Kobe Bean Bryant was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. And one year after his tragic death at 41 years old, it can still feel unreal at times. The suddenness of his passing at such a young age makes his passing hard to believe, let alone accept, for many. He was iconic and beloved by some, despised and frustrating to others. But Bryant was also very polarizing and, like a lot of people, flawed and human. In just over four decades, it would appear his life’s trajectory covered what many never graze in twice the time.
Eight quotes that share his story and tell of his impact on basketball as well as beyond it.
1 “I have decided to skip college and take my talent to the NBA.” (May 1996)
In 1996, there was one brash, cocky senior from Lower Merion High School in PA who was making a name for himself as a hot prospect for the NBA Draft. The son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, himself a flashy, hot-dogging forward in his time, Kobe Bryant was the first guard to enter the league straight from high school, which was a testament to his skill as well as the faith scouts had in his ability to deliver. Who else could say he took Brandy to his high school prom and has a cameo on Sister, Sister in the same year? This would be years before Lebron James would have his own high school games played on ESPN or borrow this very phrase for his “Decision” to play for the Miami Heat in 2009 and be derided for it.
2 “‘I would go 0-30 before I would go 0-9. 0-9 means you beat yourself, you psyched yourself out of the game… The only reason is because you’ve just now lost confidence in yourself.’” (August 2014)
For all his highlights, game-winning moments, and buzzer beaters, one thing Kobe’s detractors agree consistently harp on is his questionable efficiency.
Early in his career, his fearless gunslinging reared its head, like his infamous four airballs vs. the Utah Jazz in an overtime loss. But he could even find the positives from that experience. “It was an early turning point for me in being able to deal with adversity, deal with public scrutiny and self-doubt. At 18-years-old, it was gut-check time… I look back at it now with fond memories of it. Back then, it was misery. It helped shape me.”
For his career, Bryant missed more shots in the regular season than any other player in NBA history (13,147) as well as put up an almost inhuman 50 shots in his last game (the most since MJ in 1993, with 49), thus becoming the oldest player to score 60 points in an NBA game.
But as perhaps the NBA’s last true gunslinger, his volume shooting produced an 81-point game (which some experts considered the best NBA scoring performance), two scoring titles, 18 All-Star appearances, and five rings over a twenty-year career. In a lot of ways, like James Mangold’s Logan, Kobe was a man fighting Father Time and, ultimately himself. Even as the game changed and his body broke down, for better or worse, Kobe was going to be Kobe to the fighting end.
3 “If you see me in a fight with a bear, pray for the bear.” (February 2013)
Stories abound of Kobe’s relentless work ethic and his refusal to quit.
Three years after Kobe had won his fifth championship, in February 2013, the Lakers were 26-29 and tied for last place, struggling for relevancy in the Western Conference. Bryant then made a bold prediction when he promised the Lakers would make the playoffs. Bryant was averaging 27.4 ppg at the time, ranking 3rd in the league for scoring and carrying a massive load of scoring for the team. But he stood by his statement, and the Lakers crept up the standings.
It would be only two months later, though, that the mileage would take its toll. Bryant had overcome many previous injuries and not seen a huge decline in performance, and the Achilles tendon rupture vs. the Warriors would be the clear sign that his best years were behind him. But what stood out for many people was that he walked to the free-throw line, under his own power, to sink two free throws. The symbolism of playing through his pain and setting the example must have worked – although, without their leader for the remainder of the postseason, the Lakers did make the playoffs.
4 “ Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure. I also want to apologize to her parents and family members, and to my family and friends and supporters, and to the citizens of Eagle, Colo.” (Sep 2004)
The complete story of Kobe cannot be told without addressing his potentially darkest chapter. What we know for sure is that he engaged in an adulterous liaison with someone other than his wife, that he and Vanessa eventually patched things up, and that he mostly rehabbed his image after that episode.
However, other leaked information led to a great amount of contention with his teammates. Per police reports, Shaq’s name was brought up and, when that became public knowledge, the center promptly found himself in a divorce with his wife, Shaunie. And coach Phil Jackson deemed Bryant “uncoachable” in his book The Last Season: A Team In Search of Its Soul.
However, in his second book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, Jackson went further to clarify why his frustration with Kobe ran so deep and personal. The court of public opinion has also remained divided on Bryant, with some saying it was a “he said, she said” matter and others branding him a rapist who walked because of his professional accolades and wealth.
The episode remains an indelible, defining mark on Bryant’s legacy.
5 “I read up on the [Black Mamba] and said, ‘Wow, this is pretty awesome,’ ” Bryant recalled. “This is a perfect description of how I would want my game to be… I said, ‘If I create this alter ego, so now when I play this is what’s coming out of your mouth, it separates the personal stuff, right?’ You’re not watching David Banner—you’re watching the Hulk.” (March 2014)
Two drops of venom from a black mamba can kill an adult human. It’s the fastest land snake in the world and the longest venomous snake in Africa, which speaks to the reptile’s lethality. And that was the exact image Bryant sought to cultivate for himself in his rebrand after Colorado.
No longer “the golden child,” he’d become radioactive and lost virtually every endorser except Nike, which had gone radio silent while assessing its next move with its fallen star. Kobe took the idea of a new name after watching Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and the Black Mamba would become his own alter ego. Two years later, he would officially begin wearing No. 24 with the start of the 2006-07 season, signifying his change was complete and that he was leaving his old self behind.
