The moments that could have broken him instead ended up defining him.
It always seemed to be that way with Kobe Bryant.
Three different times in his career something that could have crushed him instead became a defining moment that re-shaped Kobe Bryant’s legacy and how we think of him today.
The first of those moments was May 12, 1997, when the Lakers were in a back-and-forth Game 5 of a second-round playoff series against the Jazz. Already down 3-1 in the series, it was win-or-go-home for the Lakers and things were stacked against them: Byron Scott was out with a sprained wrist, Robert Horry had been ejected for letting Jeff Hornacek get under his skin, and Shaquille O’Neal had fouled out. Kobe, primarily a bench player that rookie season, was pressed into action — and in the most Kobe of ways tried to take over.
Kobe attempted a game-winning pull-up elbow jumper as time expired in regulation — it was an airball.
So was his next jump shot. And the one after that. And the one after that.
Four airballs in a row in the clutch minutes of a playoff game on national television — it was humbling and potentially devastating. Kobe had grown up picturing himself draining exactly those kinds of game-winners, and he had airballed them all while his team lost. It led to rivers of newspaper ink and plenty of fan talk in bars — Lakers fans were angry the precocious rookie didn’t know his place. Laker coach Del Harris was shredded for leaving Kobe in the game.
Kobe’s response? When the Laker flight home after that loss landed in Los Angeles, he went directly to the Pacific Palisades High School gym and worked on his shot all night long, literally until the sun came up. Kobe refused to let the failure in Utah define him, or even slow him down. He worked like a maniac on his game and shot all summer long.
By the following February, Kobe was starting in the All-Star Game at age 19.
It was that will and that work ethic that won over fans — and earned deep respect from his adversaries — over a 20-year career that was polarizing yet made Bryant an icon of the game.
Kobe’s life — and the life of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, as well as seven others — was tragically cut short Sunday morning when the helicopter they were riding in crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, California. There were no survivors.
“For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “He was one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game with accomplishments that are legendary: five NBA championships, an NBA MVP award, 18 NBA All-Star selections, and two Olympic gold medals. But he will be remembered most for inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball and compete to the very best of their ability. He was generous with the wisdom he acquired and saw it as his mission to share it with future generations of players, taking special delight in passing down his love of the game to Gianna.”
Kobe’s early years, rise to the NBA
Kobe Bean Bryant was born on August 23, 1978, in Philadelphia. The son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe was named after an expensive style of Japanese beef.
In the 1983-84 season, Joe Bryant had fallen out of the NBA and took his family to Italy, where he continued to play professionally. It is there Kobe’s lifelong love of soccer started — he would credit the sport for his good footwork — while he continued to work on his basketball skills playing for the youth team of Pallacanestro Reggiana (his father’s club for a couple of years). Kobe lived in Italy for seven years and throughout his life spoke fondly of those times — and could do so in fluent Italian.
Kobe returned to high school in the Philadelphia area and rose to stardom leading Lower Merion High School to the 1996 Pennsylvania state championship.
Following in the footsteps of Kevin Garnett and others, Kobe decided to forgo college and went straight into the NBA Draft. Laker legend and then GM Jerry West worked out Kobe and greatness recognizes greatness — West wanted Bryant. What happened next was Laker legend: West talked the Nets John Calipari out of drafting Kobe, then set up a trade with Charlotte, which drafted Kobe at No. 13 and traded him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac.
It was that rookie year that Kobe airballed four-straight shots against Utah — and he vowed never to let that happen again.
The turbulent, championship Shaq/Kobe years
For a few seasons, as Kobe matured and the Lakers worked to find the right mix around them, Kobe and Shaq battled to control the locker room (Shaq won that battle) while the team never reached its potential on the court. For the 1999-2000 season, the Lakers brought in Phil Jackson and his triangle offense to try and maximize their talented roster. He did — although what Jackson really did that first season was get the Lakers to play much-improved defense and that was enough (the offense came along in later seasons).
