“Do yourself a favor, go to Philly and watch this Kobe Bryant kid. He played with me and a bunch of NBA players all summer, and when we chose sides, he was never the last one picked.” — Rick Mahorn, New Jersey Nets forward, October of 1995.
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“Kobe Bryant was a passenger in a helicopter crash in Calabasas and there are no survivors.” — TMZ, January of 2020.
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My introduction and farewell to a basketball icon was met with disbelief. There was no way possible a 17 year old was holding his own against seasoned and competitive professionals, and there was absolutely no chance a five-time champion known to the world on a first-name basis was aboard an aircraft that plunged into a hillside just outside Los Angeles. Both were beyond comprehension, the first one a pleasant surprise, the latter a terrible shock.
Yet, between that beginning and end was a meaty middle that blossomed and developed into a basketball story for a generation.
Kobe Bryant fulfilled all the initial promise, and did so spectacularly. Because of that, his departure was all the more devastating. As a sports journalist who first became aware of him early, and then followed him from varying distances over the next two decades, my seat was, at different times: in the front row, in the gym, on the sofa watching TV and in the hallway at Lower Merion High School. In each case, I was always transfixed by the player, the young man, the adult and the competitor — how could anyone not be?
In a city filled with A-listers, Kobe had ownership of Los Angeles throughout the 2000s and became bedroom wallpaper for scores of kids who slept with basketballs. He was part of the last Lakers dynasty, won a Kia MVP (2007-08), two Finals MVPs, two scoring titles, named 11 times First Team All-NBA, moved merchandise, scored 81 points in a game, 60 in his thrilling final game … and spoke fluent Italian. That last talent, which came well before the basketball skills, is what he used as a high school senior to impress a reporter for his first national interview.
“I didn’t grow up around here,” he explained that day, meaning Philadelphia. The night before, Kobe suited up for Lower Merion, a public school surrounded by McMansions in the suburbs, and carried his teammates, a bunch of future Wall Streeters and attorneys, to victory in a gym that was half-filled and would be virtually empty if not for him. His father, Joe Bryant, briefly an energetic forward on a swashbuckling and undisciplined Sixers team in the 1970s, finished his pro career in Italy and took the family with him.
Kobe quickly learned the strange language in middle school and fell in love with the charms of the country: the food, customs, Florence and Rome, of course. Many years later, he named his daughters Natalia (with the Italian pronunciation), Capri (after the island off the coast), Bianka and Gianna.
“I want to be the greatest player in history,” he told me, and sure kid, that’s what all teenagers dream about. After 45 minutes, the interview was over, and three days later, the story appeared in a newspaper in New York, a city that reacted with a shrug. Kobe was eventually named the country’s top prep player and, after giving college basketball a thought for about five minutes, declared for the 1996 NBA draft.
The NBA had a love-hate with the concept of the straight-to-the-pros route. Jermaine O’Neal and Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady succeeded in large part because they had size. Kobe was a skinny 6-foot-6. And not everyone in the league devoured the hype.
‘I’ll beat anyone in the league one-on-one’
The top five teams didn’t invite him in for a pre-Draft workout. The hometown Sixers, holding the No. 1 pick, were married to Allen Iverson. The Celtics, at six, did work out Kobe, but Rick Pitino, who previously coached at Kentucky, took Antoine Walker. From there, Arn Tellum, a powerful agent in the league, manipulated the draft to get his client away from the rebuilding teams and to the Lakers. He told the Nets, who showed the most interest, not to bother, that Kobe would refuse to play, and the Nets called his bluff.
The Hornets took Kobe at No. 13 with a prearranged trade with the Lakers already settled and somewhere, that Hornets cap he wore while shaking commissioner David Stern’s hands is a priceless piece of memorabilia. Kobe was a Laker for life.
He played in the Summer Pro League in Long Beach, Calif., and the ticket line for his first game wrapped around the block. Kobe played well, although mostly against C-grade competition. Before training camp, he broke his wrist, incredibly from playing pickup ball by the beach against a bunch of star-struck Joes. That, and a consensus decision by Lakers GM Jerry West and coach Del Harris to bring him along slowly on a team that won 53 games the season before — and had just signed Shaquille O’Neal in free agency — conspired to give Kobe table scraps for playing time as a rookie.