6 “I just got one more than Shaq! You can take that to the bank … You guys know how I am. I don’t forget anything.” (June 2010)
After their acrimonious split in 2004, O’Neal and Bryant engaged in a sort of “cold war,” with each one trying to prove his lack of need for the other. L.A.’s loyalty to Bryant did not sit well with the Big Diesel, and now he had a major axe to grind. Two years after being traded from Hollywood to South Beach, Shaq won his fourth championship in Miami with Dwyane Wade. At the same time, Bryant amassed various all manners of individual achievement (including his 81-point torrent) but could not take the Lakers anywhere meaningful in the playoffs.
Finally, though, in 2008, the Lakers had made their first visit to NBA Finals only to be defeated by their longtime rivals, the Boston Celtics. And Shaq went on stage at an offseason party to let his feeling be known. “Kobe couldn’t do it without me,” he rapped. And then he went into his infamous chant: “Kobe, tell me how my a** tastes.”
O’Neal would say it was all in good fun right after, and a miffed Bryant told reporters, “I didn’t take it any kind of way whatsoever.” But he was visibly frustrated and refused to address any more questions on the topic. According to Sue Bird, Kobe cut out a photo of the Celtics celebrating, and he put it in his pocket as motivation.
For the next two years, Bryant and new center Pau Gasol were on a mission to restore the purple-and-gold to glory. But specifically for Bryant, things became more personal. The Lakers’ 2009 Finals victory over the Orlando Magic left Bryant and O’Neal with four rings apiece. However, both players were at different points in their careers. Shaq was hopping around from team to team and providing more comic relief than being the feared imposing force as which he was once known; Kobe was not the athletic powerhouse of his youth, but he still possessed a quick step now balanced with maturity and greater willingness to defer to teammates.
So when a tightly contested Game 7 versus the Boston Celtics ended in victory for the Lakers, Kobe could not wait to remind his former teammate.
7 “When I have the chance to guard Michael Jordan, I want to guard him. I want him. It’s the ultimate challenge I don’t want to be the next Michael Jordan, I only want to be Kobe Bryant.” (December 1997)
The NBA was a struggling organization, and Michael Jordan was its savior. Once the league saw how Jordan had become such a commercial success and cultural icon, there has always been the attempt to crown someone as “the next Jordan.” Guards like Vince Carter, Jerry Stackhouse, Tracy McGrady, and even Dwyane Wade found their way into the conversation.
In fact, to be considered “the Michael Jordan of…” is the ultimate stamp of approval, to be considered the best. And nobody tried to emulate his style more closely than Kobe. He couldn’t help that he was 6’6” and played the shooting guard position, like Jordan. But then having been coached by Phil Jackson and being similarly utilized in Jackson’s triangle offense? Reaching out to Jordan and borrowing so much of his moves? Calling his “big brother” at all odd hours of the night for tips? No, it would seem Bryant wanted to “out-Jordan” Jordan.
Now, the stats will tell you Bryant and Jordan were worlds apart. And, given the span of his career and his style of play, Bryant served as a bridge between the Jordan era and the Lebron era. He is that player who sits between a pre-analytics basketball and the “Moneyball,” three-point enamored league we have with us now. But no one has ever shot at a wastebasket – or a real basket – screaming “Lebron.” And, like all good barbershop discussions, Kobe was never as far off the mark as haters would have you believe, either. In fact, the Kobe assist was created for him, the concept that even missed shots can as good as makes in the right situations. But for a younger generation that never saw Jordan play in the flesh, Bryant’s been as close to walking on water as it gets.
8 “No, I don’t [miss basketball anymore]. It’s crazy… for the athletes that come next, understand that there is a finale to it. And that’s OK. It’s very hard to let go of something that you’ve done for half your life. It’s kind of become who you are. But it’s a difference between doing what you do versus understanding that that is not who you are. Hopefully, other athletes can see that and understand that.” (April 2017 on Good Morning America)
Even for the average Joe, there is a midlife crisis or questions about identity after retirement. Athletes aplenty struggle with life after sport, when there is no more roar of the crowd or when one is no longer “the talk of the town.” Some come back for second or third appearances as shells of their former selves; others become late-night celebrity endorsers for all types of strange wares. But from his interviews, Kobe appeared to have planned for this moment well before it came. He mentioned how the Achilles injury forced him to give thought to life after the game. And so, as a father of four girls, he started coaching his daughter Gianna’s basketball team.
And he found another outlet: storytelling. He told Forbes Magazine, “I enjoy doing it. I was fortunate to retire from the game and find something I love to do, and that is the art of storytelling. There is nothing like having a blank page and outlining a story, a world, a character. What is it going to look like, how does that come together? There is nothing more fun to me than doing this.” Bryant won the Academy Award for Best Animated for his 2017 Short Film Dear Basketball, which marked the first Oscar win for any professional athlete ever. And he’d begun work with his own venture, Granity Studios, which would produce various content tying sports to stories children could understand.
What was amazing about it all is that Kobe was not going to be that athlete who would unretire to retire again or drive a white Ford Bronco in a slow-speed car chase. What hurt about his untimely passing was that he seemed to have happily found life after basketball and was a proud “girl dad” and husband and storyteller.
The greatest lesson, though, is that Bryant had found something that maybe eluded even Jordan – peace.