BY Thaveesha Jinadasa

Growing up, you may have seen kids in school, kids on the streets and kids on basketball courts randomly shout ‘KOBE’ whilst shooting a spherical object; be it a crushed-up paper ball or an actual basketball into a dustbin or hoop respectively. To the untrained eye all of this may seem like a bunch of nonsense but, to basketball fans, this was much deeper and more personal. This was the emulation of a man and a hero who the world mourned on the 26th of January 2020.

Kobe Bean Bryant was born on the 23rd of August 1978 to Pam and Joe Bryant in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The name ‘Kobe’ came from a Japanese steak which his parents found a liking for. At the age of six, the whole Bryant family moved to Italy where Kobe’s father played in a lower league. In his time, Kobe was able to fluently communicate the Italian language, which he would then go on use to much effect against his foreign opponents later on in life. Football was one of Kobe’s favourite sports growing up, with him being an avid fan of the famous Italian team AC Milan.

In 1991, he returned to his hometown and started playing basketball at the Lower Merion High School. In a time when high school media outlets such as BallisLife and Overtime were scarce; Kobe was known to be a walking highlight reel and went onto win four straight state championships. Kobe wasn’t just a student of the game, but also an avid learner in class which garnered him multiple college opportunities. However, being the opportunist that he was, he took a leap from high school straight into the 1996 NBA draft; one which included several future hall of famers including Steve Nash, Ray Allen and Allen Iverson.

When Kobe was in Italy, his grandfather used to send him tapes of Los Angeles Lakers games and he became a fan immediately, his eyes gripped to every piece of the action. From Kareem Abdul Jabbar to Magic Johnson, his heroes taught him to love the game and inspired him to one day become a legendary Laker. On draft night, Kobe Bryant was picked 13th overall to the Charlotte Hornets. If this was a parallel universe, we would have seen Kobe Bryant teaming up with Michael Jordan who would go onto buy the Hornets. But as fate would have it, Kobe got his wish and was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. In all honesty, the words ‘Kobe’ and ‘Lakers’ have become synonymous in recent times, with this lanky 18-year-old going onto have a 20-year career in purple and gold.

In his first few years, Kobe was left on the bench as a rotation player by the coaches. Despite this, Jerry West, the Lakers' general manager at the time said that ‘Kobe was always locked in the gym day in and day out to perfect his craft and there is plenty of potential for the future.’ In 1997, Kobe Bryant won the All-Star dunk contest. Although it was deemed one of the worst dunk contests of all time, it gave Kobe a springboard into the spotlight. At the tender age of 19 during the 1998 season, Bryant’s popularity skyrocketed, allowing him to become the youngest all-star starter in NBA history.

Roland Lazenby, the author of Michael Jordan: The Life said that ‘Kobe, and Kobe only, did the work to deserve the comparison with Jordan (2012).’ Byron Scott who was both a teammate and a coach of Kobe told Business Insider “I heard the ball bouncing. No lights were on. Practice was at about 11, it was probably about 9, 9.30. And I go out to the court and I look, and there’s Kobe Bryant. He’s out there shooting in the dark. And I stood there for probably about ten seconds and I said, ‘This kid is going to be great!’ These anecdotes go on to reaffirm the qualities and tendencies which many fans loved about him; his perseverance and drive for the game. If he kept missing shots during games, he would go back in the gym and take 500 more. If he felt tired during a game, he would go for a 40-mile bike ride and a 10-mile run just to improve his conditioning. He was a personification of the phrase ‘Pressure creates diamonds.” Kobe inspired many young people to do the best at everything they try. To put in the hard work and dedication. To achieve their dreams - just like he did.

Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal: a love-hate relationship like no other. While history will always think of them as one of the most dominant duos of all time, internally, there were problems and issues which took years to fix. Shaq was known to be a good humoured and entertaining individual, whereas Kobe was all business and could even interpreted by some teammates as selfish. These two clashing personalities did not fit the play style of the team, which ended up in them costing the Lakers a championship in 1999. Kobe called O’Neal “fat and out of shape” whilst Shaq blamed others for the team’s misfortunes and demanded that he deserved a larger salary. Both did not mention each other’s names when speaking to the media, and Bryant avoided team dinners as well. However, with the introduction of Phil Jackson as coach, a temporary ceasefire commenced, and the Lakers went on to win three straight championships from 2000 to 2002. In 2004, Shaq was traded off the team due to his displeasure at the favouritism shown towards Kobe, and the direction the team was going. While it’s true that Shaq and Kobe had problems, make no mistake, Shaq loved Kobe. He congratulated him to the press after Kobe’s legendary 81-point game, and even rapped about him at a party in 2008. At the same time, Kobe treated Shaq’s kids like his own and advised them on their basketball careers whenever he could. Shaq’s eldest son recently revealed that Kobe looked out for him and texted him daily during his heart surgery. This goes to show the strength of Kobe’s kindness and the importance of the bond between him and O’Neal. This was also why Shaq was one of the people most affected by his passing. He didn’t just lose a former teammate, he lost a brother. The lesson that we can learn from this anecdote is that we should never hold grudges with anyone; no matter who it is. Life can’t be scripted. Take heed from Shaq and Kobe. Repair your old broken relationships, and make new healthy ones. Don’t let it be too late for you.