He wasn’t better than Eddie Jones, who started and was an All-Star in 1996-97. In Kobe’s mind, he was ready for the All-Star team, which would come in 1997-98, when Kobe was voted by fans as a starter (ironically, over Jones) despite being the Lakers’ sixth man and only 19.
“He was motivated to be the best and I don’t mean the best that he could be,” Harris said recently. “You never had to motivate him to do anything. He came to practice ready to go. In our facility, the lights were automatically activated and sometimes they didn’t always come on, but that didn’t matter to him because he didn’t need them. He’d shoot in the dark.”
In that rookie year, Kobe pulled Harris aside — imagine the audacity of a teenager giving a veteran coach some advice — and hatched a plan that defined Kobe’s supreme confidence, even then:
“Coach, if you can get Shaq out of the paint and give me the ball, I’ll beat anyone in the league one-on-one.”
Harris, wisely, declined the tip. Despite his inexperience, Kobe’s talent couldn’t be reined in much longer. Bryant’s playing time and role ballooned to the point where Harris said: “I was willing to finish a game with him. His progress was measurable.”
Years later, while reflecting on his professional infancy when he averaged only 15 minutes and 7.6 points a night — unfathomable when you think about it — Kobe saw the benefits of tough love and expressed as much when he ran into Harris and said: “You pushed me and made me earn everything I got.”
(Interestingly, in the 1997 Draft, the Lakers had the chance to roll the dice on another high school player whose pre-Draft workout was just as impressive as Kobe’s. Jerry West had a deal in place, but it would’ve cost them Eddie Jones, and owner Jerry Buss felt the team was ready to win now. So the basketball world was denied McGrady with Kobe.)
The transformational moment in Kobe’s career was created by failure. Much like Michael Jordan’s inability to make the high school varsity as a sophomore, Kobe’s four airballs late in Game 5 of the 1997 Western Conference semifnials against the Utah Jazz was his magnum oop-us that launched a wild athlete. Like others, I watched with a sense of sorrow at the spectacle. Upon returning that evening from Salt Lake City, Kobe went to Palisades High School near his home, convinced a custodian to unlock the gym, and shot until all the frustration fibers finally left his 18-year-old body.
‘Everything he learned, he learned from Michael’
Kobe then embraced a no-excuses mindset to preparation and execution — Mamba Mentality, he later called it, a spin-off from his nickname. In a journey to discover every psychological and competitive edge, he turned often for advice and clues to the player he tried to copy, Jordan. He was by now both smitten and irritated by persistent phone calls from Kobe — which often came late at night because Kobe ignored the time zone difference.
Kobe also struck a relationship with a renown sports psychologist and performance coach endorsed by Jordan. George Mumford, college roommates with Julius Erving and author of “The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance,“ worked with the Lakers and Chicago Bulls at the request of former Bulls and Lakers coach Phil Jackson. He taught mindfulness to Jordan and others, helping them understand themselves and their focus. He sized up Kobe quickly.
“He was the closest thing to MJ in terms of that mentality, that will to win, that ability to tolerate high levels of discomfort, the ability to manage and perform well under pressure, all of those sorts of things,” Mumford said recently. “I remember once when he hurt his index finger and couldn’t hold a basketball. He didn’t take time off. He changed his shot and continued to play through it. That’s when I knew Kobe had arrived as a player who could stand alone.”
Kobe’s first All-Star Game was held in New York in 1998, bringing me closer to him, and he remembered our first conversation (“the hallway at school, right?”). The New York media — including yours truly — were guilty of concocting a delicious and realistic angle for that All-Star Game: Jordan, who would retire from the Bulls following the season, passing the ceremonial baton to his successor.
Both players took the bait, and Kobe was hell-bent on proving this theory true; he saw himself in that role more than anyone else. Kobe led the West with 18 points and engaged in playful banter against Jordan whenever they matched one-on-one. A basketball nation sensed that something, a potential Heir Jordan, was in the works.
