Buddha. Moses. Jesus Christ. Kobe Bryant?
When Kobe Bryant came into the NBA, he wasn't your average high-school player.
Then-Laker General Manager Jerry West called Bryant the most talented player he'd seen.
But very quickly, Kobe became one of the most hated players in the league. Rumors of him being a “ballhog” and “uncoachable” leaked quickly out of the Lakers locker room.
And jealousy abounded from the other massive talent on that team, Shaquille O'Neal.
Kobe ended up being successful by winning three NBA titles en route to unseating a retired Michael Jordan to become the best guard in the league.
The on-court success tells only part of Kobe’s story, however. Bryant is more than just a basketball player. Like Jordan, he’s a transcendent figure. He’s one of the most recognizable people on the planet and arguably the biggest star in sports.
So that begs the question, what is it about Bryant that makes him so popular? What is it about him that makes him so loved, and so hated at the same time?
My answer is simple: Kobe Bryant is a hero.
I am not attempting to say that Kobe is a god, or that he’s god-like (even though he is, at times, on the court). Rather, it’s my belief that all universally transcendent athletes go through what's called a hero's journey—Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali come to mind immediately.
He’s not a hero in the common way in which the word is usedsaving someone's life or fighting and dying for a cause.
He is a hero in the way mythologist Joseph Campbell used the word. Bryant fits the archetype of someone fulfilling what Campbell, who guided George Lucas through the creation of Star Wars, called the “monomyth”.
All heroes, according to Campbell, must overcome specific types of trials while trying to achieve a quest. All major religious figures, Campbell argued, go through similar trials, which lead to self-awareness and the eventual fulfillment of a quest.
Although there are different variations of the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, there are three main phases—the departure, the initiation and the return. The one taught by Campbell includes 17 steps within these phases.
I will just cover some of the major ones and how Kobe fits this archetype.
(Read about the entire hero’s journey here.)
Step 1: Call to Adventure
In 1996, Kobe was 17-years-old and was attempting to do what only seven footers had successfully done before—enter the NBA Draft and be a successful player. He was picked 13th by the Hornets and traded to the Lakers so he could eventually be Shaq’s running mate.
Step 2: Refusal of the Call
One thing we know about Kobe is the role his father played in his youth. We know that Kobe's father had a huge ego—he thought he was the best player on the Sixers teams he played for (he imagined himself better than Dr. J, better than Moses Malone).
We also know that he encouraged Kobe to be more selfish.
In addition, we know that Shaq and the older Lakers didn't make it easy for Kobe. So he was tagged "selfish", a "ballhog". His stubbornness and refusal to play within the system his first couple of years didn't help either. Kobe was immediately cast down as the bad guy.
The belief that both Kobe and Shaq couldn’t succeed was already growing both in local media and nationally.
Step 3: Supernatural Aid, or Meeting the Guide
After another failed attempt at winning a title, the Lakers brought in Phil Jackson as coach. Jackson had won the NBA Finals six times previously. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, he was brought in not only to coach the team, but to guide the young upstart to become a better teammate.
Step 4: Crossing the First Threshold
One year after arriving, the Lakers won the title. But this was mostly because of Shaq. Kobe, already considered one of the best perimeter players in the game played a huge role, but it was a supporting one.
Step 5: Inside the Belly of the Whale
This is said to be the hero’s lowest moment. This is the point in which the hero becomes ripped from himself.
In Star Wars, Luke was stuck in a trash compactor with Han, Leia and Chewbacca.
Kobe Bryant was stuck in the back of a police car.
Both despaired. Bryant came out flawed. He was no longer a clean-cut family man. The 17-year-old phenom was dead. In his place stood a 23-year-old man whose reputation had been torn to shreds.
Step 6: The Road of Trials
In this step, the hero undergoes a series of tests to undergo his transformation.
Bryant went through a losing season.
Then he played three straight years as the most dominant player in the NBA. In 2005, he scored 35.4 points per game and had his 81-point outing and had outscored the Dallas Mavericks through three quarters a few days earlier.
However, during this three-year stretch, the Lakers missed the playoffs, and lost to the Phoenix Suns twice in the first round.
Step 7: Atonement with the Father
Bryant and Jackson had a rocky relationship during the coach’s first stint with the Lakers. And with the Lakers losing repeatedly in the first round when Jackson returned, many worried that Kobe would never get back to complete his quest of winning a title without Shaq.
But somewhere between the end of the 2007 playoffs and the beginning of the 2008 playoffs, Kobe had found a way, or had an epiphany that Jackson did know what he was talking about.
Since then, and it can be seen now especially, the two call the same plays without even having to talk. For the most part, they are of one mind.
Step 8: Apotheosis (Becoming God-Like)
One of the things I’ve noticed about Kobe recently is that he really doesn’t pay attention to his opponents. During an ABC interview, Bryant said as much. He feels them, but doesn’t see them.
He stopped the one-on-one battles with other players. He’s risen above it.
He doesn’t even seem to have a problem with members of the media saying that Lebron James is the best player in the game. His ego has been “disintegrated in a breakthrough expansion of consciousness.” And Bryant seems to have found “an ability to do new things or to see a larger point of view, allowing the hero to sacrifice himself.”
Step 9: The Ultimate Boon
This is what I think Bryant is about to accomplish.
He’s two wins away from achieving his quest of winning his first title without Shaq.
In addition, Bryant’s past has led to this moment. He’s no longer thought of as the “ballhog” or the whiny player who can’t get along with his teammates or coach. He’s no longer the standoffish all-star. No, Bryant is now seen as the ultimate competitor.
When he wins his fourth title, he’ll be firmly enshrined as one of the league’s all-time greats. His name will be unabashedly mentioned next to Michael Jordan’s and Magic Johnson’s.
There are several steps remaining in the hero's journey, but these come after the quest is completed and involve the hero attempting to hold on to his prize.
That's why when Kobe raises the Larry O’Brien Trophy over his head sometime in the next five games, this hero's quest isn't over.
In fact, the rest of his journey will be much more treacherous and his adversaries try to take what belongs to him.
Hello, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett.