Editor’s note: Please accept our apology for any inconvenience: The draft copy was posted last night instead of the final version which now appears on our blog. This post is a tribute to Kobe Bryant and first appeared in 2013 as an entry about his life and career in American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas, Volume I: A-D edited by Murry Nelson (Greenwood, 2013). Authors Rich and Patricia Macales, volume editor Murry Nelson, and publisher ABC-CLIO/Greenwood have given us permission to re-print it here.
Kobe Bryant (1978-2020)
By Richard A. Macales and Patricia Macales
Kobe Bryant has broken many National Basketball Association records and stereotypes since joining the Los Angeles Lakers directly out of high school in 1996. Signing a contract at age 17–which legally required his parents’ signatures–made him the youngest player in NBA history. In so doing, he became an overnight teen sensation and one of the first sports figures to successfully command media attention of a celebrity-obsessed public in America and globally. Henceforth, athletes of star caliber such as Bryant would be covered by the media much like rock stars.
The reasons for global icon Bryant’s high profile vary depending on the continent, culture, and gender, and subgroups within each of these categories. Kobe is very self-conscious about his public persona. He is the self-proclaimed “Black Mamba”–a predatory venomous snake from Africa with pinpoint accuracy on its target–the “mean” image he wishes to project on the basketball court and on his DVDs. Whereas Americans have a fascination with sports statistics, global audiences tend to gauge a player’s greatness based on his style of play and off-court personal life. Most experts rate Bryant as the greatest NBA player of the 2000-2010 decade based on both stats and style. During this span in the NBA, Kobe won five championships, was voted Most Valuable Player, and led in scoring twice. His 81-point performance in one game in 2006 is an exceptional achievement, especially during an era of tighter defense and lower game scores. It is second all-time only to center Wilt Chamberlain’s 100.
Kobe’s brilliance as a three-point shooter, slam dunk artist, and clutch player has been recognized by sport- and celebrity-oriented websites alike. Kobe became one of its regularly trending personalities. To his good fortune–as well as with periodic setbacks along the way–it all came together at the peak of his NBA career. With the unprecedented growth and sophistication of the Internet, coupled with the decline of the printed daily newspaper, Bryant’s on- and off-court life made him accessible to a much broader audience now “wired,” craving details in “real time.” At the beginning of his career, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon.com, YouTube, Wikipedia, iPods, and blogs were in their infancies or did not exist at all. As they developed and improved the quality of their content, Bryant successfully utilized these popular new media. They became vehicles on which to sell his image and his products, as well as NBA basketball and the Los Angeles Lakers globally. Products range from traditional basketball jerseys to the office “Kobe Bryant laptop” computer, a line of footwear, and women’s jewelry.
For the NBA Kobe has overall been a boon to the league’s popularity around the globe, even following various personal conflicts throughout his career. NBA brass view Kobe much the way former New York Yankee baseball great Reggie Jackson saw himself: Love him or hate him, just as long as you keep writing about him! When Bryant became a pro in 1995, the NBA was looking for a successor to Michael Jordan. In mid-career, 1993, Jordan decided to retire for one season. When he returned in 1994, the NBA recognized that a player of Jordan’s caliber would be needed (if it were possible to find one) as Air Jordan’s career would be winding down. The NBA conducted its own version of Star Search and A Star Is Born. It was straight out of a TV reality show. Bryant became the consensus choice to be the player to fill the void of NBA life after Jordan.
NBA marketing mavens lauded Bryant as the next superstar, following in the footsteps of Lakers great Magic Johnson. It reminded many older sports fans of baseball’s New York Yankees touting a teenage Mickey Mantle as the successor to Joe DiMaggio. When Bryant married model and rap video dancer Vanessa Laine in 2001, veteran observers recalled the buzz surrounding DiMaggio’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe, one of the best-known actresses of all time. Kobe has publicly appealed to the hip-hop culture and street scene of Southern California. As a basketball player, he has enjoyed playing the sport like an inner city playground kid. In reality, as a child of privilege and son of a pro basketball player, Kobe lived a very sheltered life until he joined the NBA.
Among the most hits on various websites relating to Kobe are those comparing his basketball talent to that of the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan, probably the greatest player of all time. With all games televised and numerous cameras capturing different angles and views, there is no shortage of pulsating video available of Bryant and Jordan in action on the court. Their careers overlapped from 1996 to 1998 and 2001 to 2003. While Bryant learned much of his playing style from Jordan, he prefers to be recognized for his own original innovations. Dominating guards like Jordan and Bryant replaced the center as the player around whom a team builds a winner. Bryant’s Lakers have hired and dismissed coaches and brought in a revolving door of players to suit his style. Kobe has won with a superstar center in Shaquille O’Neal and a very good pivot man in Pau Gasol. While Jordan and Bryant have played under various coaches during their careers, they each won their NBA titles only under Phil Jackson. In addition to Jordan, Bryant has frequently been compared and contrasted to superstar forward LeBron James, another high school player signed by the NBA (Cleveland Cavaliers) in 2003. Some critics have erroneously viewed Bryant’s career as being a “sandwich” of sorts–successor to Jordan and predecessor to James. This is a perception Bryant considers unfair in promoting his own identity.
