How Kobe Became One of the Greats, On and Off the Court

No other baller had skills quite like the Black Mamba—and he was only just beginning to show the world how his greatness could continue in new and different forms
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Kobe Bryant’s death on the morning of January 26 in Calabasas, in the crash of a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter that also killed his 13-year-old daughter and seven others, cut short the life of one of L.A.’s most dramatic, dynamic and—following an extended image-repair effort—beloved public figures. That the loss was at once so personal and visceral to the city is testament to Bryant’s singular place in its firmament; his story—of arrival, invention, reinvention, of rise and fall and rise again, of a stranger appearing from points east bearing a talent so phenomenal that it transcended and transformed an entire discipline—refracted L.A.’s vision of itself as a nexus of exceptionalism. Bryant’s triumphs and tragedies, victories and victimhood, of relationships ravaged and repaired, of unbelievable comebacks on and off the court, of second acts, and, finally, an unfinished third one, is the story of Los Angeles itself.

Bryant arrived in 1996 to a city convulsed by transition: four years after riots raged over the acquittal of four police officers who brutalized an African American man; two years after the Northridge Earthquake toppled the 10 freeway—effectively snapping the city’s spine and leaving 58 dead and billions of dollars in damage. L.A. recorded 709 homicides in 1996, nearly three times the 253 recorded last year. When Bryant first donned a Laker uniform, the Los Angeles Police Department was helmed by Chief Willie Williams—like Bryant, recruited from Philadelphia—to eradicate the paramilitary culture of former Chief Daryl Gates; Richard Riordan, the first mayor in the term-limit era after 20 years of Tom Bradley, was in his first term.

At that moment the Lakers were also in transition from their high-flying Showtime era of the 1980s, essentially finished after Magic Johnson abruptly retired in 1991 with the stunning revelation that he had contracted HIV. The team had won its last championship in 1988, and coach Pat Riley, he of the sharp suits and slick-backed hair, departed after the 1990 season. In the five years before Bryant arrived, the Lakers had advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs just once, an egregious record for a franchise that under owner Jerry Buss had led Angelenos to expect annual NBA titles. Bryant played his first three seasons in Inglewood’s Forum, when the land that would become Staples Center was still a slum of seedy hotels.

The Lakers, like Los Angeles, were in transition from their high-flying Showtime 1980s when Kobe arrived in 1996

It’s easy to forget that Bryant was not drafted by the Lakers but was the 13th pick in the 1996 draft. It’s also easy to forget the risks associated with plucking a teenager straight out of high school and putting the kid up against grown men in a physically pounding game. There’s a reason that Georgetown’s Allen Iverson was taken as the top pick of the draft by the Philadelphia 76ers that year and why 11 other college players came off the board before Bryant’s name was called.

Bryant’s path to the Lakers was greased by NBA legend Jerry West, the former star guard then serving as the team’s general manager. West had orchestrated a predraft workout at Inglewood High School and arranged for Bryant to go one-on-one against the Lakers’ former star defender Michael Cooper. The workout has since attained near-mythical status; in 2016 West told the Los Angeles Times that he made the decision to select Bryant within 20 minutes. Raymond Ridder, who was then on the team’s PR staff, recalled in the Bleacher Report how the young phenom attacked his opponent. “He just destroyed [Cooper],” Ridder said. “It was unbelievable. You’re talking about Michael Cooper, one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the game, and he just made him look silly.”

Bryant had just had the NBA equivalent of a screen test, and he crushed it. West orchestrated a trade with the Charlotte Hornets (who drafted Bryant), sending center Vlade Divac east in exchange for the rights to the rookie.

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Kobe and Shaq in 2002

John W. McDonough /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

The trade would prove to be a coup, but that summer the Lakers made a far splashier acquisition. In July the team inked center Shaquille O’Neal to a seven-year, $120 million contract, prying him away from the Orlando Magic. And while Bryant instantly generated buzz—a month before being drafted he took R&B star Brandy to his high school prom; imagine that in the Instagram era—he was overshadowed by O’Neal. In his rookie season, Bryant averaged about 15 minutes a game and 7.6 points. O’Neal piled up 26 points and 12.5 rebounds a game.

Bryant nevertheless thrilled fans in his rookie season by winning the All-Star Slam Dunk Contest with a blistering jam that involved taking off, passing the ball from his left to right hand between his legs while still elevating, and then slamming the ball home one-handed before hitting the ground (and following that athletic display with a Hulk Hogan-style flex). But in the regular season he was a still a teen competing against established players, and in his first playoffs he infamously flatlined, lofting four airballs in a single quarter as the Lakers got waxed by the Utah Jazz in the second round.

