He was affectionally called the “black mamba.” The moniker really fit him, both talent-wise and with respect to the manner of his play.
Wikipedia describes the mamba as a “fast moving, venomous snake.” It can be found in gray, brown and, of course, black. It is fearless, aggressive, and if it were to bite you, chances are it would be “sayonara.” In my view, that was an apt metaphor for Kobe’s style of play. Kobe often said he chose the name due to his desire to mimic the snake’s “ability to strike with 99% accuracy at maximum speed in rapid succession.”
In addition to his exceptional talent, he was fearless, aggressive, and had a penchant for taking and making the last shot, the one that would decide the game. Most star players say they want to take the last shot, but few of them can handle the pressure. Kobe thrived on pressure. The bigger the moment, the better he played. Moreover, he drove his teammates to play their best, maybe, even to exceed what they thought was their best. He did it by both example and exhortation. No one outworked him, and no one escaped his criticism if he perceived they weren’t giving their best.
To be sure, this rubbed some teammates the wrong way, at first, but they soon realized that all Kobe wanted to do was to win, and if he won, they won. According to sportswriter, Mark Heisler, “circa 2004-20007 Kobe was the most alienated superstar the NBA had ever seen.” Strong words. I believe that as he matured and won his championships he became more accepted. Phil Jackson, his long-time coach, observed that earlier in his career Kobe would often tell his teammates just “give me the damn ball.” Later on, he made an effort to “embrace the team and his teammates.”
Kobe Bean Bryant was born on August 23, 1978 in Philadelphia, PA., the youngest of three children and the only son. His father was former NBA player, Joe (“Jellybean”) Bryant. What was the derivation of his unusual name? Supposedly, “Kobe” was derived from the famous Japanese meat, Kobe beef, which his parents had seen on a restaurant menu; “Bean is a shortened version of his father’s nickname. When Kobe was six his father retired from the NBA and continued his playing career in Italy, as many players did at the time. The elder Bryant played in Italy for several years. Kobe enjoyed living in Italy and became fluent in Italian. His grandfather would mail him videos of his favorite team, the Lakers, which he would watch incessantly. Kobe would hone his game by playing in US summer leagues.
By the time Kobe was ready to enter high school the family had moved back to Philadelphia. Kobe attended Lower Merion HS, where he enjoyed a spectacular career. (1) He started for the varsity as a freshman, a real rarity; (2) during his junior year, he averaged 31 points, 10 rebounds and five assists; and (3) as a senior he was named to various All-American teams and attracted the interest of all the big-name colleges. His coach praised not only his ability (“a complete player who dominates”) but also his work ethic. He also became a celebrity when he attended his Senior Prom with recording star, Brandi.
He could have attended virtually any college he wanted, but, instead, he chose to go directly to the NBA. At the time, the NBA did not prohibit this, but it was very unusual for high schoolers to do so, and even more unusual for them to succeed. However, Kevin Garnett had just done so the previous year, and Kobe probably figured “if he could do it so could I.” Kobe became only the sixth player, and the first guard, to do so.
The Lakers wanted him, and he wanted them. They were picking too far down to draft him directly, but GM Jerry West engineered a draft-day deal with the Charlotte Hornets to get him.
Kobe’s 20 year NBA career had its ups and downs, although the “ups” far exceeded the “downs.” He debuted in the 1996-97 season. As a rookie he came off the bench and played part-time, but his skills were very obvious. Some observers even compared him to a young Michael Jordan. High praise, indeed.
Some of the plusses of his career:
- In 1999 he and Shaquille O’Neal won the first of three consecutive NBA championships as a tandem.
- After Shaq left, Kobe won two additional titles as the undisputed leader. (Shaq also won another one in Miami with Dwayne Wade.)
- Kobe is generally considered to be one of the best and most versatile players in NBA history. For example, none other than NBA commissioner Adam Silver has characterized him “one of the greatest players in the history of our game;” the “NY Times” said he had “one of the most decorated careers in the history of the sport”; and “Reuters” called him “arguably the best player of his generation.” Most observers of the sport would place him in the top ten all-time.
