The late, great Kobe Bryant has eternal celebrity that transcends sports. He is a beloved hero and cherished icon – not just in Los Angeles, not just in basketball, but to millions who know his name all over the world. Yet although Kobe’s basketball resume is legendary (one MVP, four All-Star MVPs, five NBA championships, two Finals MVPs, two Olympic gold medals) and unrivaled by few not named Michael Jordan, it was his unparalleled work ethic and killer instinct on the court that made the Black Mamba so awe-inspiringly elite. Today Kobe is universally recognized as one of the greatest to ever play the game, but along his journey to the mountaintop of basketball immortality there were those who downplayed his accomplishments and doubted his aspirations. Fortunately, Kobe only listened to his critics when it could serve the purpose of fueling his motivation. His signature unwavering confidence in his own ability is the epitome of our motto – don’t do they, DUYU!
Born in Philadelphia to a basketball-playing father, Kobe Bryant hardly had a childhood that was conventional by American kid standards. At just six years old he moved to Italy where he would live until his teenage years while his father continued playing professionally following a respectable NBA career. It was there that Kobe became a devout fan of soccer and impressive multilinguist (a talent he would later use to trash talk foreign players in their native languages!). Still, despite growing up an ocean away from the global center of basketball, Kobe nonetheless developed a love for the game. His grandfather would mail him videos of NBA games to study, and once a year he would come back to the United States to play in basketball summer leagues.
Just before he started high school, Kobe moved back to Philadelphia with his family. There, at Lower Merion High, Kobe wasted little time making a name for himself. He became the first freshman in decades to start for the varsity team, and he finished his high school career as Southeastern Pennsylvania’s all-time leading scorer. Kobe was named Pennsylvania Player of the Year following his junior season, but it would be his final year of high school where he would really explode onto the national scene. As a senior, Kobe was named the Naismith High School Player of the Year, the Gatorade Men’s National Basketball Player of the Year, and a McDonald’s All-American in route to leading his team to their first state championship in over 50 years.
At that point, Kobe was already garnering recognition across the country from those who followed basketball in an era that predated social media. All of the powerhouse colleges came calling – Duke, North Carolina, Michigan, and Villanova were at the top of his list. However, in prime Kobe fashion, he did something unconventional and opted to make the jump straight to the NBA, following in the footsteps of Kevin Garnett from the previous year. It was only the sixth time in NBA history a player had forgone college and declared for the draft. THEY SAID Kobe was too inexperienced for the NBA and needed more time to refine his skills. 17 and hungry for success, Kobe didn’t care.
“We all have self-doubt. You don’t deny it, but you also don’t capitulate to it. You embrace it.”
In 1996, Kobe was picked 13th in the draft and became a Los Angeles Laker. That’s right – a whole 12 players were selected before THE Kobe Bryant. Still, being the youngest player ever to play in an NBA game, Kobe understandably did not take the league by storm right away. Playing behind two talented veteran guards, Kobe was not a permanent starter his first two years and instead was gradually eased into playing time. Nevertheless, the juvenile Black Mamba still flashed the brilliance that would make him so exciting to watch during his 20 years in the NBA, winning the Slam Dunk Contest his rookie year and becoming the youngest NBA All-Star starter in history his sophomore campaign.
In the 2000 season, however, Kobe’s individual achievements finally started to align with that of his team. Guided by a newly appointed coach in the legendary Phil Jackson while blossoming into a key role in one of the greatest partnerships in NBA history alongside the dominant Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe helped lead the Lakers to his first NBA championship. This would be the first of three consecutive championship seasons in which Kobe was named to the All-NBA, All-Defense, and All-Star teams each year, also winning his first All-Star MVP in his hometown of Philadelphia during that same period.
Yet the following two seasons, Kobe and Shaq failed to reach the lofty bar they had set for themselves and deliver another championship to the Lakers. Without the relief of winning to assuage their competitive nature-fueled disputes, Kobe and Shaq’s once superior partnership soon became more toxic than tolerable, and the Lakers found themselves in the unenviable position of having to choose between their two superstar players. In the summer of 2004, with the younger Kobe a free agent and threatening to sign with the cross-town rival Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers decided to trade Shaq to the Miami Heat. The very next day, Kobe re-signed with the Lakers.
For the remaining duration of their respective careers, Kobe and Shaq would be pitted in an unspoken competition to see who could win the most championships without the other. And in 2006, Shaq took the lead, winning his fourth ring while Kobe was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Remarkably, Kobe scored 81 points in a single game that season – the second highest point total in NBA history. It was an unprecedented scoring feat in the modern era and second to only Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points in 1962. Yet despite Kobe’s individual achievement, THEY SAID he couldn’t win without Shaq.
“Everything negative – pressure, challenges – is all an opportunity for me to rise.”
After several more seasons filled with dazzling displays of scoring prowess but lacking the postseason success to show for it, the Lakers made the momentous decision to trade for All-Star Pau Gasol – a perfect sidekick to Kobe who would move the needle towards bona fide championship contention. In 2008, their first year together, Kobe got back to the NBA Finals while winning his very first MVP award. However, the Lakers were ultimately defeated by the Boston Celtics’ newly formed “Big 3” of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. Again, THEY SAID Kobe couldn’t win a championship without Shaquille O’Neal.
The following season, however, Kobe finally silenced his haters. Coming off the heels of a dominant regular season, Kobe’s 2009 Lakers carried their momentum into the playoffs, returned to the Finals, and prevailed in their championship pursuit against the Orlando Magic. Kobe won his first Finals MVP and his fourth overall ring (tying Shaq for those keeping score).
The season after, Kobe did the exact same thing, this time avenging the Lakers’ 2008 Finals loss to the Boston Celtics. He won back-to-back championships, back-to-back Finals MVPs, and his fifth ring – one more than Shaq and one short of Jordan. According to Kobe, it was the most satisfying of all of his championships.
In the remaining years of his storied NBA career, and due to a combination of nagging injuries and increasingly subpar talent surrounding him, Kobe did not return to the NBA Finals. Yet in the final game of his life, the aged Black Mamba still managed to break records and steal hearts with a legendary farewell – scoring 60 points in a come-from-behind victory. At 37 years old, he became the oldest player to score 60 or more points in a game. Still, as he showcased so often throughout his career, it was the intangible yet undeniable greatness of his performance that made witnessing it so surreal.
“It’s the one thing you can control. You are responsible for how people remember you—or don’t. So don’t take it lightly.”
On the morning of January 26, 2020, the entire planet was rocked by the unfathomable news that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash alongside his eldest daughter Gianna and the aircraft’s seven other occupants. On 8/24 (his two playing numbers), we remember Kobe for everything he gave to make the world a brighter, more inspired place. Kobe was more than just a basketball player or even a brand – he was a revered figure and father who touched so many lives outside of basketball – from his generous philanthropy to his touching Oscar-winning short film to his proud advocacy for women’s sports. On and off the court, Kobe spoke his success into existence and always did it his way. His life is an admirable embodiment of our motto, “don’t do they, DUYU!” Rest in peace.