Bryant matured quickly as a player, finding his role as a laser-sighted shooting guard capable of lockdown defense, and he was named an All-Star Game starter in just his second season (despite coming off the bench for the Lakers). Yet even alongside O’Neal, the purple and gold crapped out of the playoffs the next two years. The problem was clear: No one had figured out how to maximize the potential of the team’s two stars.

To propel the Lakers to the next level, Buss hired Phil Jackson, the coach who led Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles earlier in the 1990s. It was a splashy move for the league’s glamour franchise, and Jackson, known for his mastery of basketball Xs and Os and his ability to manage superstar egos, instituted the triangle offense, which was built around ball movement and spacing between players. In the process he unlocked the gifts both of his driven six-foot-six shooting guard and his affable big man.

The Lakers moved into Staples Center in the fall of 1999 and, in their first year under Jackson, rolled through the regular season, finishing 67-15. In the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers, they orchestrated one of the great fourth-quarter comebacks in NBA history, clawing back from a 15-point deficit with about 10 minutes to go. Bryant scored 25 points, but the indelible moment was a pass, his last-minute alley-oop to O’Neal for a thunderous one-handed dunk, followed by the center running back up the court wagging his finger and his mouth a giant O. In that moment, the beauty and power of the two working in concert crystallized—and pity whoever stood in their way. A few weeks later the Lakers captured their first title in a dozen years by beating the Indiana Pacers. O’Neal, the league MVP that season, had won the championship that had evaded him for seven years; Bryant, then in his fourth season, had blossomed in the national spotlight.

That was just the start. With O’Neal in his prime and an ascendant Bryant as one of the best duos in league history, along with Jackson’s system and a capable cast of supporting players, the Lakers won the next two titles. No team has scored a three-peat since.

At a time when Los Angeles lacked professional football, the Dodgers were a decade-plus into a World Series lull, the Kings were still a decade away from winning the Stanley Cup, and Donald Sterling’s Clippers were, ugh, Donald Sterling’s Clippers, the Lakers had the sports spotlight to themselves. And Bryant became a star.

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Kobe at at Angels Gate Park in San Pedro in 2001

Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images

O’Neal may have been the most dominant player of the era, but Bryant was the best, the one most frequently mentioned during discussions of who would claim Michael Jordan’s mantle. The fame was manifested in other ways, too, as the young Laker earned endorsement deals with McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Though only in his mid-20s, after the 2003 season Bryant signed a $40 million deal with Nike.

On the court Bryant was fueled by a relentless competitive streak and the goal to destroy his opponents. After Game 3 of the 2001 finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, in the state where he had played high school ball, a Sixer fan said something to him about Philly forcing a sixth game back in L.A. Bryant responded, “We’re going to cut your hearts out on Wednesday.” The Lakers won the series, 4-1, sweeping the last three games on the road.

His competitive nature was complemented by a steely confidence. As he hit his prime Bryant was the best baller on the planet, and he and the other nine players on the court knew it. He could miss six shots in a row and take the seventh, certain it would go down, even if it was contested by a coterie of swiping defenders.

Watching Bryant could be otherworldly, and he didn’t even need the ball in his hands. Take a March 2010 game against Orlando. Bryant had been tussling with the Magic’s combative Matt Barnes, and when Barnes was ready to inbound the ball, Bryant stood in front of him, inches off the baseline. Barnes pump-faked the ball at Bryant’s face, and the Laker guard didn’t move, sparking an incredulous, “That’s the play of the game. He didn’t even flinch,” from commentator Jeff Van Gundy. (Years later internet sleuths would reveal the Barnes fake was a few inches to the side of Bryant’s face, not directly at it, but was still flinchingly close.)

It was the type of move that would normally leave bad blood between players. Yet Barnes’s brash, literally in-your-grill act appealed to Bryant—the week after Bryant died, Barnes went on ESPN analyst Zach Lowe’s podcast and recounted how Bryant unexpectedly called and asked him to join the team. “Four days later I was a Laker,” Barnes said. “But he told me, you know, ‘Anyone crazy enough to [word bleeped out] with me is crazy enough to play with me.’ And I think I earned his respect that day.”

He was alternately balletic and explosive, able to elude defenders and get to the rim seemingly at will

Bryant was unstoppable. He made the All-NBA first team in 11 of 12 seasons from 2002 to 2013 and averaged at least 24 points a game during that period, tallying more than 35 a game in the 2005-06 season. His appeal transcended race and class—Caucasians, African Americans, Latinos, and Asians all sported Bryant jerseys. You could live on the Westside or in the Valley, in Orange County or Silver Lake, Boyle Heights or South L.A., but you were probably rooting for Bryant’s Lakers.

