How do we describe the impact that Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant made on the game? At the surface level, Bryant ranks 4th in points scored (33,643) and 31st in assists (6,306). However, the five-time NBA Champion wasn’t just any basketball player.
Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, the father of Kobe, played professional basketball in the NBA. After retiring from the NBA in 1984, the elder Bryant moved his family to Italy when Kobe was just five. While living in Italy, Bryant took advantage of his current situation and studied the game in every fashion.
Although the history behind Bryant’s opponents is minimal, when he was 12, he played against professional players overseas.
His father’s career eventually ended in 1991, and the Bryant family moved to a suburb area in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Kobe, 13 at the time, then resided at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore.
Lower Merion High School
For a child that has been overseas during the entirety of his young childhood, the bridge of basketball and sports is what drove the bond between Bryant and his classmates.
By the end of his high school career, Bryant finished as the all-time leading scorer (2,883 points) in Southeastern Pennsylvania. As a junior, he was named High School Player of the Year. The following year, Bryant was the centerpiece behind the Lower Merion Aces earning a season record of 31-3 and winning the Class-AAAA State Championship.
On the court, Bryant was a genius with his applied IQ. However, most don’t know that he was one of the smartest students in his respective class. His above-average SAT scores and promising grades resulted in almost every major college offering him a scholarship.
Bypassing College Basketball
Prior to his senior prom, Bryant put together a press conference in which he declared for the 1996 NBA Draft. There was little question about Bryant’s skill, but who would take a high school student with no collegiate experience?
With the thirteenth overall pick, the Charlotte Hornets made that gamble by selecting Bryant. As one of the most talked-about prospects, other teams were eyeing Bryant for obvious reasons.
The Los Angeles Lakers become a suitor as well, as they struck a deal with the Hornets in which they received Bryant for center Vlade Divac in hopes that Bryant would progress over time. In what was meant to be a project of a player, he instantly soaked in the spotlight.
The Early Years
After being acquired by the Lakers, Bryant was assigned to play in part of the Southern California Summer Pro League. With the overflowing crowds, Bryant did not disappoint. He finished with 27 points in one game, and then elevated his play by totaling 36 points in another.
Early injuries that included a broken wrist hampered the rookie season of Bryant. Coming off the bench, he averaged 7.6 points, 1.3 assists, and 1.9 rebounds in 71 appearances. The highlight of his season came during the All-Star Break in which Bryant scored 31 points in the Rookie All-Star Game.
The following year, Bryant was named to the 1998 All-Star Game, and at the age of 19, was the youngest player to be voted in. Bryant finished the game with a team-high 18 points.
A Dynamic Duo
Regardless of the roller coaster relationship between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, they are regarded as one of the top duos in NBA history. As a team, the Lakers won three consecutive NBA Championships. Both Bryant and O’Neal were named to First-Team All-NBA honors from 2002-04.
When O’Neal left the franchise in 2004, many expected it take a toll on Bryant’s success. However, he managed to roll with the punches. In 2006, Bryant put up 81 points against the Toronto Raptors; the second-highest point total in a single game in NBA history.
An MVP Season
In 2008, the roster for Los Angeles wasn’t outstanding by any means. Aside from Bryant, the next two highest scorers were Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Still, that didn’t halt the team from playing as a unit and exceeding expectations.
Bryant started all 82 regular season games, and the Los Angeles Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals to take on the Boston Celtics. Despite ending as runner-ups, Bryant was honored with his sole MVP award.
He finished the season averaging 28.3 points, 5.4 assists, and 6.3 rebounds per game.
After the NBA Finals loss to the Celtics, it was time to get back to the drawing board for the Lakers. They never lost confidence that they were one of the top teams in the NBA.
Once again, Bryant started in all 82 games for Los Angeles in the 2008-09 regular season, and averaged similar numbers. In the regular season, the team finished with a record of 65-17; 1st in the Western Conference.
This wasn’t the same team in previous years where the Lakers dominated with ease in the playoffs. The Utah Jazz forced them into a six-game series, whereas the Houston Rockets forced seven games.
Still, the team continued to persevere and eventually found themselves against Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. Howard averaged a league-high 13.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game during the regular season, and his playoff run was just as dominant.
It was that year in which Bryant broke the narrative that he couldn’t win without Shaquille O’Neal. It also marked the year in which Bryant broke the narrative from his critics who argued he was a mere sidekick. The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic in five games and secured their first NBA title since the 2001-02 season.
The following year, the Lakers were hit with the reputation of being the defending NBA Champions. After finishing with a record of 57-25, they were once again labeled as the #1 seed in the Western Conference.
In competition against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz, and Phoenix Suns, the Lakers finished with a playoff record of 12-4 leading up to the NBA Finals. Once again, they were one series win away from consecutive titles. However, the Boston Celtics were standing in their way.
In Game 7, the Lakers beat the Celtics in an 83-79 affair. Bryant finished with 23 points and 15 rebounds in nearly 45 minutes of playing time.
Mamba Mentality Gets Tested
In 2013, injuries became a major theme of Bryant’s late basketball career. A torn Achilles in April sidelined Bryant for the rest of the season. It marked the 80th game for the Lakers in the regular season.
The following season, Bryant played in just six games before fracturing his left knee. He did not appear again for Los Angeles that season, and the team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2004-05.
After returning, the injuries continued. In December of 2014, Bryant passed Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan in all-time scoring. A month later, he tore his rotator cuff; ending his season for the third consecutive year.
Many questioned whether this was the last of Bryant. To a degree, it might have channeled an aging Bryant who was entering the twilight stage of his career. Since tearing his Achilles, the Lakers had not made the playoffs.
The End Of An Era
In November of 2015, Bryant announced that it would be his last season in the NBA. He stated, “My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind but my body knows it’s time to say goodbye”.
With a noteworthy retirement tour, Bryant played his final game on April 13th, 2016. In a game against the Utah Jazz, the Staples Center was sold out for Bryant’s farewell game.
Bryant finished the game the way he played throughout his career: With explosion and passion. He totaled 60 points and carried the Lakers to win in their regular season finale. It marked his sixth career game of 60+ points.
Off The Court
Kobe Bryant wasn’t just a basketball player. He turned a poem labeled “Dear Basketball” into a short film. The five-minute, 20-second film caught the eyes of Oscars voters, and Bryant accepted an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 2018 ceremony.
His foundation work is also worth noting, as he partnered with the non-profit After-School All-Stars as part of the Kobe & Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation.
Who Was Kobe Bryant?
Regardless of what team you rooted for, or whether you were an NBA fan or not, you knew who Kobe Bryant was. He was a passionate player on the court who drove to make himself better each and every day with a ‘Mamba Mentality’.
The Mamba Mentality didn’t only apply to basketball players either. Regardless of what you were striving to become in life, Bryant’s message applied to everyone. Bettering yourself was a marathon, and never a sprint.
When we talk about Bryant, we can’t talk about a singular accomplishment. The NBA Championships, the influence he had internationally, and the next generation he inspired will leave a massive footprint that could never be replaced.
Our condolences go out to his family and loved ones, as Kobe Bryant’s memory will continue to live in infamy.