Kobe Bryant walked into the Los Angeles photo shoot with an unabashed energy—equal parts intoxicating confidence and brazen who’s gonna check me?!!! cockiness. It was just a year after winning his fifth NBA championship in 2010 as the relentless leader of the LA Lakers.
Bryant was still in full-blown Black Mamba mode, the ferocious and at times win-at-all-cost asshole persona he created following a tumultuous 2003 and 2004 season in which his career was on the proverbial ropes. And now I found myself face-to-face with a legendary player who in 1996 made the jump from Philadelphia’s Lower Merion High School straight to the pros.
For me, Bryant was as brilliant on the court as he was frustratingly complex and even at times polarizing. You see, growing up on the Southside of Chicago, I was a hardcore Chicago Bulls head, and in my mind no one could stand on the same court as Michael Jeffrey Jordan, a peerless icon, who lifted the NBA to new heights on the way to six NBA titles. And so any mere comparison to His Airness was met with a ridiculous glare. During Bryant’s 20 seasons, the 18-time All Star, regular season MVP, two times Finals MVP, two-time scoring champ, and two-time Olympics gold medal winner was compared to MJ. A lot.
“I never liked you as a player,” I jokingly told him.
Bryant smiled, let out a surprising warm chuckle and said, “Thank you. That means I was doing my job.”
This was the first memory of Kobe Bean Bryant that rushed to my mind when I heard the horrific news that the 41-year-old, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others were killed Sunday in a tragic helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.
The groundswell of moving prayers and tributes flooding in from ex-Laker teammate Shaquille O’Neal, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Olympic winner Simone Biles as well as former President Barack Obama, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, and California governor Gavin Newsom speaks to the man’s immense pop culture stature worldwide.
Just the day before, Bryant had congratulated his all-world successor LeBron James for passing him third on the all-time NBA scoring list. “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother,” he praised his Lakers brethren and three-time champ following a game against the Philadelphia 76ers, adding “#33644,” the number of points needed for James to reach the milestone.
It was not only a heavy reminder of the fragileness of life, but a testament to Bryant’s relentless drive to be amongst the best. “I never looked at [basketball] as work,” he once told ESPN. “When I came around, I was surrounded by other professionals and I thought basketball was going to be everything to them and it wasn’t. And I was like, ‘This is different.’ I thought everybody was so obsessive about the game like me. It was like, no? Oh, that’s hard work. I get it now.”
There were times his raw competitiveness gave him the tag of being a man on an island…chronically aloof, a bad teammate even. Unlike other all-time greats like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Jordan and James, Bryant was all too eager to wear the black hat when it suited him. He frequently fought with his brother-in-spirit Shaq. There was no time for friendships on or off the court. Winning was Bryant’s only priority and if you didn’t share the same mindset you might as well have been the enemy.
In 2003, Bryant faced serious charges of sexual assault and false imprisonment after being accused of rape by a hotel employee in Colorado. Charges were later dropped, but it took a few years for Bryant to rehabilitate his tattered reputation.
Still, there was another side to Bryant. The player who let down his guard during his last season and embraced his role as an elder NBA statesman. The player that during his farewell game on April 13, 2016 in which he scored a remarkable 60 points against the Utah Jazz smiled and was genuinely touched by the outpouring of respect, cheers and tributes from followers and peers. “He’s the greatest of our generation,” said a fan that told CNN that he and two other friends paid $4,200 for three $34 tickets just to see Bryant’s swan song. “He’s been a great inspiration for all of us.”
When Bryant officially retired, the basketball world and beyond mourned and celebrated the end of an era. Yet it was anything but the end for the basketball star. The third chapter in his life saw him become a devoted husband to his wife, Vanessa Bryant, and a doting father to his four daughters. A string of high profile projects mellowed out the famously intense Bryant. As an executive producer, he won a Best Animated Short Film Oscar for his Dear Basketball. His Wizenard children’s book series became a New York Times bestseller.
But it was his daughter Gianna’s promising basketball career that totally transformed Bryant. The image of the basketball savant courtside schooling his oldest girl on the x’s and o’s of the game they both so loved will forever be a poignant one, knowing now that they were on their way to Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks for Gianna’s basketball practice before the crash.
The young hooper nicknamed Gigi already had a potent turnaround jumper like her pops and dreamed of one day playing for the women’s basketball powerhouse UConn Huskies. Bryant, who coached Gianna’s team, beamed of his daughter in a 2018 interview with ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel. Whenever fans approached his family and told him that he should have had a boy to carry on his basketball legacy, he took great pride that Gigi would respond, “Oh, wait, I got this!’” She was Mamba 2.0. in the making.
Bryant’s family is mourning in private. And so we are left with memories of the man.
“I never played the game to be liked,” he told me. “But I wanted to be respected.”
Mission accomplished, Mamba.
Keith “Murph” Murphy’s work has appeared in VIBE, Esquire, The New York Post, and ESPN’s The Undefeated. Now residing in Brooklyn, the straight-no-chaser writer, has also been featured on A&E Biography, ABC News, TV One’s Unsung and CNN. He’s also the author of the 2006 men’s lifestyle book Manifest X.O.