The basketball world changed forever on Sunday. Kobe Bryant, 41, along with 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others tragically died in a helicopter crash in Calabassas, California.
The sudden event triggered emotional reactions from around the basketball world and beyond. Kobe was more than a superstar on the court. He was a cultural icon off of it.
An iconic career
Kobe was drafted straight out of high school by the Charlotte Hornets with the 13th pick in the 1996 Draft. Lakers general manager Jerry West orchestrated a deal to bring him to L.A.
Kobe developed into a solid scorer after his rookie season. He and established superstar Shaquille O’Neal would lead the Lakers to three-straight NBA titles between 2000-2002. Shaq and Kobe cemented themselves as arguably the best duo in the history of basketball. Had personal beef not spoiled their relationship, there’s no telling how many titles they could have won.
The end of the Shaq and Kobe duo was also marred by Bryant’s 2003 sexual assault case, which was settled out of court. After losing to the Pistons in the 2004 Finals, Shaq was dealt to Miami, leaving Kobe at a low point in his life and career.
He switched his number from 8 to 24 and began a new phase of his career, with several bumps along the way. The Lakers struggled, and the superstar requested a trade. Kobe’s competitive “Mamba Mentality” was extreme to say the least, and often alienated teammates and coaches.
When Pau Gasol arrived to Los Angeles in 2008, the team had a rejuvenated roster around Kobe. The Lakers would go on to appear in three-straight NBA Finals, winning back-to-back in 2009 and 2010, the latter coming at the expense of the 2008 champion Celtics. The fifth ring for Bryant.
Injuries hampered the last act of Kobe’s career, but his farewell tour couldn’t have ended in a more legendary fashion: 60 points and a go-ahead shot in his final game at Staples Center. The final chapter of Kobe’s basketball legacy- “Mamba out.”
His style of play would go on to influence a generation of players. For kids growing up in the 2000s, Kobe was the closest thing to being able to watch Michael Jordan. His fadeaway and turn around jump shots became signature moves that seemed impossible to guard. His footwork and pump-fake ability was unlike anyone else. Kobe was an effective scorer inside and out, and equally as aggressive on defense.
Kobe spent 20 seasons in the NBA, all with the Los Angeles Lakers, and his basketball résumé was nothing short of incredible: Five championships, two Finals MVP Awards, the 2008 MVP Award, 18 All-Star selections, 15 All-NBA selections and 12 All-Defense selections.
Kobe ended his career as the third-leading scorer in NBA history. He was passed by friend and one-time competitor LeBron James the night before the crash.
Life after basketball
Into retirement, Kobe stayed busy. He authored a book, trained with NBA players in the offseason, and broke down the game in the ESPN+ series “Detail.”
However, his passion for basketball was most clearly channeled through his daughter ‘Gigi’, whom he credited for reviving his interest in watching the game. Bryant coached Gianna’s youth teams, and the two were regularly seen at NBA and WNBA games together. The helicopter was heading to a team event when it suddenly went down with with two of Gianna’s teammates and their family members also on board.
The biggest tragedy of Sunday’s crash is the family that Bryant leaves behind. His wife Vanessa had been with him since she was 17-years-old. The couple had four children together, who will now grow up without their father and sister.
Kobe’s legacy on the court and in American culture will live on forever. His position is unique in sports- embodying drive, determination, success, and hard work, all to the extreme. His devotion to the game put him a notch above many of the NBA’s all-time greats.
Among all the incredible moments– the lobs to Shaq, 81 points, seven NBA Finals, his final game in 2016, even the small things will stand out. From the trash talk, the jersey-bite, down to the Nike commercials, it all played a part in the legend of Kobe Bryant.
His stats speak volumes about his athletic ability, but his dedication to his family tells us something more admirable about him.
Kobe, along with Gianna, will never be forgotten.
Featured image credited to USA Today.
Stats credited to basketball-reference.com.