Kobe Bryant, who died on Sunday in a helicopter crash in California at the age of 41, was one of the most accomplished players in league history, an 18-time All-Star, a two-time NBA Finals MVP and the 2007-2008 league MVP. As a member of Team USA he won gold medals at the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics. His 81 points against the Toronto Raptors in 2006 is the second-highest single-game total in NBA history. In his final game in 2016 he scored 60 points against the Utah Jazz, the most of any player in his last contest.
On Saturday night LeBron James passed Bryant to become the third all-time leading scorer in league history, which Bryant celebrated with a tweet congratulating his former opponent and Olympic teammate.
A titanic figure who inspired a generation of basketball players nationally and internationally, Bryant made his debut in 1996 at 18 and played 20 seasons for the Lakers before retiring. Bryant and the center Shaquille O’Neal led the Lakers to the remarkable feat of winning three consecutive titles from 1999-2002 – something accomplished by just two other franchises – and won two more titles between 2008-2010 after O’Neal’s departure. After his retirement, Bryant secured himself as a Los Angeles legend and one of the most iconic athletes in world history.
His stardom reached well beyond Los Angeles, as he led the league in jersey sales five times over the course of his career and is believed to have sold more jerseys internationally than every NBA player except Michael Jordan. The son of Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant, who played in the NBA for eight seasons before becoming a star in Italy, Kobe Bryant was arguably the most worldly of any NBA star in history – he could confidently conduct interviews in Spanish and Italian – and was instrumental in raising the sport’s international profile.
His international popularity may have even dwarfed his national celebrity, as he was routinely met by mobs of fans – he once had to escape a reported 15,000 adoring supporters when landing in China for an appearance in the late 2000s – wherever he travelled.
Within the game Bryant will be remembered as one of basketball’s most ferocious competitors, tireless workers and demanding teammates. With an intense, often ruthless insistence on attention to detail and fundamental soundness, Bryant’s mastery of basketball mechanics – proper defensive positioning, sound mid-range jump shooting and unparalleled toughness – made him one of the game’s most admired players in an era dominated by Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan.
Much of Bryant’s appeal to aspiring athletes came from what he called “The Mamba Mentality”, which Bryant famously described as “if you see me in a fight with a bear, pray for the bear”. His singular obsession with discipline, winning and enormous personality made him one of the most polarising players of his time – he endured public fallouts with O’Neal, the coach Phil Jackson and several onerous contract negotiations with Lakers management. His public legacy was chequered by a 2003 sexual assault scandal, when a 19-year-old hotel employee accused Bryant of raping her in a hotel room. Bryant admitted to committing adultery and issued an apology to the accuser but denied the assault allegations. The criminal charges were eventually dropped and the parties settled in a civil lawsuit.
What was never questioned was his devotion to the game of basketball, the admiration that he inspired across the league and the love he had for his four daughters, one of whom, Gianna, died with him, aged 13. He memorialised his career in his Academy Award winning short, Dear Basketball, and became one of the game’s most vocal proponents in retirement. He became central in the development of his daughter Gianna’s career, serving as a coach and mentor to her teams and emerged as a major influence in women’s basketball.Gianna is the second of his four daughters, between Natalia, 17, three-year-old Bianka and seven-month-old Capri.
Bryant routinely visited the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks as an informal advisor and worked with other women at all levels of basketball. One of the last viral photos of Bryant was him offering pointers to Gianna, herself a promising teenage prospect, during a game last month.
“People need to follow Kobe’s lead and I’m not just talking about NBA players,” Sparks star Chiney Ogwumike told the Los Angeles Times in May. “A lot of men tend to speak on [women’s basketball] without knowing it and a lot of men tend to be ignorant about women’s basketball players. But … I bet you would want your daughter to play in the WNBA if she’s good at basketball. So follow his lead.”
Bryant’s loss is a seismic one not just for basketball but for a generation of Los Angeles natives whose bedroom walls were adorned with his posters and the countless individuals he inspired over the course of his 20-year career. The loss of a legend who matured from basketball superstar to devoted family man (husband of Vanessa) to global basketball ambassador is a palpable tragedy that left the world shocked, grieving and reminiscing about the thrills he delivered over the course of three decades. As the longtime NBA coach David Fizdale told ESPN on Sunday : “The Lakers are the heartbeat of LA and Kobe Bryant was the blood running through it.”