did something incredible: In a game against the Toronto Raptors at the STAPLES Center, Bryant scored 81 points. It was the second-highest since Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game in 1962. Bryant averaged 43.4 PPG that month, which was the highest point average in a month by a player not named Wilt Chamberlain.
Switch from #8 to #24, and becoming a man
In the 2006-07 season, and beyond, there was a shift in Bryant’s behavior and attitude. He was still the game’s premier assassin when it came to putting up points, and scoring from anywhere on the court, but he was mature now, had a growing family, and was becoming a leader on his team.
To solidify this shift, Bryant changed his number halfway through the season. “When I first came in (the league) at 8,” said Bryant, “(It was) really trying to ‘plant your flag’ sort of thing.” He changed it to 24, his original high school number, saying, “24 is growth from that.” Mr. Bryant was becoming a man.
Settling the feud with Shaq
If ever there was a case in point that Bryant was changing, then settling his feud with Shaq has to be right up there. Former player and current Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers once said that the rivalry between the two was the “biggest tragedy in sports.”
Who knows how many championships they would’ve won had they stayed together (Kobe: “I’d have 12 f%$&ing rings!”), but more importantly, they mended their old wound. On Jan, 16, 2006, the two played each other, as Shaq was on the Miami Heat at the time. The two hugged it out, and at that year’s All-Star game, the two were seen laughing and hugging. The two brothers had buried the hatchet.
‘Black Mamba,’ the MVP
With the transformation complete, Bryant embodied his spirit animal: the Black Mamba. The Black Mamba is a venomous snake with a black mouth, that “strike(s) with 99% accuracy at maximum speed, in rapid succession,” said Bryant. The self-proclaimed nickname stuck, and “Black Mamba” was lethal.
So lethal, that Bryant played all 82 games in 2009-10 despite a painful finger injury, averaged over 28 PPG, and won his first league MVP award. The Lakers finished 57-25 that year, best in the Western Conference. It culminated in a championship run, but Bryant and the Lakers came just short when they lost to the Boston Celtics in six games in the NBA Finals.
NBA champion, on his own terms
The next season was all about Bryant and the Lakers. By mid-December, they amassed a 21-3 record, good enough for best in the league. They finished at 65-17, which was the best in the Western Conference, and Bryant just missed out on MVP honors, taking second place behind a new rising star: LeBron James.
It wasn’t an easy path to the playoffs, as it took seven games to defeat the Houston Rockets in the second round. But the Finals went much better, as Bryant had a statistical dream, averaging 32.4 PPG and 7.4 assists per game (APG). It was good enough to win him Finals MVP honors, his first, and more importantly, he got the monkey off his back, by winning a championship without Shaq.
The 2009-10 season was anything but easy for Bryant, as he was constantly hampered by injuries. Bryant was legendary for his toughness and despite finger and knee injuries, he only missed seven games. Even so, the Lakers managed an impressive 57-25 record and headed for their third Finals in a row.
The season was special, as Bryant managed to hit not one, not two, but six buzzer-beaters along the way. In the Finals, the Lakers squared off against their storied rival, the Boston Celtics. It took the Lakers seven games to get it done, but when they won, Bryant received his second Finals MVP. He said it was the most satisfying of his five championships.
Because of personal commitments to his family, and numerous injuries, Bryant didn’t even start his international career until he was nearly 30 years old. In 2007, he finally joined the U.S. Men’s Basketball Team, and the following year they defeated Spain in the gold medal round 118-107.
Bryant rejoined the team for the 2012 Olympics in London, and had similar success. Though he came up one NBA title short of matching Michael Jordan’s six, in international play, he matched Jordan’s two Olympic gold medals. When Bryant retired from his international duties after the London games, he had amassed a perfect 26-0 record.
Injuries, injuries, and more injuries
Kobe Bryant was known for many things, but perhaps above all was his mental and physical toughness. He tried desperately to match Jordan’s six championships, but his body mostly prevented him from doing so. In 2010, he underwent experimental plasma platelet therapy in Germany to try and rehab his constantly sore right knee, which had been operated on three different times.
He sprained his ankle badly at least three different times. He also had shoulder surgery, after he tore his right rotator cuff in a game (he didn’t come out, however; he just shot left-handed). There were also his wrist (twice), finger (twice), and back injuries. But the most infamous of all was his Achilles tendon.