“Kobe said everything he learned, he learned from Michael,” Mumford said. “Knowing that I worked with Michael, he was interested in the mentality, how to approach things. (But) it was me helping him be himself and find his own way, find his inner game, how to know yourself so you could express yourself. I told him, ‘You can have the characteristics and the qualities of Michael but you have to be yourself.’ If you’re a musician you emulate other people, but you create your own song.”
Kobe had entered an exclusive club of elite athletes who, sometimes at the detriment of their social life, put their sport first and foremost. During the height of his career, Kobe didn’t have many friendships outside of basketball, insane given his exposure to social events and gatherings afforded to the rich and famous. He rarely gravitated among his own teammates. At the 2008 Olympic Games, on a Team USA loaded with All-Stars, word reached us in the media that Kobe worked with his personal trainer while teammates ate breakfast.
“There is such a pursuit of excellence that they’re willing to go the extra mile,” Mumford said. “You have to do more than what people are willing to do. There’s a tolerance of discomfort but also an intellectual component. Geniuses know what to focus on and know how to sustain the focus. That’s what makes these elite performers different. We all have the capacity to do that, but now we’re talking about the will. Where others see danger, they see opportunity.”
Much like Jordan, Mumford found Kobe actually enjoyed the challenges that arose from losing almost as much as the fruits of victory.
“The adversity makes them stronger,” he said. “They use it as a steppingstone. They embrace it, they learn from it and when it happens, they say, ‘This is never going to happen again.’ There’s a willingness to put in the time and effort to do that. It comes to the choices we make and who we decide we want to be. You’re either in survival mode or growth mode. You can’t be in both.”
‘A product of an era long since passed’
From those foundations — the earn-your-way method employed by Harris and the cut-throat example set by Jordan — Kobe found the winner within. He settled for nothing less, from himself and from those he needed. That partially explains the rift between him and Shaq: both were headstrong and Kobe thought his co-star wasn’t as committed. And that’s also why he gravitated toward Jackson, who coached Jordan and knew how to light the wick inside the belly of both.
What happened next was a rapid fire of results from a soaring, exciting and single-minded star. Kobe (with Shaq’s help of course) won three straight titles from 2000-02. Then, after O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat, Kobe embarked on a different path.
This one was filled with astonishing individual highs and team lows: he won a pair of scoring titles but the Lakers fell flat, averaging 40 wins in the first three seasons without Shaq. What I witnessed was the cost of being so stubbornly great: Kobe thought he could go solo in a team sport and failed. Jackson later told me Jordan didn’t win until he learned to trust and work better with others — hence, the championship-winning passes to John Paxson and Steve Kerr in Game 6s — and Kobe post-Shaq and pre-Pau Gasol was trapped in that Neverland.
Mumford agreed: “What they had to learn is how to accept people where they were and how to level them up. That’s something they have to make peace with, and that’s a process.”
Kobe had two seasons where he averaged a combined 33.5 points per game, cemented his place as the game’s biggest box office … and yet the Lakers went three straight seasons without winning a playoff series. He was surrounded by Kwame Brown, Devean George and Jordan Farmar. He actually entertained the thought of forcing a trade to the Clippers. We found him moody in interviews, disconnected to a degree. Then, West came to the rescue. He returned to the Lakers, swung a trade for then-Memphis Grizzlies star Pau Gasol, remaking the rotation of role players and the Lakers returned to a championship level.
Along the way, Kobe changed, too, applying the hard lessons he learned playing next to Shaq and using it to strengthen his relationship with Gasol. He became easier for Jackson to coach, too. The Lakers went to three straight Finals once again, winning two.
“Kobe gave every ounce of himself on the court,” said Derek Fisher, his longtime teammate. “He was willing to die out there if necessary to win.”
Kobe played 1,566 NBA games, a total that includes 220 playoff games. How can anyone even begin to place them in any order of significance or weight?
The championship-clinching games of the dynasty when he danced in the arms of Shaq in the aftermath? When he jumped on the scorer’s table at Staples Center and emptied his lungs while the confetti fell after winning a title without Shaq? Those were paramount, of course, as was the signature 81-pointer. One under-the-radar game was the 2003-04 regular-season finale in Portland. The Lakers needed to win to clinch the Pacific Division title, but it otherwise was a rather meaningless contest in the big picture.
