Growing up in Philadelphia, I can remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Kobe Bryant’s name. It was the last day of a summer basketball camp and the director invited a handful of the local high school stars to play a scrimmage in the afternoon as we watched, hoping to pick up some pointers. Most of them were headed to college in the next few years on their way to the NBA and were basically living our dreams.
But it was the skinny 15-year-old from Lower Merion High School that had all the older kids buzzing in the cafeteria. He’s not even going to college, they said. He’s going straight to the league. Even back then, I knew enough to know it all sounded a bit far-fetched.
Then Kobe took the floor. And immediately we realized we were watching something special. As the next few years went by, it became obvious he was bound for great things. We stole away on a school night to watch him face future NBA champion Richard Hamilton in the state playoffs and gossiped enviously when he took pop star Brandy to the prom. Over the next two decades, we watched as the basketball prodigy with the impossibly polished game from our corner of the map became, almost inevitably, a larger-than-life figure in world sport.
Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday aged 41, was ruthless on the court, which likely only magnified his personal faults. But once we confront the fallacy that athletes are role models and not something that marketing departments created to sell more sneakers, we can soberly assess just where Bryant stands in the pantheon of great American athletes.
The short answer is at the very top, in the rare mononymic air of Tiger, Serena, LeBron.
Bryant played the entirety of his 20-year professional career in Los Angeles for one of the NBA’s blue-ribbon franchises. Some of the biggest names in the history of basketball have suited up for the Lakers down the years, including Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James. But only Bryant, of those names, spent his whole professional career in the purple and gold, winning five NBA championships and retiring as the team’s all-time leader in at least a dozen statistical categories.
Tim Duncan, who also won five rings in a career that almost entirely overlapped Bryant’s, was the better player, but a self-effacing introvert with a workmanlike game toiling in a small-market San Antonio could not approach the star wattage of Kobe, a slashing wing player with made-for-Hollywood charisma who came to embody the link between Michael Jordan and LeBron in the NBA’s lineage of incandescent alphas.
Bryant’s detractors knocked him as phony and image-obsessed. His on-court presentation seemed to be a deliberate carbon copy of Jordan’s (easier said than done!), from the performative mean-mugging to the switching of uniform numbers. There was his weird penchant for self-coined nicknames: like Black Mamba (which stuck) and Vino (which went the way of fetch). To critics, he came off as a bit of a tryhard, which made him a perfect fit for how most of America sees LA.
But there was nothing inauthentic about Bryant’s intensity. He was probably the hardest worker in sports. Often it is supporting players who are praised for getting the very most out of their talent, but Bryant was an example of a supremely gifted athlete hell-bent on squeezing every last drop from his natural gifts, propelled by a maniacal competitive streak that wouldn’t have been out of place on Wall Street in the 80s and often led to flare-ups with cooler-tempered teammates, most infamously with Shaq.
He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated no fewer than 20 times (when such appearances still mattered) and became one of the rare sporting figures to genuinely transcend the sports pages in the US and become a household name. His international popularity may have even exceeded his standing at home as he became an crucial figure in elevating the sport’s global profile. Michael Phelps may have won a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, but Kobe was the star of those Games on the ground.
The last time I saw Kobe was at last year’s US Open when he came to watch Naomi Osaka, whom he had taken on as a mentor. It was the first time I realized he was going to have a major impact on women’s sports and was making an attempt to evolve as a person beyond the basketball ability that had been undeniable from day one. For a sportsman whose future seemed preordained from his earliest days, it’s a pity the outcomes of his promising second act will be left unknown.