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NBA 75 Series: #4 Kobe Bryant

Coming in at #4 of my NBA 75 Greatest Players of All Time, as I do this one with a heavy heart, is one of the greatest, inspirational, and one of my favorite players of all time, Kobe Bean Bryant. Bryant was born on August 23, 1978, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and passed away shockingly on January 26, 2020, in Calabasas, California in a helicopter crash with his daughter and others onboard that still gut-wrenches me every time I think about that day.

Anyways, instead of being sad, let me tell you about the legend and icon of Kobe Bryant. Bryant was the only son of his mother Pamela, and father Joe who played in the NBA and helped expose Bryant to the game of basketball. He received his nickname “Jellybean” from his father who stood 6’10 and played guard for the Philadelphia Sixers. Bryant would fall in love with the game of basketball from the age of three when he would start shooting and dribbling a ball.

His family lived in Italy for part of Bryant’s childhood where his dad played for Olimpia Basket Pistoia, a former Italian professional basketball team. While growing up in Italy during part of his childhood Bryant would study intense films of basketball to quickly absorb the fundamentals of the game and the European style of play. His grandfather also mailed him videos of NBA games for him to study at a young age. Bryant started playing basketball seriously once he and his family moved to Regilio Emilia.

Bryant would mop the floors during every timeout of his dad's games, and work as a ball boy as well so he could shoot around during halftime. While in Italy Bryant also picked up the game of soccer which would help him develop impeccable footwork that he would display throughout his glorious career. His family moved back to Philadelphia when he turned 13 years old and he would attend Bala Cynwyd Middle School.

But the legend of Bryant really began at Lower Merion High School where he would attend from 1992-1996. He was so advanced that he played varsity as a freshman and became the first freshman in decades at the time to start for the team despite the team's poor 4-20 record.

But that would only be an aberration, as Bryant would help lead Lower Merion to a combined 77-13 record over the next three seasons of his fabled career. He averaged 31.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.3 steals, and 3.8 blocks per game as a junior! Bryant would be named the Pennsylvania Player of the Year while also earning a fourth-team Parade All-American nomination.

Bryant was one of the most celebrated young prodigies in all of sports history, so he had a slew of colleges to choose from such as Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, and many more. In the summer of 1995, Bryant would see a future contemporary in Kevin Garnett, another high school phenom who would jump straight from high school to the NBA, which made Bryant contemplate the idea.

That summer Bryant would be named the Adidas Camp MVP, playing alongside future teammate Lamar Odom, and played NBA guard Jerry Stackhouse one-on-one. Bryant went into his senior season with even more force by putting up averages of 30.8 points, 12 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 4 steals, and 3.8 blocked shots to help lead the Aces to a 31-1 record. He finished his high school career with a cherry on top by leading the Aces to a state title in his very last high school game.

Bryant would end his highly acclaimed high school career as Southeastern Pennsylvania’s all-time leading scorer with 2,883 points which surpassed NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain and Lionel Simmons. He would be named a McDonald’s All-American in 1996, including being named the Naismith High School Player of the Year, Gatorade Men’s National Player of the Year, a first-team Parade All-American, and a USA Today first-team selection.

His coach, Greg Downer, praised Bryant’s otherworldly work ethic and called him “a complete player who dominates”. Bryant was so famous he even took another young iconic teenager in the spotlight, R&B singer and actress, Brandy to his senior prom which was captured all over by the media.

Kobe with Brandy at his prom in 1996

After thinking long and hard about his decision of whether to go the pro route or decide to attend college, Bryant would let his intentions known at his high school’s gymnasium to enter the 1996 NBA Draft. Bryant would workout for several teams, but one he really impressed was NBA legend Jerry West who was the Los Angeles Lakers general manager at the time was dumbfounded at how good Bryant was and how this high school kid was destroying professionals in workouts in what he called “the greatest workout he ever saw”.

After West saw Bryant go against former defensive stalwart Michael Cooper, he knew Bryant was “That One” The Lakers would have to trade up to get Bryant as the Charlotte Hornets owned the 13th overall pick and had their eyes set on the brash teenager. But, West worked his brilliant magic like he did so many times as a GM, trading center Vlade Divac in exchange for the pick. Then and there is where Bryant became the first guard to ever be drafted straight out of high school.

