Today, the NBA world is adjusting to the loss of former Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash near his LA home, at the shockingly young age of 41. Bryant was 1 of 5 people aboard the aircraft. (At the time if writing, there are reports that Bryant’s 13 year old daughter Gianna is amongst the deceased – I’m praying to every deity I can name that this isn’t true)
Kobe’s accolades are well known through the basketball world, but for those that are new to the game and might not realise what he has achieved, a quick reminder:
- 5x NBA Champion
- 2x Finals MVP
- 2008 League MVP
- 18x All Star
- 15x All NBA
- 12x All Defensive
- 2x NBA Scoring Champion
- 2x Olympic Gold medallist
His raw numbers speak for themselves. We won’t go into them here, but he was of course passed by LeBron James for 3rd all time in points, just 24 hours before his demise.
The stats and the honours only tell a part of the Kobe Bryant story, though. Kobe was a phenomenon. He captured the NBA zeitgeist from the moment he entered the league straight out of high school in 1996. Kids and adults alike wore Lakers purple and gold with Bryant’s name on the back, be it the #8 or #24, both of which the club retired.
I’ve grown up with Kobe Bryant in my life (he and I were born 5 weeks apart) and have seen all of the ups and downs – on court at least – and how the greater NBA world has reacted to them.
To me, Kobe was a tough pill to swallow at times. As an aspiring (but ultimately failed) pro baller myself, I had very definite ideas on how the game should be played and Kobe Bryant was an affront to much of what I believed.
Kobe’s thirst for the limelight, for the Big Shot, for The Moment, grated on an old fashioned pass first point guard like me. The needless bravado was off putting. In his early NBA career, when he took and missed a series of big shots in the playoffs against the Jazz, with a dominant Shaquille O’Neal looking on in frustration, I’ll admit I kind of smirked – Mr Heroball got what he deserved for waving off his more credentialed team mate.
Of course, Kobe grew into so much more than those early versions of himself. Despite their off court differences, he and Shaq formed the first dynasty of the millennium. He went on to win two more titles, proving that he was perfectly capable of being the Main Man on a championship team. That he didn’t need to lean on Shaq – or anyone else – to succeed.
He was certainly a remorseless killer on the court. There are too many highlights of big Kobe Bryant shots to list here. He demanded that people rise to his level. If you didn’t? Well, I’ll let Smush Parker tell you what happens. A few days ago, a couple of friends and I were talking about LeBron passing Kobe’s scoring record and one of them joked that Kobe would have LeBron killed before that could happen. We all laughed…..but just for a moment we all considered if he’d actually do that.
As I’ve grown into middle age, I’ve taken a different view on Bryant’s career. I’ve grown to appreciate his remarkable ability to, if not always make, then create a good shot out of nothing, with all of the defensive attention focused on him. I’ve admired his intensity on the court. I’ve loved his remarkable dedication to his craft.
I’ve also considered why Kobe was who he was as a basketballer.
His father, Joe ‘Jellybean’ Bryant, was a former NBA player who had some highlights of his own. Jellybean’s NBA career was spent playing off of superstars, and he frequently lamented his place in the hierarchy. It’s often been reported that he told his son to make sure that he got his share of the spotlight. That puts into context the younger Bryant’s want for taking that big shot, for wanting to be The Man.
As the brilliant Shea Serrano said in his 2017 book Basketball (And Other Things), Kobe was a bit of a dork – he did give himself his own nickname, after all! He was to an extent, a child without a nation. He was born in the US, but spent his formative years in Europe, before moving back to the States as a teen. Much like a military child, he never really got to set down any roots.
To that end, Bryant spent his career wanting to be adored. He saw the most popular player of his youth in Michael Jordan and deduced that if he did what MJ did, he’d be popular. He was right.
Bryant spent his career chasing Jordan’s ghost in one way or another. He openly talked about wanting to match Jordan’s haul of 6 rings. His game style was remarkably similar to MJ’s. His jump shot close to identical. He even borrowed a Jordan celebration or two.
Last year, along with my then 10 year old son, I was lucky enough to see Kobe interviewed live in Melbourne by the wonderful Hamish McLachlan. It gave me further insight into what made the man tick.
I mentioned his dedication to his craft earlier. Kobe had a helicopter pad built at his home so that he could get to and from the Lakers practice facility without fighting the LA traffic. It also meant that he could get to the court before sunrise. He felt that getting on court when it was still dark outside gave him a mental edge, as it was something that his opponents were not doing (even though he admitted later in the same interview that he knew others did the same). At the time, my son was impressed at the levels Kobe went to in order to gain an advantage. Today, that helicopter anecdote takes on a totally different significance.
The biggest takeaway that I got from his interview, was that basketball was in many ways secondary to Kobe Bryant. He was a perfectionist, so whilst he was playing, he was determined to be the best. But ultimately, he seemed at peace away from the game. He called himself a ‘storyteller’. He spoke about how he would create tall tales for family and friends as a child.
This, of course, led to him creating his own visual media. Some were lauded and some not so much. Ultimately, the perfectionist Kobe Bryant conquered this new game, winning an Oscar in 2018 for his short film ‘Dear Basketball’.
Bryant was well educated, erudite – who else could smack talk Luka Doncic in his native Slovenian – and possessed an inquisitive streak and a razor sharp mind. As much as Kobe Bryant loved basketball, and as successful as he was at it – and as successful the game made him – he was never going to be like his old teammate Shaq, or punching bag Jalen Rose by going into the media. He wasn’t going to be like Tim Duncan or Elton Brand and take a job in the game. He had so much more going on.
That is the true shame of this tragedy. At the Age of 41, with many lifetimes of achievements already in his rear view mirror, we didn’t get to see the best of Kobe Bryant.
The best was still to come.
Vale Kobe Bean Bryant.