- He is considered to be one of the best “closers” in the history of the NBA. As I said above, he wanted the last shot; he wanted the pressure of holding the game in his hands. For ten straight years ending in 2012 a survey of general managers named him as the player they would most like to see take a clutch shot with “the game on the line.”
- He won two Olympic Gold medals (2008 and 2012).
- He was an 18-time All-Star, the second most. Do you know who ranks first? See below.
- He was a four-time All-Star MVP, tied for the most with? See below.
- As further evidence of his versatility as a player: (1) for his career he averaged 25 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game; (2) he was the first player in NBA history to score over 30,000 points, and hand out over 6,000 assists; and he was selected to the NBA All-Defensive team 12 times, trailing only?? See below.
Some of the negatives:
- Following the three titles, he and Shaq became unable to co-exist. Both were supremely talented, but headstrong, players. It appeared neither wanted to share the glory, accolades and spotlight with the other. One had to go, and the Lakers chose to keep Kobe. Many observers blamed Kobe for forcing the Lakers’ management to trade Shaq. Maybe, maybe not, but the episode remained a black mark on Kobe’s career. As noted above, it was not until later in his career that Kobe warmed to his teammates.
- By 2007 the Lakers had parted ways with Jerry West. According to ESPN Kobe demanded to be traded if they did not rehire West. They did. Kobe admitted he wanted West back, but denied he had demanded a trade if they did not rehire him.
- Throughout his career Kobe was plagued by various injuries to his knees, legs Achilles, feet, back, and, probably the most serious, a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder. These were likely at least partially a result of how much he demanded of his body and how hard he played. He was such a competitor that after he injured the rotator cuff he insisted on returning to the game whereupon he finished it playing lefthanded.
4. Undoubtedly, the biggest stain on his career was the rape allegation in 2003. Briefly, while in Colorado for knee surgery a 19 year-old employee of the hotel in which Kobe was staying accused him of sexual assault. Kobe said the sex was consensual. A true he-said, she-said. Ultimately the criminal case was thrown out when the woman declined to testify. However, subsequently, she sued Kobe in civil court. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount, but rightly or wrongly, most people are inclined to believe he was guilty.
Kobe’s personal life was not without controversy (in addition to the above alleged rape). He met his wife, Vanessa, when he was 21 and she was 17 and a high school student. His parents didn’t approve and did not attend their wedding, nor did his sisters, his agent or his teammates. Supposedly, his parents objected to his young age and the fact that Vanessa was not African American. Their estrangement lasted until Kobe and Vanessa’s first daughter was born (over two years).
Kobe and his wife were engaged in extensive charity work including the “Kobe and Vanessa Brant Family Foundation,” “After School All-Stars,” and the “Kobe Bryant China Fund,” among many others. At the time of his untimely death Kobe was an international superstar recognized and beloved all over the world.
By now, you all know the tragic story. On January 26, 2020 Kobe, his 13 year-old daughter, Gianna, six friends, including Gianna’s teammates and parents, and the pilot were killed in a helicopter crash. The helicopter had taken off on an ill-advised flight to a team basketball practice despite intense fog, which one witness described “as thick as milk.” The fog was so thick that even police helicopters were grounded. For whatever reason the helicopter failed to gain sufficient altitude and crashed into a mountain in Calabasas, CA. A true tragedy. Luckily, Kobe and Vanessa had a pact never to fly together in a helicopter, so at least Vanessa and their other daughters have survived.
Many people, when first informed of the crash, found it unbelievable. It was only hours later that it began to sink in for most people. Tributes have been pouring in from fans and well-wishers. Yet, as I write this several days later many people have not yet fully processed this tragedy. It took me a few days before I could bear to research and write it.
Feel free to send me your thoughts and memories of Kobe.
Rest in peace Kobe and Gianna (and the others as well). You were taken from us far too soon and will be sorely missed.
- Kareem Abdul Jabbar (19)
- Bob Pettit
- Tim Duncan (15)