Kobe Bryant leaves behind a legacy of intensity, greatness, controversy

Jason Owens

Kobe Bryant has died at 41 years old.

The NBA icon was one of nine people on board a helicopter that crashed Sunday morning in Calabasas, California, and left no survivors. His 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant was reportedly among the passengers who perished.

A titan of the game of basketball, Bryant leaves behind a legacy as a fierce competitor, a champion and a beloved Los Angeles Laker. His life was not without controversy as a rape allegation from a 2003 incident in Colorado followed him late in his career.

A fierce competitor and a champion, Kobe Bryant did not lead a life without controversy. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
A fierce competitor and a champion, Kobe Bryant did not lead a life without controversy. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Bryant’s early days

Born in Philadelphia to NBA player Joe Bryant and Pamela Cox Bryant in 1978, Bryant spent much of his childhood in Italy, where his family moved when he was six years old after his father retired from the league.

He learned to speak Italian and developed his basketball game at a young age in Italy before his family moved back to United States in 1991.

Draft-day drama

Bryant joined the NBA in 1996 as a phenom who turned pro out of Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia. Drafted by the Charlotte Hornets with the No. 13 pick, he joined the Lakers via a draft-day trade for veteran center Vlade Divac.

Rumors have swirled since that deal that Bryant, intent on building a legacy and brand on a global scale, forced his way out of Charlotte to play in Los Angeles, the media capital of the world. Conflicting accounts show that the Hornets intended to trade Bryant all along.

A new Lakers dynasty

That same summer, Lakers general manager Jerry West orchestrated a deal to lure fourth-year free-agent center Shaquille O’Neal from the Orlando Magic, setting in motion a new era of Lakers dominance and one of the great team runs in NBA history.

Bryant came off the Lakers bench for his first two seasons after joining the league as an 18-year-old. He made the first of his 18 All-Star game appearances in his second season despite being a reserve on his own team.

By his third year in the league, Bryant had joined the starting lineup and established himself as a star in the league. He drew comparisons to Michael Jordan, who played the same shooting guard position and had just completed his dominant run as the consensus best player in the history of the game.

FILE:  Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers high five each other during a National Basketball Association game against the Orlando Magic at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Shaq and Kobe won three NBA titles together and likely could have won more. (Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Early Lakers championships

The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Indiana Pacers to win the first of three straight NBA championships during the Bryant-O’Neal era in the 1999-2000 season, Bryant’s fourth in the league.

Bryant truly entered his prime, upping his scoring averaged from 22.5 points per game to 28.5 during his fifth season, as the Lakers defeated Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers for the 2001 NBA championship.

After the Lakers defeated the New Jersey Nets for their third straight title, a rift between Bryant and O’Neal intensified. The Lakers took a step back the following season, losing to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals after securing the No. 5 seed.

The Lakers rebuilt their roster around Bryant and O’Neal for the 2003-04 season — adding aging All-Stars Karl Malone and Gary Payton — but lost to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals that season in one of the biggest upsets in league history.

Rift with Shaq

Bryant criticized O’Neal for being out of shape and not playing hard enough that season as a simmering power struggle between the two All-Stars overflowed.

O’Neal engaged in heated contract negotiations with the Lakers following the loss to the Pistons. He accused the team of placing Bryant’s wishes ahead of his and eventually demanded a trade after failing to come to terms on a new deal with the team.

Things got tense between Lakers greats, leading to Shaquille O'Neal's departure from the L.A. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Things got tense between Lakers greats, leading to Shaquille O'Neal's departure from the L.A. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The Lakers granted O’Neal’s wish, sending the All-Star center to the Miami Heat for a package that included Caron Butler, Lamar Odom and Bryan Grant. The next day, Bryant signed a 7-year, $136 million deal to remain with the Lakers following free-agent overtures by the rival Clippers.

He would remain a Laker for the rest of his career.

Rape allegation, arrest

Amid the turmoil of the Shaq-Kobe breakup, Bryant faced an allegation of rape for a 2003 incident in an Edwards, Colorado hotel.

A 19-year-old employee of the The Lodge and Spa at Cordillera filed a complaint with Eagle, Colorado law enforcement accusing Bryant of raping her in his hotel room on June 30. Bryant was in Colorado to undergo surgery.

Bryant, who was married to Vanessa Laine Bryant by that time, eventually admitted to having sex with his accuser. He claimed it was consensual, while his accuser described a violent, forced sexual encounter to law enforcement.

Following the complaint and speaking with Bryant, prosecutors arrested and charged him with felony sexual assault, a charge that carried a sentence of four years to life in prison.

