It’s still hard to believe Kobe Bryant is celebrating his 35th birthday.
He’s spent nearly half of his life in the NBA’s superstar fishbowl, morphing from a swaggering high school talent into the current godfather of the league.
The active Lakers legend has grown up in front of basketball-watching America, a process intensified by the spotlight of Hollywood. His maturation has been highlighted by five championships, 15 All-Star appearances, an MVP award, two Finals MVP awards and a place among the all-time scoring leaders.
Bryant has headlined his generation of superstars, proving a mirror of Michael Jordan was close to possible while carrying the torch to LeBron James. He’s the prime link between the old guard and today’s basketball elite; his legacy is both revered and emulated.
On his birthday, we celebrate Bryant for the lasting imprint he’s made on the league, as a superstar willing to do whatever it takes to be the greatest, even if it means ruffling feathers along the way.
Bryant made it cool to be the hard-working villain. His influence and greatness are worthy of gratitude, so from all of us: happy birthday, Kobe.
“As you turn 35, it’s been an honor and a privilege to watch you play basketball,” Hall of Famer Charles Barkley told Bleacher Report. “From age 18 to age 35, you've been incredible. Happy birthday.”
Another NBA Hall of Famer Reggie Miller also sent his birthday wishes: “They will be sending you an AARP card soon—enjoy middle age; it ain't so bad. I know you have some great moments still in you, and I look forward to witnessing them from the best seat in the house.”
The Competitive Spirit
Bryant has never apologized for wanting to be the best, even when it meant pressing too hard and hurting feelings. His killer instinct and drive set the tone for what it takes to win in today’s NBA, something he carried from the Jordan era.
It’s been a part of his story from the start. Bryant pounced on the NBA with daring, attacking a league that wasn’t ready to see such passion from a teenager.
To gain perspective on how Bryant’s blueprint on the league came to be, let's go back to the Lower Merion High School gym. It was there that high school coach Gregg Downer first saw Bryant, as a bony, self-assured 13-year-old.
At 6’2” and 140 pounds, the eighth-grade Bryant possessed the same confidence that he’d bring to the NBA just over four years later. He wasn't afraid to go at the 18-year-old varsity players then, just as he’s not afraid of going against the 19- and 20-year-old talents now that he’s in his mid-30s.
“After watching him play for five minutes, I turned to one of my assistant coaches and said, ‘This kid is going to be a pro,’” Downer told Bleacher Report.
“He was just chasing greatness really from day one. I don’t know if he had his sights set on Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan back then. But in terms of a pure love of the game, he loves the game deeply, which a lot of these superstars can’t say.”
His passion and desire to be the best were initially misinterpreted, and fans were uncertain of who this Bryant kid was. He had manipulated his way to the Los Angeles Lakers via a draft-day trade and then quickly demanded to be a leader of the famed franchise.
Robert Horry recently recalled an exchange with Bryant, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, that exhibits an overzealous, young star in the making:
The seven-time champion recalled a game early in their partnership when Bryant kept demanding the ball, but Horry stuck instead to the triangle offense.
During a timeout, Bryant said, "I'm hot," and pressed Horry on why he was ignoring his requests.
"How many championships you got?" Horry replied. "I've got two. I've got this."
Horry, as quoted in the same story, called it "a bonding moment."
Bryant eventually started to win rings of his own though, and with them he earned the respect of teammates and fans.
The roots of his actions began to show: He was devoted to his will to succeed, even if it agitated teammates, coaches or fans. As his credibility grew through championships and individual success, he matured from being seen as selfish to being seen as a proven winner.
Bryant Became ‘The Next Jordan’
Bryant’s desire to be the greatest certainly got him in trouble at times, as noted by Phil Jackson in the former coach’s recent book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success (as quoted in the L.A. Times):
Kobe was hell-bent on surpassing Jordan as the greatest player in the game. His obsession with Michael was striking. When we played in Chicago that season, I orchestrated a meeting between the two stars, thinking that Michael might help shift Kobe's attitude toward selfless teamwork. After they shook hands, the first words out of Kobe's mouth were, "You know I can kick your ass one on one."
Most players—OK, probably all players—wouldn't say what Kobe said in that moment. But Bryant is unique, and maybe that’s the attitude that is required if you’re truly attempting to surpass a legend, particularly one who may have said the same thing to his superstar predecessor if he was being honest.
Of all those who have fallen into the “next Michael Jordan” category, only Bryant deserves comparison. He is only 675 points behind Jordan for his career and needs just one more title to match Jordan’s six championships.
Bryant has come so close to Jordan’s greatness that the term “next Jordan” is no longer even used.
The Face of the NBA for a Decade
The league has to have a headliner.
Kobe took the torch from Jordan, but only after Jordan took the torch from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Eventually, LeBron took the torch from Bryant.
It’s not a disrespectful statement to say part of Bryant’s legacy was to carry the league from the hands of Jordan to James. Kobe was the face of the NBA for an entire generation and carried one of the league's prominent franchises, all at a time when the league was expanding internationally (there’s a reason grown men cry in China at just the sight of him).
After James finished second to Bryant's MVP award in 2007-08, the then-Cleveland star said: "I've always stated, since two or three years ago, that Kobe Bryant's the best player in this league. And he's been the best player in this league for five or six years.”
Bryant may no longer be the league’s best talent now, but he’s still revered as the league’s greatest competitor. That’s something current elite players like Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose are still striving to become, and it’s something for which James is just now getting credit.
Bill Simmons theorized that it was Kobe who opened LeBron’s eyes in the 2008 Beijing Olympics to see what type of drive it takes to be a champion.
It makes sense considering what Bryant reportedly told Dwight Howard last season: "I know how to do it and I've learned from the best—players who have won multiple times over and over. Instead of trying to do things your way, just listen and learn and tweak it, so it fits you."
Far from Retirement
If last season’s Lakers saga revealed anything, it’s that Bryant hasn't lost his fire.
As he enters the back end of his 30s this offseason and seeks an unheralded comeback from a torn Achilles, it’s clear he still wants more. He’s shown a recovery pace that’s unheard of for that type of devastating injury.
Per NBA.com's Jonathan Hartzell, Kobe recently told reporters:
The surgical procedure was different … and because of that the recovery has been different. The normal timetable for recovery from an Achilles, we've shattered that. Three-and-a-half months I can already walk just fine, I’m lifting weights with the Achilles just fine and that’s different. So we don’t know what that timetable is going to be. It’s kind of new territory for us all.
Bryant also recently said: "I could easily see myself playing another three or four years."
Before the injury, Kobe was still playing at an elite level. Last season, he averaged 27.3 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, to go along with 6.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds in 78 games. At that pace (which he has maintained for the past several seasons), he certainly could surpass Jordan’s total points and perhaps get an opportunity to match his total championships.
Do you think Kobe is ready to stop yet?
Further elite performance this late into his career would only add to an already impressive legacy.
Note: Thanks to our friends at Turner Sports for rallying Kobe's friends to participate in our birthday tribute.