Kobe Bryant's 2008 Finals jersey on display at Smithsonian's African American museum

Cassandra Negley
·Writer
·4 min read

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is honoring Kobe Bryant’s legacy at the place he helped make a reality.

The Washington, D.C.-based museum unveiled to the public it’s new display featuring the white No. 24 Los Angeles Lakers jersey Bryant wore during Game 5 of the 2008 NBA Finals. It opened for the first time on Monday and joins other memorabilia in the “Sports: Leveling the Playing Field” gallery.

“We wanted to be able to share his impact,” Damion Thomas, the Smithsonian’s sports curator, said via the Los Angeles Times. “It really is about the cultural significance of basketball as an expression of the African American fight for greater rights.”

Bryant jersey, LeBron James shoes on display

Bryant’s jersey is from the series the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics. The Lakers won Game 3 and Game 5 of the series, losing in six games.

He won the league’s MVP award that year. The display reads:

“In 1996, Kobe Bryant became the first guard to successfully make the leap from high school to the National Basketball Association. At the time, experts were skeptical that high school wing players could compete in the NBA. His success ushered in the modern era of younger players in the league.”

The museum shared a video of the jersey being installed and smoothed out. It joins a photo of him already in the Sports Gallery. Other jerseys and historic basketball items are part of the installation, per the museum. That includes the LeBron James 15 “Equality” sneaker by Nike.

Bryant family founding donors of Smithsonian museum

Bryant and his wife, Vanessa, contributed at least $1 million to the NMAAHC to help it be built, per the museum.

In 2016, he promoted the museum on Twitter and took part in an official sneak peak and reception for donors a week ahead of the official opening.

Thomas told the Times he walked Bryant through the museum for 45 minutes and then asked if the legend would be willing to give his own memorabilia.

The jersey, a pair of shorts and Nike shoes arrived from the 2008 NBA Finals.

“As the great competitor [Bryant] was, he said, ‘I’m keeping the 2009 and the 2010!’” Thomas said with a laugh, via the Times.

Bryant won five NBA titles, all with the Lakers, and was named Finals MVP in 2009 and 2010. He won Olympic gold medals with Team USA in 2008 and 2012.

Why is Kobe in the NMAAHC?

Kobe Bryant in the white Lakers jersey.
The white Lakers jersey Kobe Bryant wore in Game 5 of the 2008 NBA Finals is at the Smithsonian. (MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

The NMAAHC opened on Sept. 24, 2016, next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in the District. It’s dedicated to “exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history.”

It sports display looks at the contributions and activisms of Black athletes on and off the field.

“Because sports were among the first, and most high profile spaces to accept African Americans on relative terms of equality, sport has had a unique role within American culture. Within black communities, sports have always been political,” the Smithsonian writes in its display description.

Bryant died in a helicopter crash in January at the age of 41. His 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others also died in the crash. When Thomas saw the public’s response to losing Bryant, he saw it as an opportunity to put Bryant’s contributions to sport and the world “in a much larger context,” per the Times.

The Lakers legend led a successful 20-year NBA career straight out of high school and his “Mamba Mentality” is seen in players across the world.

“Kobe’s contributions on and off the court are remarkable,” Spencer Crew, interim director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said in a statement. “As a founding donor, he understood the significance of this museum to the nation and the world. After postponing the March installation due to COVID-19, we believe now is the perfect moment in history to honor his memory by placing his jersey on view.”

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