He was alternately balletic and explosive, able to elude defenders and get to the rim seemingly at will while just as easily managing to create separation from an opposing player and swish a jump shot over outstretched fingers. TV highlights would feature jaw-dropping dribbling displays as he unleashed sick crossovers that ended with juked defenders falling to the floor. Shawn Marion was a four-time All-Star, but in the 2007 playoffs Bryant pulled a side-to-side shake move that literally left the Suns defender on his ass in Staples Center.

If he didn’t get you one way, he’d get you another, and opposing teams would turn to hoping to “contain” Bryant, knowing that stopping him was impossible. He’d regularly befuddle defenders with a pump fake, getting them to jump at the faux shot, and then once they were out of the way smoothly sink a bucket or draw a foul resulting in free throws (which he almost always made).

Bryant played both sides of the court. Unlike many modern shooters who look to rest when the other team has the ball, he was a killer on defense, making the league’s All-Defensive teams 12 times starting in 2000. He accomplished everything on the court one could possibly hope to achieve and reached a level of basketball fame and success not seen since Jordan. But like an arcing three-point shot, what goes up must come down.

Bryant seemed mature beyond his years. His proposal to Vanessa Laine in 2000, when he was 21 and she was an 18-year-old high school senior in Huntington Beach, prompted Jackson to observe, “I asked if he wasn’t still wet behind the ears—a little bit too young to be getting married. But he said, ‘Naw, I do everything young.’” The couple wed the following year. Then in 2003, in a scandal that lit up the tabloids and nascent internet, Bryant was accused of sexual assault by a 19-year-old hotel concierge in Eagle, Colorado. He had traveled to the state for knee surgery.

The allegation would forever color his career. Bryant confessed to adultery but maintained that the encounter was consensual. Felony sexual assault charges were filed, but the case never went to trial. A civil lawsuit was settled, and the terms were not disclosed.

It’s safe to assume that the proceedings would have gone far differently in the #MeToo era with the nonstop scrutiny of social media. But at the time, Bryant was able to fly back to Colorado for legal proceedings and return for games relatively unnoticed. A few endorsement deals dried up, but he never faced the excoriating condemnation that hobbled Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer nearly 15 years later. Other relationships faltered. Vanessa filed for divorce in 2011, though the couple ultimately stayed together and had four daughters.

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Kobe suffered an ankle injury in June 2000

Hector Mata/AFP via Getty Images

Then there were the on-court travails. An always gritty relationship with O’Neal—salved by winning titles together—deteriorated as the Lakers were unable to extend the three-peat. Whereas the young Bryant appeared willing to play Robin to O’Neal’s Batman, as he grew more skilled, he chafed at the sidekick role. The tensions were exacerbated by their styles of play—O’Neal wanted the ball to be fed to him down low near the basket so he could overpower and dunk on fools; Bryant, with his preternatural ability to hit shots from anywhere on the floor, wanted the rock in his hands more and more.

O’Neal and Bryant were beefing at the same time Los Angeles was feuding with itself—San Fernando Valley and Hollywood secession measures appeared on the ballot in 2002 and, after a bitter campaign, were voted down, keeping the city whole. But more people were probably paying attention to the Laker intrigue. It has never been confirmed that Bryant gave Buss a him-or-me ultimatum, but after the favored Lakers were demolished by the Detroit Pistons in five games in the 2004 finals, O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat, and Jackson and the Lakers parted ways. (O’Neal would win a title with the Heat in 2006.) Fifteen years after the trade, many fans remain frustrated at the squandered opportunity, wondering how O’Neal and Bryant devolved into “Shaq or Kobe?” Had they gotten along better, or at least managed to tolerate each other for 48 minutes a night on the basketball court, many believe the team could have won a couple of more titles and thoroughly dominated the decade.

Some fans turned against Bryant. The sexual assault allegation resonated, and in 2004 Jackson published a book that took shots at Bryant, saying he was consumed by anger and difficult to coach. Jackson acknowledged that he had asked Laker then-general manager Mitch Kupchak to trade the star guard.

But after the disastrous 2004-05 season, in which the Lakers finished 34-48, the bonds among the team, Bryant and Jackson were somehow repaired, and the coach nicknamed the “Zen Master” returned for a second stint. Bryant put up points, but he also developed a reputation for being a shot-jacking ball hog.