The 2003 rape case is a significant piece of Kobe Bryant's legacy. (Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)
The 2003 rape case is a significant piece of Kobe Bryant's legacy. (Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

Charges dropped

On Sept. 2, 2004 — more than a year later — prosecutors dropped charges against Bryant after his accuser declined to testify, ending a lengthy, expansive investigation into the ordeal that was set to go to trial.

“The victim has informed us, after much of her own labored deliberation, that she does not want to proceed with this trial,” district attorney Mark Hurlbert said of dropping the case. “For this reason, and this reason only, the case is being dismissed.”

The dropped charges arrived amid news that Bryant’s accuser had filed a civil suit against him, which legal experts speculated would have hindered the prosecution’s case, opening the door for Bryant’s defense to paint his accuser as an opportunist seeking financial compensation.

Bryant issued a public apology to his accuser after the charges were dropped.

“First, I want to apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident,” Bryant said. “I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year. Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure. I also want to apologize to her parents and family members, and to my family and friends and supporters, and to the citizens of Eagle, Colorado. I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives of this young woman.”

Civil settlement

Bryant and his accuser reached an agreement on the civil case in March 2005. Terms of the deal that were settled out of court included a confidentiality agreement and were not disclosed.

Bryant famously bought his wife Vanessa a $4 million purple diamond ring in the aftermath of the accusations. The couple remained married until his death and had four children together — Gianna, who died in the helicopter crash, Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and infant daughter Capri, who was born in July 2019.

Bryant initially lost endorsement deals with McDonald’s and Nutella in the aftermath of the accusation. Nike put him on the back burner.

Kobe’s image rehab

Nike brought him back into the forefront of its campaigns after the 2005 settlement, as Bryant quickly moved on from the ordeal to restore his image.

His $136 million deal with the Lakers arrived after the allegation but prior to the charges being dropped.

In 2006, Bryant would drop the No. 8 jersey he wore during his three championships in exchange for No. 24. It’s not clear why he made the decision, but the number switch came amid an image rehabilitation that saw Bryant continue and finish his career as one of sports’ most popular figures.

The turbulent times around the rape case and O’Neal’s exit also saw the Lakers struggle on the court.

The Lakers failed to make the playoffs in the 2004-05 season for the first time in Bryant’s career. They fell short of 50 wins in the next two seasons that resulted in first-round playoff exits.

Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol won a pair of championships together. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol won a pair of championships together. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Kobe’s second act of greatness

But the 2007-08 season marked a new beginning of on-court success for Bryant. He won his only league MVP that season while averaging 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists while leading the Lakers to a 57-25 finish good for first place in the West.

The midseason acquisition of Pau Gasol catapulted the Lakers back into championship contention as they returned to the NBA Finals for the first time since O’Neal’s departure, losing to the Boston Celtics of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.

The Lakers beat the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals the next season and repeated in 2010 in a seven-game Finals victory over the Celtics for Bryant’s fifth and final championship. He was named Finals MVP of both championships he won alongside Gasol.

Bryant’s Lakers missed the playoffs in his final three NBA seasons, but his basketball legacy was secure.

The final numbers on Kobe

In the end, he tallied five championships, 18 All-Star appearances, 15 All-NBA honors, 12 All-Defensive Team honors, two scoring titles, two Finals MVP trophies and one league MVP trophy. He’s the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history with 33,643 points.

His 81-point effort against the Toronto Raptors in 2006 is the second-highest individual scoring performance in NBA history.

His 60-point effort in his final game was a fitting finish to a stellar career.

When he retired, Magic Johnson called him the greatest Laker of all time. Both his No. 8 and No. 24 are retired by the Lakers.

Kobe Bryant with his wife Vanessa Laine Bryant with their daughters Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant and Natalia Diamante Bryant. (Associated Press)
Kobe Bryant with his wife Vanessa Laine Bryant with their daughters Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant and Natalia Diamante Bryant. (Associated Press)

After basketball

Since retirement, Bryant won an Academy Award for writing the animated short “Dear Basketball,” based on a poem he wrote about his love of the game. He was an avid supporter of the WNBA and often seen courtside with Gianna attending games.

That support received mixed reactions amid the #MeToo movement as his critics held up his rape allegation and denial next to his outward support of women.

Kobe’s legacy

Bryant’s legacy is a complicated one. His basketball greatness is undeniable. His off-court problems are stark and remain unsettled.

His popularity remains unwavering among diehard Lakers fans, who hold him up as a basketball deity. Even his most ardent basketball critics grant him his spot among the all-time greats. He inspired countless of aspiring basketball players and served as a role model for many of the NBA’s young players today.

His sudden death on Sunday is one of the great tragedies in American sports, especially considering Gianna died alongside him, leaving Vanessa, Natalia, Bianka and Capri behind.

Kobe Bryant lived and played as a giant. On Sunday, he died as one.

Remembering Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna (Getty/AP Images)
Remembering Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna (Getty/AP Images)

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