Over the course of the past 20 years, many observers have tried and failed to capture the complex essence of Kobe Bryant, the NBA player and the man. Bryant lived in the glare of the public spotlight for two decades, and over that time he managed to reinvent himself off the court from aloof loner to a beloved ambassador and mentor who has become shockingly relatable.
The truth is, there have been many great NBA players over the years, and there are many great players today, but it is very likely that we will ever see another Kobe Bryant. Kobe achieved so many interesting and noteworthy milestones in his career it is hard to keep track, and the average fan may have forgotten many of them.
Although he was not a starter his rookie season and averaged only 15.5 minutes and 7.6 points per game, he was the youngest player in NBA history to win the slam dunk contest at the All-Star game that season. He was not a starter his second season either but finished second in the voting for Sixth Man of the Year.
By his fourth season – the first with Phil Jackson as coach – Bryant made the All-NBA, All-Star, and All-Defensive teams as the Lakers won the first of three consecutive championships. The accomplishments continued. In January 2003, he made 12 three-pointers in a game, an NBA record. In February 2003, he averaged more than 40 points a game and scored 40 points in nine straight games.
In the 2005-06 season, Bryant scored 62 points in a game against the Dallas Mavericks, in three quarters! On January 22, 2006, he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors and for the month of March averaged 43.4 points per game. That broke Elgin Baylor’s Lakers record of 71 points and was second in NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100.
Bryant had twenty-seven 40-point games that year and averaged 35.4 points per game, winning the scoring title. Yet as a sign that he was not universally beloved at the time, he was only fourth in the MVP voting that year.
In 2006-07, Bryant changed from No. 8 to No. 24, which he said he always wanted as his number but couldn’t get as a rookie because it was already taken by another player on the team. Whether that was the real reason or whether he just wanted to sell more jerseys, the result was, his jersey was the number one best seller that year in the United States and China.
That season he scored 50 points in four consecutive games, breaking Elgin Baylor’s Lakers record. The only other NBA player to ever achieve that feat was Wilt Chamberlain.
The first decade of Bryant’s career saw the above milestones and many others, but there were plenty of bumps along the way. For all his accomplishments, he was labeled selfish. He had a tumultuous relationship with fellow superstar Shaquille O’Neal, and whether fair or not, Bryant was blamed for inducing the Lakers to trade O’Neal which sent the team into a tailspin for a while.
He famously feuded with certain teammates like Karl Malone, openly ridiculed others like guard Smush Parker and center Kwame Brown, and he was later seen in a video suggesting that the Lakers should trade Andrew Bynum. In a stinging criticism, Jackson published a book in 2007 in which he was highly critical of Bryant and labeled him “uncoachable.”
In 2003-04, Bryant was contesting the criminal charges that could have ended his career and indeed deprived him of his freedom for life. Some fans will remember the unbelievable sight of Bryant flying to Colorado to appear in court during the day and rushing back to Los Angeles in the evening arriving just in time to start the game. He somehow managed to play some of the best basketball of his career during this time. The charges were eventually dropped, but Bryant’s reputation was seriously tarnished.
Most players today take the day off when they have a hangnail or a blister, but Bryant played through many serious injuries and a lot of pain. He never complained or used it as an excuse, but he was demanding of his teammates and had no respect for anyone who could not follow his lead. There were many games when he couldn’t put the ball in the basket for three and half quarters but somehow found the will and the confidence to hit the winning shot at the end.
He did not trust anyone else to take that shot, and his teammates knew it. Sportswriter Mark Heisler once wrote in Forbes Magazine, “Circa 2004-2007, Kobe was the most alienated superstar the NBA had ever seen.” Most players could never recover from the scandals and criticisms that Bryant endured during the first decade of his career, but Bryant is not like most players.
He thrived on the court because of his legendary focus and determination which allowed him to block out all the noise. Bryant is also highly intelligent, and soon he embarked on a remarkable personal transformation which saw him evolve over time from villain to ambassador, building a legend and a brand that will endure far beyond his playing days.
As time passed, Bryant started to open up to the media and did so in a way that was far more candid than before. He was incredibly articulate and was suddenly willing to share his inner thoughts. He also formed close relationships with some of his teammates which did not happen before.