On January 22, 2006, Bryant scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, the second-highest tally in NBA history, behind only Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962. But in that season’s playoffs, the Lakers blew a 3-1 series lead against the Phoenix Suns, and in the decisive Game 7 Bryant scored 23 points in the first half but shot only three times in the second. Some reporters cast it as intentional, a middle finger to management to get him a better supporting cast. Bryant denied it, but the perception of him as a vindictive prima donna stuck. Call it the Kobe nadir, and soon the unthinkable was possible: He just might ditch the purple and gold. In later years Bryant would admit that in 2007 he asked for a trade to the Bulls. Deals with the Pistons were also discussed.

Bryant’s status as a lifelong Laker was probably saved by a shocking 2008 trade with the Memphis Grizzlies. Kupchak shipped out some spare parts, including the bumbling big man Kwame Brown and a pair of draft picks, and the Lakers got back Pau Gasol, a terrific forward-center averaging nearly 19 points and nine rebounds a game (as an asterisk, the Lakers also traded away the rights to Marc Gasol; Pau’s brother was an NBA nonentity then but would later emerge as a top player for the Grizzlies). At the time it was like trading six rusty dimes for a shiny silver dollar, and while Pau Gasol was not O’Neal, he was a young All-Star-caliber frontcourt player who effectively complemented the older Bryant. Plus, he seemed OK with being Robin—this time Bryant was the undisputed Batman. The trade set the scene for Bryant to be the leading man in an unlikely comeback story. The only thing that could make the saga better was the perfect foil, and the basketball gods obliged.

Months before the Lakers snagged Gasol, the NBA’s other legendary franchise, the Boston Celtics, had pulled together a ferocious Big Three of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett and rolled into the 2008 NBA Finals. The new-look Lakers joined them, reigniting a rivalry of teams that had met in the finals six times in the 1960s and three times in the 1980s. Bryant, who won his only league MVP award in 2008, desperately wanted to beat Boston and notched nearly 26 points a contest, but the Celtics clinched the title in six games.

Powered by Bryant, the team was on a mission the following season, and racked up 65 wins and had something of a finals cakewalk over the Magic. The following season the epic sequel arrived, with the Lakers and Celtics meeting in the finals for the second time in three years. The scores were low, and the series was a fistfight, but the Lakers pulled it out in seven games, giving the franchise 16 championships (just one fewer than Boston). Bryant was named the finals MVP for the second consecutive year. If anyone wondered whether age and victory had mellowed him or softened his competitive drive, the answer became clear when he was asked what his fifth championship meant. “Just one more than Shaq. You can take that to the bank,” he responded. “You know how I am. I don’t forget anything.”

The thing about endings is, you don’t always know when they’ve arrived, and the window of opportunity can slam shut without warning. While the Lakers seemed loaded, and Bryant was locked in, 2010 would mark the team’s last trip to the finals. Things just went wrong the following season, and the Lakers were unceremoniously swept by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of the playoffs, a series loss lowlighted by the giant Andrew Bynum brutally elbowing J.J. Barea while the tiny Mavs guard was in the air. After that season Jackson retired from coaching. (He would go on to work in the front office of the New York Knicks.) There were early playoff exits the next two years as well. When Buss died in February 2013, the franchise became unmoored.

Bryant continued to play at a high level, and watching him could still be marvelous, his on-court brilliance manifested in new ways. Like most players who hit their 30s, his explosiveness diminished, but he compensated with a more cerebral game that included picking and choosing his point of attack and unleashing an array of fadeaway jump shots. He could still use his pump fake to force suckers into fouls that put him on the free-throw line. Yet Bryant could also be irascible, prone to divisive comments that generated headlines. After the Lakers started the 2012 season with an underwhelming 8-9 record, Bryant was asked about Gasol, who had been benched. “Put your big-boy pants on,” Bryant said after a December loss. “Just adjust. Just adjust. You can’t whine about it. You can’t complain about it.”

Bryant might have been right, and he probably intended the critique to spur the Spaniard to step up, but it played as a public smackdown of a respected veteran. That might have contributed to the front office’s inability to surround Bryant with top-shelf stars as his career wound down. Center Dwight Howard’s decision in 2013 to flee the Lakers after one season, despite being intensely wooed to stay, probably also contributed—Howard’s relationship with Bryant was notoriously frosty. In 2014 Gasol left via free agency, choosing to sign with the Bulls rather than stay with the team, and teammate, that had netted him two titles.

