Kobe Bryant entered the NBA with supreme confidence, chart-topping machismo and unbelievable athletic skills, ready to compete at age 17. And for nearly two decades, his manic-driven will to compete set him apart. In all facets of life.
He never thought twice about taking a shot in any of his 1,280 NBA regular-season games or any playoff contest. He was gutsy. NBA GMs, scouts and opposing coaches consistently called him one of the top clutch players in the game.
He conducted insane early-morning workouts to push his body to the limit. His scoring exploits carried him to third place on the all-time list with 33,643 point (including an 81-point outburst in January 2006 against the Toronto Raptors, which was as close as anyone has ever gotten to Philadelphia Warriors center Wilt Chamberlain’s timeless 100-point achievement against the New York Knicks in March 1962). Current Lakers superstar LeBron James passed Bryant on the all-time list a day before Kobe died.
Bryant’s short life full of remarkable achievements on the basketball court (five NBA titles, 18 All-Star appearances, 12 All-NBA Defensive First Team selections, 11-time All-NBA First Team selections, four All-Star Game MVP awards, two NBA scoring titles and two Olympic gold medals) and a growing portfolio as a business investor in a wide array of fields, as well as grass-roots development of the sport, inspired millions of people.
Jerry West reacts
In reaction to his death at age 41 in a helicopter crash on Sunday, Jerry West, the legendary architect of multiple Lakers dynasties, said this to the Los Angeles Times: “This is one of the most tragic days of my life. I know somewhere along the way I guess I’ll come to grips with it. But now I have all these different emotions regarding him. The things I watched him do on the basketball court, but more importantly he was going to make a difference off the court, and he was making a difference off the court. This is so unexplainable. This is going to take a long time for me.”
In a statement, West added: “The news we all received today is the most devastating news that anyone can imagine. I am so saddened for Kobe’s parents, Vanessa, Natalia, Bianka, Capri, Kobe’s sisters and all of the NBA fans that hold Kobe in their hearts…”
The former Lakers executive orchestrated Kobe’s move from the Charlotte Hornets, who selected him with the No. 13 pick, in 1996 in a famous draft-day trade that was finalized days later. That move planted the seeds for a new dynasty to be born. Signing Shaquille O’Neal was the other instrumental player acquisition. Hiring Phil Jackson as coach was the other key move.
Phil Jackson’s perspective
Retired coach Phil Jackson guided the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships in the 1990s and then directed the Los Angeles Lakers to five during the Bryant years. Therefore, the Zen Master had a unique perspective on greatness gleaned from his years amassing a record 11 NBA titles as a coach.
Jackson described his pupil this way: “Kobe was a chosen one — special in many ways to many people. Our relationship as a coach/player transcended the norm. He went beyond the veil.”
Kobe Bryant’s legacy
Indeed, Kobe left an indelible mark on the sports world in the years that followed.
And it wasn’t just about talent and confidence. Hard work was always a key ingredient in his success, and he averaged 25.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists in the NBA.
His father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, former NBA player, European hoops star and coach (WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks and in Japan with the Tokyo Apache, Rera Kamuy Hokkaido and Rizing Fukuoka and Thailand, among other stops), often told stories to his Apache players about Kobe’s legendary workouts and the commitment it took to be a great pro.
The Apache were inspired by Kobe, his father said on many occasions, and they developed into a cohesive unit. They earned back-to-back championship runner-up finishes in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 bj-league seasons.
I wrote a 2007 column that highlighted the elder Bryant’s insights on Kobe’s formula for success. It was all about hard way, Joe Bryant noted, and it was approach to the game that he wanted to push his Apache players to embrace and emulate.
“This has nothing to do with basketball,” Joe Bryant said at the time, mentioning Kobe’s intense running regimen. “We are talking about the program that he runs on the track, a six-week program, and we gave them a little piece the other day and they were (huffing and puffing).
“I want to be able to get them through that and get them into marathon shape so you don’t get tired at all. It’s like a marathon runner’s (stamina).”
More reactions to Kobe’s death
Miami Heat President Pat Riley said, “Kobe was a Godsend to this world; not just to the NBA, but to all those who hold dear and cherish family, friends and faith. Today, I mourn the tremendous loss of Kobe, his daughter, and the other passengers.”
Longtime Golden State Warriors analyst Jim Barnett, who entered the NBA as a rookie with the Boston Celtics in 1966, said “there has never been a greater competitor.”
“He made you feel better watching him play,” Barnett wrote on Twitter. “He was not finished in life, there was so much more to do. I will never forget Kobe’s kindness. Prayers to his family.”
Kobe Bryant: an inspirational hero
Ex-University of Hawaii forward Bobby Nash, who played in Japan’s now-disbanded bj-league (Saitama Broncos, Shiga Lakestars) and coached as an assistant alongside his father, Bob, a former NBA and ABA forward and University of Hawaii legend, in the bj-league and its successor, the B. League (Toyama Grouses, Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka), reflected on his admiration for Bryant after learning of his death.
“I wake up today with the heaviest of hearts. A mentor, teacher and from afar a homie,” Nash wrote in an Instagram post. “I still remember working out with you in the Stan Sheriff Center years and years ago. The stories you share, techniques you taught and the life you changed forever. My dad and mom were always my biggest role model, but Kobe Bryant epitomized what it (means) to be a great man. This is going to hurt for a long, long time but the gift of knowledge you bestowed upon me as a young kid will last far beyond the test of time.”
Former NBA guard Reggie Geary, who coached the Yokohama B-Corsairs to a bj-league title in their second season (2012-13), paid tribute to Bryant as well.
“Shocked and saddened by the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and others that perished today in a tragic accident. Played against Kobe as a young man in the NBA, followed his career like millions of others over the years and most recently ran his skills camp with him for Nike back in 2017 in Paris,” Geary wrote on Instagram.
A fitting tribute
In an unusual start to Sunday’s game, the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs didn’t shoot the ball on purpose during their first possessions. Indeed, it was a unique way for both teams to honor Bryant by allowing the 24-second clock to expire on their opening possessions.
Two retired jerseys
Kobe Bryant was unique, ultra-talented and intelligent, on and off the court. One additional fact that set him apart from peers: The Lakers retired his Nos. 8 and 24 jerseys.
Others players are honored in perpetuity by having one jersey number retired.
But Kobe, like his idol Michael Jordan, always did things his way.
Fittingly, his final game ended with a 60-point explosion, the most ever by a player in his final game, against the Utah Jazz on April 13, 2016.