Kobe was taught some of the game of basketball starting at age three by his father, Joe Bryant, later head coach of the WNBA (Women’s NBA) Los Angeles Sparks. During his five-year NBA career at forward, the senior Bryant was mostly an understudy to two of the greatest swingmen, Julius “Dr. J” Erving and George McGinnis, teammates on his hometown Philadelphia 76ers. Both Erving and McGinnis did their professional “apprenticeship” as very young underclassmen in the unconventional, wide-open, anything-goes style of the rival American Basketball Association (of 1967-1976). ABA basketball, legendary in sports lore for its long-distance three-point shooters and over-the-rim antics, would come to characterize Kobe’s style of play–more ABA than NBA. Joe Bryant, at 6’9″ (three inches taller than his 6’6″ son), carefully studied the moves of Dr. J. As a tutor to his son, Joe Bryant taught Kobe some of Dr. J’s moves he observed. The highly competitive and dazzling style of Philadelphia high school basketball leagues were also crucial in developing Joe Bryant’s own game, which he passed along to his son. A number one draft choice like Kobe, Joe Bryant was able to command a very high salary out of La Salle University. The year was 1975, the final season of the ABA (and salary wars) versus the NBA. Joe Bryant’s lucrative contract enabled Kobe to live comfortably since the time he was born.
Kobe Bean Bryant was born on August 23, 1978, in his parents’ native Philadelphia. He is named for Kobe, Japan, famous for its ornate Shinto priestly estate and famous Kobe steak feasts. (Joe Bryant, an African American, has long had an affinity for Japanese culture and later coached a team in Japan). Coming from a close-knit Roman Catholic family, Kobe was born with a knack for basketball talent in his DNA. His mother, Pamela Cox Bryant, is the sister of former NBA player, John “Chubby” Cox. A guard, Cox played very briefly for the Washington Bullets (now Wizards) in 1983. The Bryant family moved to Europe in 1984. While Kobe was living in Europe, he spent his summers in Philadelphia where he was tutored by his uncle in playing American-style basketball as a guard. At the time Joe Bryant was playing pro basketball in Italy (1984-1989) and France (1991-1992). Kobe was sent to an exclusive private school in Switzerland. He speaks fluent Italian and is also familiar with the Swiss-German and French languages and cultures. During Kobe’s school years in Europe, his classmates were the offspring of diplomats and business tycoons at the International School in Basel. This exposure to students of differing nationalities and cultures helped him gain international popularity and establish business connections.
In 1992 Joe Bryant decided to interrupt his playing career when Kobe was 14 years old and slated for high school. His parents decided it was best to move back to America and have Kobe concurrently play prep basketball in the Philadelphia area. He enrolled at Lower Merion High School, located in the highly affluent suburb of Ardmore. The Bryants moved to that school district so Kobe could have an opportunity to get a better education. Lower Merion, a public school, was rated one of the 60 finest high schools in the United States (public or private) by the Wall Street Journal. By Kobe’s senior year in 1995, Lower Merion won the Pennsylvania high school state championship. Attending a school noted more for academics than sports programs, this was a notable achievement for Bryant. Lower Merion participated in a prep league including several exclusive private schools in the suburbs. Competition was less than what would be found in Philadelphia’s inner city schools.
Prior to high school his basketball experience was limited to a sports organization linked to one of his father’s Italian basketball teams. While European basketball was coming of age in the 1980s, the level of play was still notably lower than that found in America. For most players, not competing against top-flight talent from the youngest age might have stunted their skills. Bryant has demonstrated, however, that with good personal coaching, a player can attain the skills necessary for participation in top-level competition. Kobe is a role model of sorts for high school athletes from upper-middle-class homes. They very much identify with his student-athlete days as a prep player. Kobe has give them hope (or at least dreams) of playing collegiate basketball at top schools.
