Kobe Bryant: basketball superstar and tireless competitor who became a global sports legend

He was one of the greatest shooters in the NBA’s history and remained remarkably driven throughout his career

Kent Babb
Monday 27 January 2020 18:39
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Bryant played with the LA Lakers for 20 years
Bryant played with the LA Lakers for 20 years

Kobe Bryant was a five-time National Basketball Association champion who retired in 2016 before adding an Academy award to his considerable trophy case two years later. In sports and in life, Bryant, who has been killed in a helicopter crash the age of 41, was an individual whose tirelessness and competitive drive were as notable as his versatility and ambition.

Bryant was one of the smoothest and most dangerous shooters in a league previously dominated by Jordan, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird. When those players retired or their talents faded, Bryant took up their mantle. The 6ft 6in shooting guard was named to the NBA‘s all-star team in 18 of his 20 seasons, all with the Lakers, and he twice led the league in scoring. He scored 81 points during a game in 2006, the second-highest total in a game in league history.

He and Shaquille O’Neal led the Lakers to three consecutive championships, from 2000 to 2002, though perhaps more impressive was Bryant’s ability to push the Lakers back into the league’s championship ranks after the departures of O’Neal and Coach Phil Jackson, who had guided Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to six championships during the 1990s.

Bryant, who was one of the first players to skip college basketball and declare himself eligible for the NBA draft in 1996, modelled his game after Jordan and saw himself as the heir apparent – and occasional rival – to the former Bulls superstar.

Indeed, Bryant’s voracious competitiveness could strike some as aloofness, and his reputation as a teammate and sports role model were matters of controversy. He famously clashed with O’Neal, orchestrating the fun-loving centre’s trade from Los Angeles in 2004 because Bryant occasionally viewed him as lazy.

Bryant’s image had already changed a year earlier, when an employee of a Colorado resort accused him of sexually assaulting her. Although charges were eventually dropped, a civil settlement was reached, and Bryant’s image as a clean-cut cultural darling was tarnished.

Bryant started for the LA Lakers in 1996 aged 18

He would spend the next decade rebuilding his image not just as a detail-oriented perfectionist but as a person obsessed with greatness and achievement overall. He became a mentor of famous young NBA players and anonymous youngsters interested in basketball’s finer points.

If his commitment to fulfilling potential sometimes rubbed peers the wrong way, it also could be infectious. After the US men’s basketball team’s disappointing bronze-medal performance in the 2004 Athens Olympics, Bryant was added to the team and quickly became a veteran leader. A noted early riser who, even as he passed his 40th birthday, would often be up by 5am for an intense workout or shooting session, he challenged Olympic teammates to join the “Breakfast Club”. Bryant’s group met each morning at 7am for weight training or basketball drills, and alongside fellow team leader and NBA superstar LeBron James, Team USA returned to its past dominance with gold medals in 2008 and 2012.

Between games and workouts, Bryant was an insatiable learner on and off the court. Early in his career, he picked the brains of Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon to learn and mimic their signature basketball moves. Although Bryant had never attended college, he was nonetheless captivated by the pursuit of knowledge and lifelong improvement. He took summer school courses at UCLA after his rookie season in the NBA, and years later he invited entertainers and visionaries – Oprah Winfrey, JK Rowling and George RR Martin among them – for in-depth discussions about their crafts.

Although Bryant accomplished almost everything possible on the basketball court, a traditional retirement never held much appeal. A lifelong film buff who filled idle time by quoting Star Wars, The Big Lebowski or a Harry Potter movie, Bryant began imagining his next career before stepping away from his first. His basketball career had made him a millionaire a few hundred times over, but his investments in the sports drink company BodyArmor and other companies that included grooming products and artificial intelligence were positioning Bryant to again follow Jordan, this time into an exclusive club of billionaires who began their careers as athletes.

During Bryant’s final season with the Lakers, he wrote a poem called “Dear Basketball”, or what amounted to a farewell to the game that made him a household name. He later adapted the poem into a nearly four-minute animated film, complete with a rousing score by John Williams. It was one of five nominees for best animated short before the 2018 Academy Awards.

Bryant with 13-year-old daughter Gianna, who also died in the crash

Kobe Bean Bryant was born in Philadelphia in 1978, and spent many of his formative years in Italy. His mother, the former Pamela Cox, was a homemaker and the sister of former NBA player Chubby Cox; his father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, was a professional basketball player who spent most of his playing and coaching career in Europe.

Bryant first attracted national attention as a high school player at Lower Merion High in suburban Philadelphia, and he combined generational talent with looks and flair perfectly suited for Hollywood.

Although his first name, at least according to Bryant mythology, was inspired by a visit to a high-end steak house, Yahoo Sports reported in 2016 that more than 14,000 boys had been named Kobe during Bryant’s NBA career.

As a 17-year-old, he was the No 13 pick in the 1996 NBA draft by the Charlotte Hornets, but he threatened to follow in his father’s footsteps and begin his career in Italy if the Hornets retained his rights. The team traded him to the Lakers, with whom he would spend his entire career and become an immediate fan favourite by winning the 1997 slam dunk contest, beginning a sensational career and fulfilling Bryant’s ambition for suiting up for an NBA team most famous for glitz, glamour and an era of glory.

The journey had begun on his family’s driveway in Philadelphia, where on snowy days Bryant’s mother would ask him to clear the driveway. He would do so just enough to shoot hoops, sometimes putting up hundreds of shots per day as he perfected a form that would become internationally famous.

His daughter was also killed in the crash. He is survived by his wife Vanessa Laine Bryant and three other daughters.

Kobe Bryant, basketball player, born 23 August 1978, died 26 January 2020

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