But every great star has problems and Kobe Bryant was no exception. In the wake of his passing, a Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez posted multiple links to articles about past sexual allegations related to Kobe. Another elderly teacher called him a ‘rapist’ in a video which went viral on social media. In response, this reporter was suspended over what was seen as ill-timing, and the elderly teacher was heavily criticised by the online community for his ill-mannered opinions. This goes on to show how much loyalty and respect a whole generation had for this iconic man; but it begs the question: ‘What exactly was Kobe Bryant accused of and how serious were these allegations?’

On the 18thof June 2003, Bryant was charged with one count of sexual assault in a case involving a 19-year-old hotel worker as he had caused through physical force. However, many of the details remain unknown to younger fans as the incident occurred over 17 years ago, when much of his fan base, including myself, were barely even born.

In 2005, the case was dropped completely, but there are a number of consequences which stemmed from this incident:

·        He lost numerous brand deals from McDonalds to Nutella

·        The woman under the name of Jane Doe filed lawsuits in multiple counties leading to an unspecified amount of damages, charges and fines to be paid.

·        The NBA suspended him for multiple games which hurt both the Lakers and his own chances at another championship

·        His wife Vanessa filed for divorce.

·        There were constant disputes with his mother as she saw him as a disgrace.

From the lowest of lows, Kobe Bryant again taught us that should never stop believing, never stop working hard on and off the field. Kobe used the infamy from his lawsuit to fuel his game in the following years. Bryant averaged an insane 35.4 points per game during the 2005-06 season and won consecutive league scoring titles. On January 22nd, 2006, Kobe scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors and to this day is the second highest individual scoring performance of all time. He then went on to represent the USA national team, winning 2 gold medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics respectively. In 2009 and 2010, Kobe won back-to-back championships and finals MVP accolades, and the new generation began to open its eyes to this legend. However, in 2013, misfortune struck again as he tore his achilles and broke a bone is his left knee leaving him weaker than ever. Bryant’s skills declined severely due to these injuries, though his determination and love for the game remained constant. On the 29th of November 2015, Kobe decided that after 19 years, the 2015-2016 season was going to be his final season.

I myself wasn’t always the biggest Kobe Bryant fan, but seeing a great man play his last season with such a poor team of rookies, and getting battered every game was heartbreaking. The season played out like a movie; from Madison Square Garden in New York to the Toyota Centre in Houston, Kobe Bryant was celebrated. Watching his last ever game on April 13th 2016 was a surreal feeling for myself and many other young basketball fans across the globe. Kobe was passed the ball every single time, and he made every. Single. Shot. It was as if his legs had travelled 10 years back in time. It was the greatest farewell game in history. He ended up with 60 points, capping off one of the greatest careers ever. However, what many people overlook is that Gordon Hayward of the Utah Jazz purposely overstepped whilst Kobe took his last free throw in order to make sure that Kobe was allowed to retake it in the case he missed. This was the level of respect which Kobe received from the players around the league, as they too saw him as an idol.

The common theme with this great man was that he was ‘more than just a basketballer.’ Whenever he did something, he wanted to do it to his best capacity. From releasing a solo rap album to launching his company Kobe INC and the multimedia company Granity Studios, retirement did not hinder Kobe’s work ethic. In the end, achievements kept following him as he received an Academy Award for Best Short Animated Film for ‘Dear Basketball’ which that unless you try, you can never succeed.

As a fan of the game, I was able to always see Kobe Bryant ‘the brand’, with his trademark toughness, grit and never say die attitude. However, what struck a chord with me was the side he never showed the media: Kobe Bryant ‘the individual’ who didn’t shy away from his feelings and was all about building relationships.

Kobe became the father of four girls and remained extremely vocal about equality for women. He took part in multiple Nike campaigns and even coached his daughter’s AAU basketball team. In the past few days, #GirlDad has become both a trending topic and hashtag which has prompted athletes and fathers everywhere to make the most of their time with their sons and daughters. By using basketball as a platform, Kobe wanted to inspire the next generation of basketballers, which is why he opened the Mamba Sports Academy. He opened his arms, took these young hoopers in and helped give them pieces of his aim to take to their games in the future. Kawhi Leonard had Kobe’s midrange shot, Jayson Tatum and Paul George received his footwork, Kyrie Irving, one of his closest disciples, learnt the art of the ball fake and how to deceive an opponent psychologically; and to Giannis Antetokounmpo, the trademark ‘never say die’ attitude and toughness which prompted him to go onto win an MVP. It was only right that each of them honoured the man who provided them with 20 years’ worth of information and advice in their own unique way.

What hurt me the most was not to see Kobe the player gone; but Kobe the father who engrained his game, his drive and his hardwork in his daughter. The daughter who made him love in the game again. The daughter who worked just as hard as him. The daughter who died in his arms. Gianna Maria Onore Bryant had dreams to go to the University of Connecticut basketball program and then to the WNBA. She was the ‘Mambacita’ to Kobe’s ‘Black Mamba’ who would carry on his legacy. It breaks hearts to see such a colourful story end so early.

To all the individuals out there. Let us make sure that we further Kobe Bryant’s legacy and continue to persevere, work hard, and stay determined in whatever we do. Let us remember Kobe. Let us remember Gianna, Payton and Alyssa, who were all just 13 years old. Let us remember Mamba Academy assistant Coach, Christina Mauser. Let us remember Orange County baseball coach, John Altobelli. Let us remember Payton’s mother Sarah Chester, and the brave pilot Ara Zobayan. You will all forever be remembered.

And In the words of the late great Kobe Bryant:

‘Life is too short to get bogged down and be discouraged. You have to keep moving. You have to keep moving. You have to keep moving. You have to keep going. Put one foot in front of the other, smile and just keep on rolling.’

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