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On this day in 1978, Pamela Cox Bryant gave birth to her third child with Joe Bryant in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This child was named after a Japanese city, Kobe, and his father’s nickname, which was Jellybean. Before he was the Black Mamba, he was Kobe Bean Bryant, a young kid whose father and uncle, John “Chubby” Cox both played in the National Basketball Association. Joe Bryant went to Italy to play professional basketball and brought the family with him. At the time, Kobe was just six years old, but he adjusted to his new home quickly and learned to speak Italian. Growing up, he loved the Los Angeles Lakers, and would study films of NBA games. By the time he was 11, Kobe as in the lay-up lines warming up with his dad and Brian Shaw, who could soon become Kobe’s teammate. In 1991, when Kobe was thirteen, the family moved back to Pennsylvania. There, Kobe attended Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, less than ten miles away from Philadelphia. He made varsity and started as a freshman at the school, but the team only managed to win four of their 24 games. The following years, Kobe received interest from many schools. In his senior year, the Lower Merion Aces won the state championship, and Kobe was named a McDonalds All-American and was crowned as the Naismith High School Basketball Player of the Year and the Gatorade Mens’ National Basketball Player of the Year while averaging 30.8 points, 12 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 4 steals, and 3.8 blocks per game. In his four-year high school career, Kobe Bryant scored 2,883 points.
During a press conference at his school, with sunglasses on his head, a 17 year old Kobe Bryant declared that “I have decided to skip college and take my talents to the NBA,” and on June 26, 1996 in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the NBA Draft awaited him. With the thirteenth pick in the draft, the Charlotte Hornets selected Kobe Bryant, but they selected him only to trade him to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for center Vlade Divac. His first season, Kobe only started six of his 71 games played, as he backed up Eddie Jones. During All-Star weekend, he won the Dunk Contest. In game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz, Byron Scott was injured, Robert Horry was ejected, and Shaquille O’Neal fouled out, and Kobe shot four airballs in the final minute and overtime. Kobe later thought of this as a turning point in his career. “At 18 years old, it was gut-check time,” he said. The next season, Kobe finished second for the 6th Man of the Year award and was voted to the All-Star team as a starter, one of four Lakers (along with O’Neal, Jones, and Nick Van Exel) to play in the game. The next season, Kobe started all 50 games (shorter than the usual 82 because of a lockout, which also resulted in no All-Star game being played). Before the 1999-00 season, the Lakers hired Phil Jackson as their head coach. Then came the three-peat; Kobe and Shaq led the Lakers to three consecutive championships from 2000-2002. One year, Isaiah “JR” Rider joined the team. Rider constantly trash-talked Kobe. Then, one practice, it escalated. “Don’t get it twisted. I’m a star too, and I used to give you buckets,” Rider said. Kobe replied, “Man, you think you could take me? Alright, after practice, me and you. One-on-one.” Rider said “OK I ain’t no punk, let’s go.” Phil Jackson ended practice right then and there, and Kobe and JR went at it. “Nobody went to the showers. Everybody pulled up chairs on the sideline. It was like a heavyweight fight,” Devean George recalled. Brian Shaw also described it: “They played to ten by ones. Kobe just absolutely demolished him. This was 22-year-old Kobe. Crazy athletic. Unlimited stamina. I mean he kicked his ***. He pulled out everything in his bag – dunk, up-and-under, pull-up, crossover.” “JR wanted to fight everyone,” Horace Grant said.
In 2003, Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault. Court appearances forced him to miss some games during the season. The team was looking to get back on the championship track, as they put together a superteam of Kobe, Shaq, Gary Payton, and Karl Malone. The Lakers made it to the NBA Finals, but the trip resulted in a loss to the Detroit Pistons. The following season, with Malone, Payton, Shaq, and coach Jackson all gone, the Lakers missed the playoffs. However, in 2005-06, Jackson returned. Kobe went on an absolute tear this season. On December 20th, Kobe Bryant scored 62 points in the first three quarters of a game against the eventual Western Conference champions, Dallas Mavericks. At that point, the Mavericks themselves scored 61 points. 33 days later, on January 22, 2006, the Lakers faced off against the Toronto Raptors. At halftime, Kobe had 26 points but the Lakers were trailing by 14. Kobe then turned it on in the third quarter, scoring 27 points, and followed that by scoring 28 in the fourth while leading the Lakers to the victory. His final stats? 28-46 from the field, 18-20 from the free throw line, and a total of 81 pints. This was the second greatest scoring performance in NBA history, second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game on March 2, 1962 in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Kobe averaged over 43 points in January. That season, Kobe set franchise records for most 40-point games and most total points in a season. He led his team to the playoffs despite having a weak supporting cast, and many believed he was robbed of the Most Valuable Player award. In the offseason, Kobe changed his number from 8 to 24, the number he wore as a freshman in high school. In the 2007 season, Kobe scored 50 or more points in four straight games, the only player besides Chamberlain to accomplish that feat.
Towards the end of the 2006-07 season, Kobe requested to be traded, but eventually backed off of his request. The following season, after a trade to unite Kobe with Pau Gasol, the Lakers won 57 games and Kobe won the MVP award. In the 2008 Finals, the Lakers faced off against the Boston Celtics. Leading 3-2 entering game 6, the Boston Celtics demolished the Lakers by 39 points en route to their 17th championship. The Lakers came back the next season looking for revenge, winning 65 games. They made it to the Finals, where they met the Orando Magic. In 5 games, Kobe averaged over 32 points and 7 assists and earned the Finals MVP award. Kobe followed this up in the 2009-10 season by leading the Lakers to another Finals. The opponent? None other than the Boston Celtics. The series was extended to a seventh game. Despite a poor shooting performance in game 7, Kobe still scored 23 points and grabbed 15 rebounds and led the team to a victory. He won another Finals MVP award in his fifth championship run. Kobe, or the “Black Mamba,” got his revenge for 2008.
Kobe spent the rest of his career trying to win another ring. In 2012, the Lakers traded for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. The team looked good on paper, but injuries and lack of chemistry prevented this team from reaching its full potential. On April 12th, with the team fighting for playoff contention, Kobe ruptured his Achilles against the Golden State Warriors. Kobe, in perhaps the most iconic moment of his career, refused to come out of the game until he shot his two free throws, which he drained. This started a small avalanche of season-ending injuries. In the 2014 season, Kobe suffered a lateral tibial plateau fracture in his knee. In 2015, he tore his rotator cuff in his shoulder. The next season would be his last. He announced his retirement through an article in The Players’ Tribune. This kicked off a farewell tour for the Black Mamba, although he asked teams not to hold ceremonies for him. On April 13, 2016, Kobe Bryant played his final game in the NBA. In an otherwise meaningless game against the Utah Jazz, who were eliminated from playoff contention earlier that day, he scored 60 points and led his team to a victory.
Kobe Bryant is celebrating his first birthday as a retired basketball player. Kobe is now a businessman, who just announced the beginning of a venture capital firm with his partner Jeff Stibel with $100 million in funding. Where does Kobe Bryant stand in your list of greatest players ever? Comment below with your thoughts.
Image Sources: USA Today, Ballislife, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, CNN