Kobe and Shaq continued feuding but they won three straight NBA titles. On the court they were the perfect inside/outside combination for the era, but the always driven Kobe seethed at Shaq’s work ethic (like not showing up to camp in shape) and Shaq enjoyed needling the serious Kobe. The combination of winning, plus Jackson’s mediation and mind games, kept the balance of power… until he couldn’t.
After the 2004 season and a loss in the Finals to Detroit, Kobe was a free agent and the Lakers had to chose which superstar to build around. They wisely chose Kobe and traded Shaq to Miami.
The second moment: The sexual assault charge in Colorado
This was the second time in Kobe’s career where his actions could have destroyed him, but instead how he came out of it defined the second half of his career. Even if it left him with an asterisk.
In July 2003 Bryant was charged with the sexual assault of a 19-year-old employee of a hotel in Edwards, Colorado. Bryant admitted to adultery — which led to very public challenges with his wife, Vanessa, and the purchase of a reportedly $4 million diamond ring — but said he had not raped the woman, that everything was consensual.
The case and Kobe’s marriage is the kind of juicy celebrity story that sells tabloids and his case got wall-to-wall coverage across the nation. Graphic details of blood and positions became front-page news. Bryant lost endorsements, and had to fly from court dates in Colorado to Staples Center for games, at points barely making it on time.
Kobe’s legal defense team used the kind of victim shaming tactics that keep women who are raped from coming forward, but it worked — the victim refused to testify and the criminal case was dismissed. The woman filed a civil suit, which was settled out of court. The case was behind him, but it would always leave him tarnished.
Rather than be destroyed by all this, Kobe came out of the Colorado incident with a new attitude — or more accurately, he publicly embraced the polarizing nature of his personality and game. It’s what came to define the second half of his career — love him or hate him, he didn’t care, but you had to respect his game. His “hate me” ad for Nike perfectly summed up this new attitude.
For the next few seasons after the Shaq trade, Kobe put up monster individual numbers — he averaged 35.4 points per game in the 2005-06 season — but with a thin roster the team did not succeed.
That was until just before the trade deadline in February 2008 when the Lakers traded for All-Star big man Pau Gasol out of Memphis. That year Kobe won the MVP — the only time in his career — and the Lakers reached the NBA Finals, where they fell to the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce/Ray Allen Celtics.
The next year, the Lakers would beat Dwight Howard‘s Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. The following year, Kobe and company would get their revenge on the Boston Celtics, giving Kobe his fifth NBA ring (and second-straight Finals MVP).
Also in there, in 2008 and 2012, Kobe would play a critical role for Team USA as it won two Olympic gold medals. On a team loaded with talent, Kobe went to coach Mike Krzyzewski and asked for the toughest defensive assignments — he was going to lead by example on that end of the court. It worked.
The third moment: Kobe tears his Achilles, makes one more comeback
In 2013, as people started to wonder how many more years Kobe would play, he got on a hot streak and was putting up numbers — and then he tore his Achilles.
It happened in a game against Golden State, and Kobe legendarily hobbled to the free throw line and still took his free throws (which would have allowed him to re-enter the game, something that was never going to happen).
This became the third time Kobe could have been broken and instead used it to define himself again. It drove him to play a few more seasons and leave the game on his own terms.
Kobe was 34 when he tore his Achilles, he had five rings and a resume full of accolades, and he knew his career was winding down. He could have just walked away and nobody would have questioned it.
That’s not Kobe — he was going to leave on his own terms. No injury would dictate the terms of the end of his career.
Kobe rehabbed almost the entire next season, playing just six games, and then the following season injuries to his other leg kept Kobe at just 35 games. Again, his will and drive refused to let that be how he would leave the game.
Kobe returned for the 2015-16 season and won more fans over around the league during a farewell tour. Kobe played hard that season and as much as he could, and in his final game dropped 60 points in an unforgettable performance.
That drive, that passion — something first evidenced in a high school gym in 1997 after an ugly loss — is what drew so many fans to him. It was something in Kobe that people wanted to see in themselves and took inspiration from. It led to a wild, entertaining, amazing ride.
A ride that ended far too early.