Things were so hectic Divac even threatened to retire to trash the deal! But fortunately, that didn’t happen and the Lakers were able to acquire Bryant in one of the all-time draft steals in NBA History. He even refused to play for the New Jersey Nets (now Brooklyn Nets), and the Hornets. Bryant had his eyes strictly on wearing that purple and gold that he grew up watching Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the “Showtime Lakers” play and win all those championships in the 1980s and wanted to bring that culture back to La-La Land.

He wouldn’t be without help though as West would continue making genius moves by signing young superstar center Shaquille O’Neal to a $120 million, seven-year deal. O’Neal at the time was just 24 years old and one of the brightest young stars in the NBA and had already had a Finals appearance under his belt. Pairing him with the flashy style of Bryant’s game made West and Lakers owner at the time, Jerry Buss believed this dynamic duo would help the Lakers reach the glory days of the 1980s again.

Bryant had a lot of fanfare entering the league in 1996. As a young brash teenager at the age of 18, he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. He never lacked confidence, even as a rookie. He averaged just 7.6 points per game his rookie season, but showed some flashes of greatness during his rookie year. The defining moment that would ultimately help drive Bryant even more to succeed was the 1997 NBA playoffs when the Lakers faced the Utah Jazz led by veteran stars Karl Malone and John Stockton.

It was Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals the score is tied 89-89 with a little over 10 seconds to go. Bryant dribbles the ball up the court to waste time off the clock for the last shot and a chance to win the game. He gets to halfcourt with five seconds to go with Byron Russell tight on him, he drives hard right pump fakes Russell, and gets him off his feet, fading away from his defender to try to win the game and airballed. The game was going to overtime.

Bryant wouldn’t only airball once but would airball three more times for a total of four in a five-minute span! The second airball came from a wide-open three-pointer with the shot clock winding down, with Bryant in disgust after the result. He then took a tough contested shot with nine seconds on the shot clock with Russell draped all over him. The fourth and final airball came from a deep heave with about six seconds to go in the game and a frustrated Bryant looking up at the scoreboard in disgust.

He had failed, but that failure that night in Utah is what would add more fire to the fuel of someone who would become one of the most absolutely feared cold-blooded assassins in NBA History. Bryant was the most ruthless competitor in league history alongside Bill Russell and his idol Michael Jordan. He was viewed as the heir apparent to Jordan and was the closest thing we will ever see to the Chicago icon.

Kobe gave us fans countless moments from the five championships he won, three with Shaq and two without Shaq as the best player on those 2009 and 2010 Laker teams, proving he can win without the big fella. He gave us the 81-point game, the second most points scored in a game in league history, 62 points in three quarters, shooting free throws on a torn Achilles, numerous game-winners, "The Lob" to Shaq, and so many more.

Bryant made kids say “Kobe!” whenever they shot in trash cans growing up because of his iconic fadeaway and dazzling shotmaking ability. He is the best tough shotmaker in league history. Bryant is a five-time champion, has two Finals MVPs, an NBA MVP, 18-time all-star, 15-time all-NBA, 12, all-defensive teams, most All-Star Game MVPs ever, with four, and has led the league in scoring twice, averaging over 35 a game in 2006, only Wilt, Jordan, and James Harden have ever averaged 35 or more in a season. He is the greatest Laker of all time, as even the great Magic Johnson said Kobe was. Kobe’s legacy will live forever, as Jalen Rose would say, “ If Jordan is the original, Kobe is the remix baby!”

R.I.P. to “The Black Mamba”, you will never be forgotten. Thank you for inspiring a generation of not just basketball players but athletes, and making people pursue their everyday passion even harder because of your inspiring devotion to the game. You were my idol growing up, as I write this article with a lot of emotion, and I try to have the dedication you had. Thank you for forever leaving the game and world in a better place than you found it.

Is Kobe Bryant in your top 5 all time?

  • Hell Yeah!

  • No, but he's right there

  • Poll_Editor_Answer_Placeholder

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