In the course of 20 seasons, Kobe Bryant went from intriguing high-school prospect to one of the greatest players both of his era and of all-time.
No manner of accolade escaped Bryant during his tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers as he performed fantastic feats nightly in his prime.
Here’s a look at 10 things to know about his legendary life and NBA career.
What’s in a name?: The third child of former NBA and Italian league star Joe “Jellybean” and Pamela Cox Bryant, Kobe Bean Bryant was blessed with a name that suggests he was destined for stardom from the beginning. His parents named him after the famous Japanese beef of the same name (which they discovered on a restaurant menu) and a play on his father’s nickname. Bryant was literally basketball royalty in Philadelphia and is also the maternal nephew of former NBA player John “Chubby” Cox. Bryant relocated from Philadelphia to Italy at the age of six, when his father retired from the NBA and continued his career in an Italian pro league. During his time in Rieti, Italy, Kobe began his lifelong love affair with soccer and became fluent in Italian.
A bilingual hoops prodigy returns: It wasn’t until 1991, when Joe Bryant finally retired, that the family returned to Philadelphia. It was then that Kobe would hone his prodigious basketball talent and test his skills against college and professional stars on the local circuit. In doing so, he was building his reputation and collecting every award imaginable along the way. He capped his senior season in high school with a state championship, both the Gatorade and Naismith National Player of the Year awards as well as a spot in the McDonald’s All-American game. His 2,833 point scored earned him the distinction as Southeastern Pennsylvania’s all-time scoring leader ahead of local legends Wilt Chamberlain and Lionel Simmons.
A trailblazer of sorts: Long before LeBron James spoke the words during “The Decision” decades later, a brash, young Bryant — sunglasses perched atop his head at the Lower Merion High gymnasium — declared he was “taking his talents” to the NBA rather than attending college at Duke or North Carolina. Following the lead of then-Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett a year earlier, Bryant became the first guard to join the preps-to-pros movement in 1996. The 13th pick in the Draft that year by Charlotte, Bryant was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers to start what would be a 20-year playing career as one of the most iconic players of all-time with one of the most iconic brands of all-time in any sport.
Growing pains … and gains: During his rookie season, Bryant — at just 18 years and 72 days old — became the youngest player to ever play in a NBA game. (That mark was later broken by future Bryant teammate, Andrew Bynum, in 2005.) As talented as he was, there was a steep learning curve for Bryant on a Lakers team boasting veteran stars Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones in the backcourt. Bryant started just seven games in his first two seasons, establishing himself as one of the league’s most dynamic young talents in that supporting role. He did win a Slam Dunk title during a second-team All-Rookie season. And in his second season, he was runner-up for the Sixth Man of the Year and voted in as the youngest starter in All-Star Game history, joining Van Exel, Jones and Shaquille O’Neal as the Lakers’ representatives. But for all of the highs, his season ended with four airballs in an overtime loss in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals to the Utah Jazz.
Lakers dominate, then get dismantled: With O’Neal in his prime, an ascending Kobe and a six-time championship coach in Phil Jackson all aligned, the next phase of Bryant’s career took flight. The Lakers won three straight titles (2000-02) running the same triangle offense Jackson used in Chicago with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. In each Finals, O’Neal was Finals MVP while Bryant established himself as the league’s best and most dynamic two-way guard. The good times couldn’t last, though. Not with Bryant itching for a spotlight he wouldn’t have to share with O’Neal (or anyone else) and a control he could never have as long as Jackson was in charge. The end came at the hands of the Detroit Pistons in The 2004 Finals, when a physically and emotionally drained Lakers crew got manhandled in five games by a Larry Brown-coached defensive juggernaut. Shaq was traded. Jackson departed. And the dynasty was over.
Mamba Mentality: Kobe torched the Toronto Raptors for 81 points on Jan. 22, 2006, the highest-scoring game in NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain’s hallowed 100-point game from March 2, 1962. It’s no coincidence that it came during Bryant’s “Black Mamba” phase. It was not only a self-appointed nickname but also an alter-ego he created in the aftermath of his tumultuous off-court drama in 2003 and ’04 that precipitated the meltdown and subsequent premature break-up of the Shaq-Kobe-Phil Lakers’ dynasty. Bryant’s ruthless alter ego fueled the most prolific scoring stretch of his career,. He averaged a career-best 35.4 points in 2005-06 and 31.4 the next season, winning back-to-back scoring titles. It wasn’t until Jackson returned and Paul Gasol was added, that the Lakers got back into the championship business again. They lost to the Boston Celtics in 2008 but won back-to-back titles in ’09 and ’10 with Bryant earning Finals MVP honors both times.
A full trophy case: When Kobe talks of winning at every level, it’s true. Famous for his wicked competitive streak, he led Lower Merion High School to a title (in 1996, the school’s first in 53 years), two national high school player of the year awards (Gatorade and Naismith) as he began his chase for the NBA’s big prize. He won the Slam Dunk title during All-Star weekend of his rookie season (1997). In addition to his five championships won with the Lakers (2000-02 and 2009-10), he also added two gold medals (’08 and ’12) with the U.S. Olympic team and one in the FIBA Americas Championship (2007). His individual hardware haul also includes one Kia MVP (’08), two Finals MVPs (’09 and ’10), two scoring titles (’06 and ’07) and All-Star Game MVPs (’02, ’07, ’09 and ’11).
And an Oscar, too…: Kobe didn’t stop collecting trophies when his playing career ended. He took it to the next level in 2018 when he won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film for the six-minute film based on a poem he wrote that was published in The Players’ Tribune in 2015. Bryant declared his Dear Basketball a triumph for all the athletes told over the years to “shut up and dribble.” Being nominated, he said, was validation that his lifelong passion for writing and storytelling was much more than some trivial pursuit, as he’s made clear with his achievements as a storyteller and content creator. He acknowledged the difficult path any athlete faces in starting over after a career filled with successes. In winning the Oscar, Bryant described the feeling in the moment as “better than winning a championship … it’s crazy.”
What?? This is beyond the realm of imagination. It means so much that the @TheAcademy deemed #DearBasketball worthy of contention. Thanks to the genius of @GlenKeanePrd & John Williams for taking my poem to this level. It's an honor to be on this team. #OscarNoms pic.twitter.com/M2joyk9D1V
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 23, 2018
All-time great numbers: Whatever comes next in his post-playing career, Bryant will always have a 20-year basketball resume that measures up to game’s all-time greats. By the time his playing career ended, Bryant had racked up enough accolades to punch two separate tickets to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. How so? He was a young phenom as No. 8 the first 10 years of his career, then switched to No. 24 as his dominance continued his last 10 years. He’s the only player in NBA history with two numbers retired by the same team. As for the accolades, Bryant was an 18-time All-Star, an 11-time first team All-NBA pick (two-times each on the second and third teams) and a nine-time first team All-Defensive team pick (making the second team three times).
His final game: One of the greatest scorers the game has ever seen, Kobe retired with 33,643 points (and a career average of 25 ppg) on his ledger, good for third on the NBA’s career scoring list. He went out in style on April 13, 2016, scoring 60 points in his final game before a standing room-only crowd filled with stars from the sports and entertainment world. He took 50 shots that night, the most by any player in at least 33 years, besting the 49 taken by Michael Jordan on Jan. 16, 1993. All that said, it was still a mic drop effort for Bryant, who took 15 more shots than the rest of his teammates combined and recorded the highest-scoring game of that season.