Since the NBA’s founding, league officials have debated whether high school graduates have the emotional maturity to go along with their talent to enter the pro ranks. Kobe’s parents were highly instrumental in encouraging him to put his college education on hold. They convinced NBA scouts he was already suited for the pros. If any high school athlete was seemingly mature enough to go directly to the NBA, it was Bryant. He was one of the first three players (and the youngest) to be drafted out of high school when the NBA altered its rules in 1994 and allowed players to entirely forego college. Colleges have been unhappy with this arrangement. They lost some of America’s finest high school players who would have greatly benefited their basketball programs. As a compromise, the NBA Players Association begrudgingly agreed in 2005 not to allow players under age 19 to be eligible to play in the NBA. Some call it the “Kobe Rule.” Bryant may remain the youngest NBA player ever to sign a contract for many years to come. Since the 1970s the NBA has permitted underclassmen (those not remaining in college for four years) to join the pro ranks, just as Joe Bryant had done in 1975.
In being critical of Kobe, there is also a certain level of envy, especially by his fellow NBA player, former coaches, and former teammates. When he returned to the United States to attend high school, he was unfamiliar with much of the new American teen slang, and refrained from using profanity. This made him appear to be shy, introverted, and “different.” He feared ridicule and social ostracism. Kobe has disproven the notion that only tough inner city kids from low-income families have what it takes to make the NBA. Nevertheless, it has set Kobe apart from many of his teammate to this day.
Bryant has adapted his business skills he learned in high school (a requirement before his graduation from Lower Merion) quite successfully. He is among the top-paid athletes. Earnings from endorsements alone surpass his salary and are annually near the top of the list of athletes in all sports. Bryant prefers to handle his negotiations personally. He does not rely solely on an agent or lawyers to act independently on his behalf. In earlier times athletes were happy with their picture on a box of Wheaties cereal–the “breakfast of champions”–or on sports trading cards as recognition of making the major leagues. Like other sports legends of the past, he also appeared on a Wheaties box cover, but with an accompanying “Adidas, Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers T-shirt” coupon offer– endorsement fees provided by all of the aforementioned. Bryant does not endorse liquor products, a staple on television in which many other sports figures appear in beer commercials.
Not surprisingly, Bryant was signed by another Los Angeles Lakers all-time great and Hall of Fame guard, Jerry West. “Mr. Clutch” was general manager of the Lakers at the time. West, one of the greatest outside shooters, related to Bryant’s style of play and intense on-court concentration, driven to do whatever it takes to win. Kobe’s first season was spent mostly on the bench learning the game from the talent-rich Lakers. In building their next dynasty around Bryant, the Lakers signed superstar center Shaquille O’Neal the following season, 1996. That year L.A. drafted an outstanding point guard, Derek Fisher, out of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. During the Lakers’ two dynasties of the first decade of the 2000s, Bryant and Fisher were the only teammates to remain intact on the team during their three-peat of 2000, 2001 and 2002 and dual championships of 2009 and 2010. Kobe and Shaq had a contentious relationship throughout most of their years together. Despite making it to the NBA finals (losing to the Detroit Pistons in 2004) Lakers management sided with Bryant and traded O’Neal to the Miami Heat. Two stars vying for the spotlight was one too many in a city said to have more stars in it than there are in the sky.
A generation after “Fernando Mania” began making baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers the fan favorites of Southern California’s burgeoning immigrant Latino population, Bryant, then 21, married Vanessa Laine, an 18-year-old Mexican American, on April 18, 2001. Twenty years earlier, April 9, 1981, the Dodgers Fernando Valenzuela, a 19-year-old Mexican phenom, surprised the sports world by pitching Opening Day. (That season he went on to become the first player to win the Cy Young Award, Rookie of the Year, and World Series). Prior to Kobe’s wedding, Latinos were smitten with American baseball. They were also devotees of the former Los Angeles Raiders of the National Football League, coached by a Mexican American. Basketball ranked fourth behind soccer in fan interest by Latinos. The Bryant nuptials in a traditional Catholic ceremony wed Kobe not only to Vanessa but to the Latino community with which she strongly identifies. The newlyweds were headliners as the Lakers completed a three-peat that season in the 2002 NBA finals. Although African American, Bryant, (who speaks Spanish), has brought basketball to new heights of popularity among Latinos. Timing was again on Kobe’s side when, in 1995, the Raiders moved back to Oakland (and the Rams to St. Louis), eliminating pro football from L.A. sports coverage, the media choosing to focus on Kobe. Today’s younger generation of Southern California Latinos prefer Kobe and the Lakers over Dodger baseball.
Latin Americans outside of the United States consider Kobe a pop icon through his marriage to Vanessa. In soccer-crazed Europe Kobe is also one of the most recognized and admired athletes. In China he is the most famous athlete, surpassing in popularity former NBA star Ming Yao. While Middle Eastern countries can be sworn enemies, Bryant has been as popular in Israel as he is in Turkey and Dubai. To the global audience, playing and partying in star-studded Hollywood has added to Kobe’s allure, transcending sports preference and geopolitics. Bryant has carefully cultivated his local and global audience even further through his passionate interest in soccer, which he still follows and formerly played (as a goalie) while living in Europe. he is a friend and business partner of Spain’s Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho and Argentinean Lionel Messi, the two greatest and best-known “footballers” of the 21st century. When asking Bryant about his favorite teams in other sports, fans are often surprised to hear FC Barcelona and AC Milan in soccer–rather than American baseball or football teams.