He became close to players like Derek Fisher, Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, and of course Pau Gasol. When Gasol joined the Lakers things clicked, and the team made three straight finals appearances winning the last two, including a big victory in a rematch with the bitter rival Boston Celtics in 2010. Jackson later noted the profound change in Bryant, as he “embraced the team and his teammates, calling them up when we were on the road and inviting them out to dinner. It was as if the other players were now his partners, not his personal spear-carriers.”
Bryant conducted interviews and press conferences in Spanish and Italian. Whereas previously he just wanted to embarrass and destroy everyone, he became a mentor not only to his teammates but to other young players in the league like Paul George, Derrick Rose, and Kyrie Irving.
Just before his final game this past season, when the Houston Rockets were locked into a tight race with the Utah Jazz, Bryant called his former teammate Ariza (now a member of the Rockets) and guaranteed a Lakers victory – and then went out and scored 60 points to keep his promise. During the playoffs this past season, he famously called the Warriors’ Draymond Green in the locker room when his team was down 3-1 to the Oklahoma City Thunder, just to make sure Green knew they could come back.
While it is easy to celebrate Bryant’s basketball achievements, his personal accomplishments as a man are also worth noting because they are what makes him relatable to others despite his extraordinary fame and wealth.
As fans, we cannot imagine how difficult it must be for a professional basketball player to marry at such a young age and for the marriage to endure. Bryant and his wife have gone through some highly publicized rough patches but they are still together and today are getting ready to celebrate the birth of another child. For such a relationship to last, it takes hard work and the same kind of perseverance and determination that Bryant has always shown on the basketball court.
Bryant is a family man. His wife and children have been very visible in recent years. He is not getting into incidents outside of nightclubs nor is he violating the league’s anti-drug policies like countless players. He lives a very healthy lifestyle and has often credited the discipline of his diet as a significant contributor to his success.
He created personas for himself which the public loved, like “Black Mamba” or “Vino.” Bryant’s loyalty is also worth honoring. In this era, when even the revered and honorable Kevin Durant jumped ship when he got the chance, Bryant stayed the course and was dedicated to the Lakers even during the down periods of which there were several. It is easy to be cynical and point out that Bryant was paid a lot of money to stay, but he would have been paid that same money in New York, Chicago or with the Clippers, so it was not just about money.
Bryant has shown that he is loyal and will not abandon people who have been good to him, a rare trait in today’s sports landscape. It may seem like a small thing, but young children today cannot become too attached to their sports heroes because it is so heartbreaking when they change teams every few years.
Those of us who were born in 1996, the year Bryant entered the league, can attest to the fact that we felt fortunate to be able to cheer Kobe for his entire career. Again, while it is easy to be cynical, if one can overlook the Lakers’ poor record this past season and focus just on Bryant, what the world saw was extraordinary.
He fought through the excruciating pain to take the court in cities around the league so fans could get to see him one last time. The heartfelt honors bestowed upon him in arena after arena by rival franchises were emotional and profound. The fans gave him more votes in the All-Star balloting than any other player. Then, to cap it all off, in the final game of his career for Bryant to score 60 points as a last gift to fans in Los Angeles and around the world, was enough to reduce the biggest, toughest and most cynical member of the media to shed a tear.
It was like a movie, or maybe a dream, but it was real, compliments of the incomparable Kobe Bryant.
In contrast, in Michael Jordan’s last game, which was also emotional, he scored 13 points in a loss.
As noted above, it is impossible to encapsulate all that is Kobe Bryant in a single article. People generally concede that Jordan is the best basketball player of all time, and by the time he retires LeBron James may be remembered as a better all-around player than Bryant. But they will never be Bryant, who is his own unique person, a winner in the game of basketball and in the game of life.
In witnessing his incredible transformation over the years as a man, he gave us a glimpse of what was and is possible. It sounds sappy, but he made us feel that if we have enough strength, determination, tenacity, and intelligence, we too can become the person we want to be even if we make mistakes along the way.
Kobe Bryant was not your average basketball player, and those of us who were fortunate to grow up watching him evolve are all the better for it.