2008, USA-Spain, gold medal game in Beijing. There was so much pressure on that ’08 squad. The U.S. had fallen on hard times in recent years. They were no longer the world's best. In ’08, Team USA looked like they were ready to reclaim that honor. They steamrolled Australia and Argentina in the first couple of rounds. Then came Spain. Pro-stacked Spain. A Spain team that had been playing together for years. The game was tight in the fourth quarter. That’s when a team led by some of the biggest young stars in the NBA—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, among others—turned to the old veteran, Kobe Bryant. Bryant scored 13 points in the final eight minutes. His four-point play sealed the game. Bryant has called that game and that win one of the biggest moments of his career. It certainly was for USA Basketball. As impactful as Bryant was stateside, he will go down as one of the most influential international players ever. That game was a part of the reason why.
It was the last series of the season, near the end of the worst 12-month stretch of Kobe Bryant's life: 2004 NBA Finals, Lakers vs. Pistons. The Kobe-Shaq Lakers were splintering. Most people didn't realize it, but the Pistons were more than capable of pulling them apart. The Lakers lost, and so Kobe lost. But because he was Kobe, he found a way to win, too: his way. In Game 2, he hit a three-pointer to force overtime, sending the Staples Center into a roar that even a Shaquille O'Neal dunk could not match. It was clear, in that moment, that what the media said didn't matter, and the recommendation of some basketball minds wouldn't matter. The Lakers were Kobe's team, and L.A. was Kobe's town, for as long as he wanted. Shaq got traded that summer. Bryant re-signed with the Lakers. He would win two more championships and become—this phrase is so sad now—a Laker for life.
Although I was never a big Kobe kid, he managed to leave an indelible stain on my early basketball memories. For reasons I cannot explain, the player I initially latched onto post-Jordan was Vlade Divac, the lovable center of several Sacramento Kings teams handled mercilessly by Bryant, Shaq and the Lakers. We didn’t have cable, and this was Chicago in the early 2000s, so the only time good basketball ever came on television was playoff time. I was still a little too young to understand the irony that Kobe and Vlade were traded for one another in what will forever stand as one of the more regrettable trades in NBA history. Watching the Lakers repeatedly oust the Kings and dominate three straight Finals, end to end, frankly got boring. I had been too young to form accurate memories of Michael Jordan before his brief dalliance as a Wizard, so I was also too young to understand that Kobe was on his way to being the next-best thing. His style favored function over flair. I figured it out by the time he had reinvented himself as antihero and conqueror, in time to do battle with Celtics teams that occasionally bordered on unlikable. At that point, it was fun finally being able to root for him. It was also a crash course in reality figuring out that one guy scoring 81 points was still not an ideal or reliable way to win a basketball game. It was thrilling throughout.
The Kobe I’ve come to remember most fondly is the late-career version. He was complicated and had not always been easy to cheer for, but I think we can say for certain that he was determined to end his career on his own terms, and hyper-aware of everything in his orbit. If there was ever a time Kobe truly felt authentic, it was in wake of the Achilles tear that ushered in his final act. You don’t work all the way back from that injury at his age without a particular level of devotion and love for what you’re doing. While briefly working as an auxiliary copy editor on Kobe’s first book a few years back, I felt like I had finally come to understand him better. His words seethed with a level of intensity you can’t fake. There’s some comfort in knowing that even the greatest among us in our respective fields can’t afford to take their craft for granted. There was also some comfort in knowing Kobe, too, made the occasional typo.
I never had the chance to interact with him directly, but it seemed Kobe came to live his life as a father and entrepreneur in this very specific, pointed manner. At least outwardly in the public eye over the past week, he seemed to be at peace, pushing forward the same as ever and opening more and more avenues through which to satisfy his simple need to put the work in. That’s ultimately what I’ll remember most.
Minutes after the Charlotte Hornets selected the first guard to ever jump from high school to the NBA, Kobe Bryant sat down with the late—and great—Craig Sager. The date was June 26, 1996. The location was the NBA draft, held in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Sager asked Bryant, who was 17 years old and weeks removed from taking courses at Lower Merion High School, why he would skip college when he had thrived academically.
Bryant responded that jumping to the NBA out of high school was “the ultimate challenge.” He added that when he turns “40 years old” and “looks back on [his] career” he didn’t want to wonder, “could I have answered that challenge?”
It was a response that captured Bryant’s singular focus on stardom in the NBA—the Mamba mentality. Bryant neither demeaned college basketball nor wrote off university education. He also didn’t vow to disprove his doubters. He simply looked at himself from the eyes of future and pledged to make history happen.
It wasn’t long ago when Bryant became the 40-year-old man that he foresaw in 1996. That man had answered the challenge and then some.
Bryant wasn’t the first “prep-to-pro” player. Reggie Harding, Moses Malone, Bill Willoughby and Kevin Garnett all preceded him as high school players who bypassed college for the ABA or NBA. All were big men, though, not guards who weighed under 200 pounds at the time of the draft. Bryant’s success as an NBA guard paved the way for other elite high school guards to consider turning pro.
Eighty-one points is cool. The five NBA championship rings are even better. But my favorite memory of Kobe Bryant was his relationship with Rice High School in Harlem, New York. I graduated from Rice in 2010 and I personally never had the chance to interact with him, but seeing someone of Kobe’s caliber walk through the doors of Rice was surreal for many of my friends. Kobe sponsored the basketball team for 11 years until the school shut its doors in 2011 due to financial reasons. Year after year, Kobe left a mark with different students at Rice such as Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker.