In Los Angeles the “entertainment capital of the world,” Kobe has gained broader exposure than he would have received had he played for the NBA Charlotte Hornets, who originally drafted him in 1996. He is a regular news item on such globally syndicated tabloid shows as Entertainment Tonight. When the Teen Choice Awards show was established in Los Angeles in 1999, Kobe’s stature was such that sports was given recognition as a category along with icons of music, film, and fashion. He brought the NBA further exposure on such programs as the highly viewed MTV 25th anniversary awards show.
As might be expected, Kobe has appeared on numerous covers of the most influential American publications specializing in sports–Sports Illustrated (fifth most covers of an athlete all time; three others also being NBA basketball players); The Sporting News, and ESPN The Magazine. His popularity on the Internet led other American sports figures (outside of tennis and golf) to appear regularly in international sports and celebrity publications. Whereas the newspaper sports pages of the pre-Kobe era generally shied away from discussing an athlete’s private activities, Bryant has broken taboos willingly, or sometimes regretfully, displaying a certain transparency in various aspects of his life. He is covered much like his contemporaries from the entertainment world such as Britney Spears and fellow sportsman Tiger Woods.
There is a clear cultural and gender divide when it comes to interpreting Bryant’s off-the-court controversies. In America the media tended to refer to a 2003 sexual assault allegation by a female employee at a resort as the “rape” charge, the focus being on the treatment of women involved in either complex and/or casual relationships with powerful men. The European press preferred labeling it a “sex scandal,” akin to a political figure getting caught in an extramarital affair. In nondemocratic, male-dominated societies (though not exclusively), Bryant’s behavior was viewed as women “entrapping” men like him as a means of blackmailing for financial gain. Eventually, the matter was resolved with an out-of-court settlement. Embroiled in controversies on and off the court, the Lakers missed the postseason playoffs in 2005. Bryant’s lucrative product endorsements were abruptly canceled. Only 26 years old at the time, Bryan was thought by many to be finished as a dominating player and a key to NBA championships. Not many believed he could escape his problems. In the off-season of 2005, Bryant renewed his marriage vows and gave Vanessa a much-talked-about $4 million diamond wedding ring. Fooling even his greatest backers, he demonstrated uncanny resiliency and came back stronger than ever. Bryant produced the highest scoring marks of his career and won many All-Star honors. He led the Lakers to two more NBA championships in 2009 and 2010.
In 2011 controversy revisited Bryant following his gay slur toward an NBA referee. The NBA fined him a record $100,000. Like the NBA, the Lakers acted immediately and proactively, promoting tolerance towards gays and lesbians in public service announcements. It was classic crisis public relations management kicking into action again. Some blogs and talk-show hosts asserted that Bryant’s slur was not homophobic, rather, an isolated angry outburst at an official on a disputed foul call. Critics assert that Bryant’s language was a microcosm of a broader problem among athletes–“bench jockeys” who harass opposing players and officials with disparaging remarks, particularly about skin color, religion, intelligence, ethnicity, body size and features, and speech. Bryant was unintentionally responsible for raising public awareness of harmful remarks. Discussions have branched out to include bullies who torment vulnerable schoolmates on and off campus. Insofar as corporate sponsors are concerned, in both America and abroad they were hoping the incidents of 2003 and 2001 would blow over quickly. They could then resume using him to a forgiving public as their most recognized and effective spokesperson. Being in the spotlight has its benefits and consequences. In 2012 Bryant scored 30.0 points per game, just behind league leader LeBron James, who scored 30.8, but Bryant’s Lakers were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games.
Bryant follows in the Lakers’ tradition of Hall of Fame guards–Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Magic Johnson. Whether he is as great as Michael Jordan will be the topic of Internet blogs and sports/entertainment shows for many years to come. One thing is for certain: Kobe Bryant reflects the sentiments of two rival icons of a different genre of pop culture–music–Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, who each sang, “I did it my way.”
Richard A. Macales, a native Angeleno, was a former longtime senior writer and public information officer at UCLA. He is a contributor to American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols and Ideas, edited by Prof. Murry R. Nelson, ABC-Clio. For SAH he is the author of Remembering the Los Angeles Sports Arena: One Year After a Cultural Icon’s Demolition, July 3, 2017. Patricia Macales is a retired secondary education specialist for the Los Angeles Unified School district, and an award-winning poet for “Victory Day.”