The legend of Kobe Bryant
The story of Kobe Bryant’s Achilles injury is the stuff of lore. His season was going phenomenally well in 2012-13, and even at the age of 34, he was putting up some of his best numbers. But on April 12, 2013, that all ended when he tore his Achilles tendon after he was fouled in a game versus the Golden State Warriors.
Despite writhing in pain, and being unable to walk without help, Bryant, a true Hercules, decided he would take his two free throws. Balancing on one leg, Bryant managed to drain both shots. Only then did he hobble off. As for the game itself? The Lakers ended up winning by just two points, 118-116, thanks to Bryant’s crucial pair of made free throws.
Final game, and one final record
Bryant returned to the game the following season, and despite all of his physical ailments, he managed to play three more seasons. His production was noticeably down, however, and injuries cut short one of those seasons. On Nov. 29, 2015, he penned a letter titled, “Dear Basketball,” and this is what it said.
“My heart can take the pounding,
My mind can handle the grind,
But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.”
On April 13, 2016, Bryant played his final game. In front of a packed crowd at the STAPLES Center, the Lakers defeated the Utah Jazz 101-96, thanks in large part to Bryant scoring 60 points. It was the most points by a player in their final game in NBA history.
An honor all his own
On the evening of Dec. 18, 2017, in a Lakers game at the STAPLES Center, Bryant was honored like no athlete before. Since he changed numbers midway through his career, and he had near-equal success with each, the Lakers retired both his #8 and #24 jerseys.
That night, according to Us Weekly, Bryant had a special message for his four daughters: “Hopefully what you get from tonight is that those times when you get up early and you work hard … when you stay up late … when you don’t feel like working — you’re too tired, you don’t want to push yourself — but you do it anyway. That is actually the dream … It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”
Though Bryant’s NBA career was over, he was far from done doing good for mankind, and winning awards. Kobe’s Nov. 29, 2015, letter to The Players’ Tribune, titled, “Dear Basketball,” which announced his retirement, was turned into a short animated film by a Disney animator.
It was a compelling film with some new animation methods, and it was received so well that Bryant became the first professional athlete to win an Academy Award. He was also the first African American to win in the category of Best Animated Short Film. The film chronicles his dreams of being a player as a youth, and how the game so positively impacted his life.
Philanthropy and family
Bryant and wife Vanessa traveled a rocky road over the years, but both fought through a lot to stay together. They announced they were divorcing in 2011, before turning it around and calling it off in 2013. After that they had two more daughters, Bianka in December 2016, and little Capri in June 2019.
Eventually, Bryant and his wife started the Kobe & Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation, which was dedicated to “helping young people in need, encouraging the development of physical and social skills through sports and assisting the homeless.” In the end, Bryant said that he would’ve been unsatisfied if all he did was become a successful basketball player.
Kobe and Gigi
On the morning of Jan. 26, 2020, Bryant and his daughter Gigi attended mass in Newport Beach, California. At around 9 a.m., the two, and seven others, boarded a helicopter headed for a basketball game that Bryant was coaching, and Gigi was playing in. Less than 45 minutes later, the helicopter crashed in bad weather near Calabasas, California.
Kobe is survived by his wife Vanessa, his eldest daughter Natalia (17), 3-year-old Bianka, and Capri Kobe, who is not even 1 year old. Of fatherhood, Bryant once said, “Being a father is the thing I am most proud of in this world; it’s my greatest accomplishment. I’ve learned so much, but perhaps the most profound thing has been the fierce, unconditional love you have for your children when you become a parent.”
Goodbye Kobe, RIP, and we’ll miss you …
Outpourings of grief and support for the Bryant family have flooded in from all over the world. Tributes to the late, great “Black Mamba” recognize his undying work ethic, understanding that when unmatched skill meets extreme work ethic, the result is nothing short of legendary.
Bryant had two careers in one, signified by his two numbers, and his life was much the same. The difference is, his basketball life was the richest and fullest anyone could ask for. His second life, that of fatherhood, businessman, and social influencer, was sadly cut short. A legend who had so much to live for, and still so much to teach us, is gone forever. Goodbye Kobe, thanks for the memories, and we’ll miss you more than you’ll ever know.