Basketball was everything at Rice High School. I spent four years, every SINGLE DAY, arguing with my friends about Kobe vs. LeBron. The debates never stopped, and it helped me develop a craft in sports journalism. Kobe wasn’t perfect, but he was a great model for a predominantly all-black, all boys school in Harlem.
My most enduring Kobe memory is a recent one. As part of a package on illustration for SI Kids, we asked Kobe a few questions about his collaboration with famed animator Glen Keane on Dear Basketball, their Oscar-winning short film. One response stood out. When asked about their relationship, Bryant answered: “Early in the creative process, we bonded over our shared love of music. We found out that we’re both Beethoven fans. Glen listened to Beethoven’s Ninth when he was animating the beast’s transformation in Beauty and the Beast; I listened to Beethoven’s Fifth during Game 6 of the [2009 Western Conference finals] against the Nuggets.”
It wasn’t the kind of response you’d get from many athletes. It was a reminder that there was so much more to Bryant than his physical ability on the court, where his intellectual nature also served him well. But it also got me thinking about the entire (sadly truncated) second act of Bryant’s career: jumping with both feet into a content studio for kids. It seems like everything we read about Bryant is rightly prefaced with some sort of caveat about his complicated off-court life. And while we shouldn’t rush to lionize him, his sincere desire—and the amount of work he put into it makes it clear he was sincere—to send positive messages to kids is to be commended and speaks to the kind of man that, after starting a family, he had become.
I never covered Kobe, though I wish I’d had that chance. I love reading and hearing stories about the time he did this or he did that. Everyone seems to have a special memory of him. For me, I will remember Kobe most for how he became one of the greatest advocates for women’s sports. Seeing him at USWNT soccer games, listening to WNBA players talk about how he inspired them, and of course, watching him with his daughters. I couldn’t wait to see superstar Kobe turn into sideline-dad Kobe. He was going to be that parent who traveled to every one of Gigi’s games once she was in college and the WNBA. And it’s heartbreaking and gut-wrenching to know that neither of them will get to share those happy times together.
With all due respect to 81, the 2010 Finals or any other notable Kobe moment, I want to take a quick personal trip down memory lane.
I was a huge Kobe fan despite growing up in Denver, and my dad and I went to see the Nuggets host the Lakers on opening night in November 2005. Armed with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown, Kobe carried the Lakers to an overtime win with 33 points, sealing the victory with a game-winning jumper in overtime. Nine-year-old me leapt with joy, beaming on the walk to the car in my gold No. 8 jersey. Rest in peace, Kobe. Thank you for the memories.
Kobe Bryant’s tenure with the Lakers was far from perfect, but his pair of free throws near the end of the 2012-13 season against the Warriors epitomized the tenacity and perseverance that Bryant exhibited throughout his career. Bryant limped to the free throw line, barely able to make it to the stripe as seconds earlier he had torn his Achilles tendon. He hit both free throws to tie the game, finishing with 34 points. The Lakers would go on to win by two—every point mattered throughout the Black Mamba's career. Bryant never consistently played at that same elite level again. But time and time again, he showed he could block out pain as well as anyone else. Whenever a current Lakers player misses a pair of free throws, it’s hard not to remember that Bryant made a pair without an Achilles.
I will not remember Kobe for a specific game, but for the wisdom he carried and gave to others. Beyond helping current and past NBA players in their quest to improve, Kobe shared plenty of lessons he learned to anyone who would listen. Bryant expressed confidence in all he did, and he helped me gain some, too, with advice he gave in a Facebook post eight years ago. This was as memorable a Kobe moment for me as any, and his leadership will always be something to look up to.
"The ability to elevate those around you is more than simply sharing the ball or making teammates feel a certain level of comfort. It's pushing them to find their inner beast, even if they end up resenting you for it at the time... This is my way. It might not be right for YOU but all I can do is share my thoughts. It’s on YOU to figure out which leadership style suits you best. Will check back in with you soon.. Till then, Mamba out."
One of my fondest memories of Kobe “Bean” Bryant came during the 2000 NBA playoffs. It was Game 7 between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers had their backs against the wall, trailing by 13 points entering the fourth quarter. I was 12 years old at the time, but fully locked in while it appeared Rasheed Wallace and Portland would pull off the upset on the road.
But not so fast. Kobe and Shaq went on a tear in that fourth period. I remember like it was yesterday. They stormed back to take the lead, and with less than a minute remaining in the game, a moment took place that’s engraved in my memory forever. While dribbling at the top of the key and Scottie Pippen—one of top defenders in NBA history—closely guarding him, the then 21-year-old Kobe, who was rocking a fro and No. 8 at the time, gave Pippen a subtle crossover, left him in the dust, then threw a perfectly-placed alley-oop to Shaq. The Diesel caught it with one hand and finished with authority. The Staples Center went nuts as Shaq pointed to the crowd while running back down the other end of the court.
It put the icing on the cake for the Lakers, as they outscored Portland 31-13 in that quarter and secured a trip to the NBA Finals, where Kobe and Shaq would capture the first of their three titles together.
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