When it comes to defining the legacy of Kobe Bryant, accomplishing that task is as hard as it can get. The reason for that is because his life on and off the court of basketball contains so many layers. His life was in the public eye from the time he took R&B singer Brandy to his prom until this week’s tragic event. Bryant, his 13-year old daughter Gianna (Gigi), and seven additional passengers died in a helicopter crash on Sunday around 10 a.m. in California, leaving behind a void in the hearts of many worldwide. When TMZ broke the story, most (myself included) thought it was a hoax.
I mean, this is Kobe! Kobe can’t die, right?
After hours of conflicting reports began working themselves out, the reality set in. One of the most polarizing figures in the history of sports has left us at the age of 41.
Remembering Bryant’s life and career is knowing there’s a dosage of good, bad, ugly, and finally, redemption. As most know, Bryant is one of the most accomplished NBA players of all time. Five-time NBA champion, 18-time NBA All-Star, 15-time All-NBA Team, two-time Finals MVP and Olympic gold medalist, and one-time NBA MVP are only a few of his notable on-court achievements. The thing is though, those achievements are just a byproduct of what made him good in the eyes of fans.
Fans gravitated towards Bryant because of his assassin-like demeanor on the court. From tip-off until the final buzzer, he gave fans the impression that losing was not an option, whether his teams won or lost. He was fearless. An example of his fearlessness dates back to 1997 during the NBA Playoffs. It was Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals and Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers faced the Utah Jazz. At this time, Bryant was merely a rookie. However, in the closing moments of a close elimination game, no other Laker wanted the ball in their hands but him. In past interviews, Bryant’s former teammate Shaquille (Shaq) O’Neal said everyone but Bryant did not want to shoot.
The result? Four airballs. Not one, not two, not three, but four. The Jazz went on to beat the Lakers 98-93 in overtime. After losing in such a horrendous fashion, Bryant’s career could have dived. After all, just look at Nick Anderson. When Anderson missed those four straight free throws in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals, his career was never the same.
Bryant didn’t let that happen to him.
He worked relentlessly to transform himself into one of the best players in the league, soon having another career-defining moment. During the 2000 NBA Finals with Shaq fouled out, Bryant, who missed most of Game 2 and all of Game 3 with a sprained ankle, played 47 minutes in Game 4 scoring 28 points as the Lakers beat the Indiana Pacers 120-118 in overtime in Indianapolis. Led by Bryant and Shaq, the Lakers beat the Pacers in six games, with both winning their first NBA championship.
As the saying goes though “all good things must come to an end.”
July 2003 is where things began to unravel for Bryant. That is when he was arrested for the sexual assault of a 19-year old hotel employee in Eagle, Colo. Bryant had checked into The Lodge and Spa at Cordillera in the nearby city of Edwards. The hotel employee accused Bryant of raping her in his hotel room; a claim he would deny passionately. When thinking of this incident, most don’t remember that the charges against him were dismissed. The image that sticks out in the memory of many is his somber press conference with his wife Vanessa by his side. Even with having an assassin-like mentality on the court, Bryant had a relatively clean public image outside of basketball.
The unraveling didn’t stop there though.
Bryant and Shaq began to publicly feud over the next several seasons on a multitude of issues, leading to the tandem being broken up following a “5-Game Sweep” in the 2004 NBA Finals as the Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons. Many blamed Bryant for Shaq’s exit. There were reports (which Bryant would later confirm) that he did not want to play with Shaq anymore; almost signing with the Chicago Bulls, the former team of Bryant’s idol Michael Jordan. As we all now know, the team would eventually trade Shaq to the Miami Heat, choosing to make Kobe the face of the Laker franchise. Subsequently, then-Lakers’ head coach Phil Jackson would leave the team, citing his issues with Bryant as one of many reasons. Bryant faced extreme criticism as the Lakers missed the playoffs the following season.
Many Lakers fans felt that the organization made a mistake placing the franchise in the hands of the embattled guard. Even with Jackson eventually returning to coach the Lakers, they still came up short over the next several seasons with a pair of first-round playoff exits in 2006 and 2007. Additionally, Shaq helping lead the Miami Heat to the 2006 NBA championship didn’t make matters any better for Bryant.
However, the cloud that had been cast over his career at that moment would soon see clearer skies. Bryant would go on to be the 2008 NBA MVP, leading the Lakers to their first NBA Finals post “Shaq/Kobe” era. While the Lakers would go on to lose in six games to the Boston Celtics, Bryant’s determination didn’t waver. Led by him, the Lakers would go on to win back to back titles the following two seasons. Controversy would soon follow him again though. In 2011, the NBA fined him $100,000 for using an anti-gay slur to a referee. Bryant, who faced public criticism over this, would go on to work with organizations such as GLAAD, and even scolded a fan for using an anti-gay slur, urging him to learn from his mistakes.
As noted, Bryant’s career on and off the court is very complex. So, after factoring in all his highlights and lowlights, how exactly should Bryant be remembered?
Well, it depends on who you ask, but here is one thing to think about. Bryant’s life is one of climbing the mountain of adversity. Every time he made a mistake, he worked hard to overcome it, whether that was on or off the court. When people tried to deem him a selfish and uncoachable player, he worked hard to become a leader and admired teammate. When publicly scrutinized following his sexual assault case and infidelity (which nearly led to a divorce), Bryant became a devoted husband and loving father of four girls. His assassin-like “Mamba Mentality” on the court while playing morphed into an ambassador of the game post-retirement. This is evident through his advocacy of women’s basketball; the WNBA specifically, and his love of coaching his daughter Gigi. It was also shown through his Mamba Sports Academy, where he was helping the next generation of athletes.
Bryant’s life was reaching the pinnacle, falling from grace, only to reach the pinnacle again, and then to never look back. His life resonated with many because he was the embodiment of working hard and overcoming obstacles at each stage of his life. He was proof that no success comes without perseverance and when you make mistakes, be like late R&B singer Aaliyah and “dust yourself off and try again.” Bryant also gave hope that you can leave one successful career behind, and create another. Proof of that is him winning an Oscar for his short titled “Dear Basketball” which was based on the letter announcing his retirement from the NBA.
There will never be another Kobe Bryant.
The world is left with so many memories that there won’t ever have to be just one to define his life. While his death and that of his daughter and the seven other passengers is a tragedy, to say the least, the one thing that people can learn from observing his life is a cliché: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” While Bryant had just as much drive and determination as his idol Michael Jordan, he just wasn’t MJ. Even with his amazing athleticism, Bryant wasn’t the physical specimen LeBron James is. Coincidentally, James passed Bryant on the All-Time NBA scoring list the night before his death. However, Bryant had to work the hardest. As a sports fan, if there is one thing I know, a hard worker is loved and admired.
That’s how we should remember Kobe Bryant. A hard worker in life.
Rest in peace Mamba.
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