Bryant’s mad-dog competitiveness would never wither, though, even while the Lakers didn’t sniff the playoffs during his last three seasons and even if he must have quietly acknowledged to himself that he’d fall short of Jordan’s six rings. As the losses added up he could appear somewhere between cantankerous and curmudgeonly. During a heated December 2014 practice, with the team on the way to a 21-61 record that season, he shouted, “Now I see why we’ve lost so many games. We’re soft like Charmin!”

Bryant also had to adjust as his body began to break down, the result of more than 15 years of playing an intensely physical brand of pro basketball. Late in the 2013 season, after then-coach Mike D’Antoni played him the kind of extended minutes that made fans cringe, Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon and crumpled to the floor. In a sequence that has been revisited repeatedly since his death, Bryant eventually stood, hobbled to the foul line, calmly sank a pair of free throws in what must have been excruciating pain, and then headed to the locker room. He’d play only six games the following season. Now that LeBron James and Anthony Davis are wearing Laker colors and the team sits atop the Western Conference, it’s easy to forget how frustrating Bryant’s final seasons were for him.

At some point in this later stage of his career, Bryant probably could have left the Lakers and taken a smaller role with a competitive team willing to put him on the floor for 15 minutes a night. Jordan played his final two seasons with the Washington Wizards but is still indelibly remembered as a Bull, just as Brett Favre will forever be remembered as a Green Bay Packer despite closing out his Hall of Fame career on two other teams. But Bryant remained at Staples Center, in a downtown that had transformed during his two-decade run. Projects like Disney Hall had been community catalysts, and the seedy hotels around the arena had long since been replaced by luxury lofts and upscale restaurants.

Those final seasons amounted to an extended farewell tour, with Bryant surrounded by a cast of no-name veterans and intriguing young players whose development was hampered by an aging star shooting 20 times a night. The losses piled up, and his shooting percentage dwindled. The need for rest and nagging injuries would combine to keep him off the floor—he played only 35 of 82 games in his penultimate campaign and 66 his final season.

In the days after Kobe Bean Bryant’s death, people have been telling his story. Yet perhaps the most piquant revelation is that he had begun reframing his career and life.

Yet there were highlights and a sense of history. Fans showered him with love as he made his last appearances in arenas across the country, and standing ovations were the norm, even in Philadelphia, where he once sought to rip out hearts. Although he averaged just 17.6 points that final year, his lowest tally since his second season, and shot an abysmal 35.8 percent from the floor, he was roundball royalty. It all built to a magical career finale in Staples Center, when Bryant in his final game somehow built himself a personal time machine and dropped 60 points in a win against the Utah Jazz that instantly became L.A. sports lore.

In the days after Kobe Bean Bryant’s death, people have been telling his story. Yet perhaps the most piquant revelation is that, well before the tragic crash, he had begun reframing his career and life. With the singular intent he displayed when feasting on a rookie defender, he set about reconciling his past and laying the groundwork for what was to come.

In the wake of the Colorado sexual assault tribulations, Bryant shifted his uniform number from 8 to 24. He also began referring to himself as the Black Mamba. It’s not clear quite when the moniker took hold in the public mindset, but it would become entrenched. Bryant acknowledged that he got the idea from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, in which professional assassins use the names of deadly snakes; he adopted the nickname after supporters jumped ship, and most of his endorsements evaporated. In 2014 he told The New Yorker: “The name just evokes such a negative emotion. 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.”

There was another side of his personal reinvention, and the days after his death also yielded account after account of Bryant acknowledging his mistakes, and how he had sought to become a better person. As his basketball career wound down, he was more accessible and communicative. He increasingly mentored young players, training with them, showing by example the kind of hard-edged commitment it takes to make it in the NBA. He touted women’s sports. He took Gianna to WNBA games. A few months after he played his final game in April 2016, the city of Los Angeles proclaimed Kobe Bryant Day—it fell on August 24, or 8/24.

What has become clear in death isn’t how great a baller Bryant was—that was established long ago—but how focused he was on ensuring that the greatness continued in new and different forms in the city he had made his home. He was intent on not being the athlete who wanders aimlessly after his playing career. His days would be filled with purpose, whether that meant being a present husband to his wife and father to four daughters, his varied business interests, or some manner of storytelling. He already had planted the seeds of a media empire, with a production company, an ESPN+ channel that took a deep dive into basketball mechanics, and a children’s podcast. Just a couple of years after sinking his final shot on the court at Staples Center, he journeyed to the heart of Hollywood and earned an Oscar for his animated short, Dear Basketball.

Basketball was done, but one can’t help thinking that for Kobe Bryant, the next game was just beginning.


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