Yet that game, and the ballistic way it finished, defined the talent and skill and desire of Kobe as much as any either before or after it.
The Lakers were down three points on the final possession of regulation. Kobe isolated on top of the key just inches away from Ruben Patterson, the mouthy, physical and self-proclaimed “Kobe Stopper.” It was precisely the position Kobe craved: To have the chance to both silence a tormentor and dictate the outcome.
Kobe pump-faked. Patterson didn’t bite. With time now ticking and Kobe running out of options, he leaned right and flung the ball at the rim before falling to the floor, eyes transfixed at the flight of the ball. Bucket, buzzer, overtime.
Then in double-overtime, the Lakers were down two and inbounding the ball with 1 second left — barely enough time to catch and shoot. Kobe made a mad dashing from the baseline through a handful of bodies to spring free, took the inbounds pass, turned and aimed a 3-pointer just over the fingertips of the 6-foot-10 Theo Ratliff. The shot was so puffy and perfectly arched that the net barely rippled when the ball dropped through.
The road crowd was frozen silent. Kobe ran spread-armed into a sea of yelping teammates who leaped from the bench. I stayed up late on the East Coast and witnessed this with a throat that went dry. It wasn’t Game 7 of The Finals to anyone but him.
“Kobe comes from the old school,” Fisher said. “He’s a throwback, a product of an era long since passed.”
‘Oh the things he would’ve done’
From our first discussion, to our last, which happened in his final season, just months before he retired in style with a 60-point sendoff game, Kobe’s self belief never wavered. He actually thought he’d be better than Jordan and hell if he didn’t come closer than anyone imagined. Without that carrot he boldly placed before himself, Kobe wouldn’t have been half the player he became.
Brian Shaw, who served as teammate and assistant coach to Kobe and perhaps knew him better than anyone, used Kobe’s example to motivate NBA G League players he coached this season on the G League Ignite, some of whom were fresh from high school.
“It was Kobe-did-this, Kobe-did-that sort of thing,” Shaw said. “Of course, whenever you bring up Kobe, all eyes and ears are on you. That’s how much of an impact he had, not only on his generation, but the generation that followed, from kids who were too young to even see him play all that much.”
It was the fuel Kobe took with him in retirement, creating his own media company, retooling his apparel relationship with Nike, training young college and NBA players who worshipped him, and becoming a lighthouse for women’s athletics after being inspired by the basketball interest shown by Gigi, his daughter. But post-playing Kobe left all the edginess behind. In order to keep Gigi’s travel ball team together, for example, he offered to pay her teammates’ tuition to attend her private school.
“I saw him go from a young boy, to a young man, to a veteran and then to a father,” Shaw said. “I saw all the ups and downs and I don’t think many people could’ve handled it better than Kobe.”
It is that basketball evolution which will separate Kobe from his peers in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where he’ll be inducted Saturday. The route barely traveled, from the teenager who believed he could do it all to the 20-year veteran who did.
And then, Kobe Bryant took it further, after retirement and until his passing. To someone who sat with him for an interview in the hallway of Lower Merion, while his classmates swerved to avoid our legs, my vision of what happened next remains clear: Kobe lived a life of contested development and of course conquered it.
His first NBA coach also noticed this complete transition while both attended the 2017 funeral of Frank Hamblen, the long-time assistant coach under Jackson with the Bulls and Lakers.
“Kobe gave the eulogy,” Harris said, “and I was in awe of what I saw and heard, the words that came from him, the thoughtfulness and composure. Remember, I had Kobe at the start of his basketball life. I knew he had matured and I knew he had the Mamba program and he was really looking to help kids and make a difference. I knew that. But then I saw and heard him at that funeral. It was the man he became.
“Taking what I saw of him then, I believe if he were able to live another 41 years, he would’ve done more memorable things for the good of everybody than he did as a player. He was headed in that direction. Ironically, at the time of Kobe’s passing, I was 82 and he was 41. I was thinking if he were able to have my 82, oh the things he would’ve done.”
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