The Making of an NBA Icon

Before Kobe Bryant became the merciless Mamba focused on mastering the art of NBA stardom, he distinguished himself with his intellectual curiosity and a hunger for personal connection.
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJanuary 27, 2020

"Howard, do you need me today?"

The voice came from behind me, but I knew who was asking before I turned my head.

Kobe Bryant was striding across the gym at L.A. Southwest College, heading toward the exit. Practice was over, players were slowly dispersing, and I was in the middle of asking Robert Horry about something.

Kobe was 19, a Lakers reserve in his second season. Not yet an All-Star, not yet a champion, not yet an icon or a pitchman, neither hero nor villain, and not yet a Mamba. Just "Kob," a swaggering, charismatic kid from Lower Merion High who spoke fluent Italian and played a little like Jordan.

I was one of a handful of beat writers covering the Lakers full time. Kobe and I were just getting to know each other. I hadn't seen him finish his post-practice shooting routine. He could have just left. But he stopped first.

"You need me?"

No, I said. I'm good. Even young prodigies need a break now and then.

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Kobe Bryant is gone—the shock of that is still raw as I type, with unsure fingers—and we'll all search for comfort in our own memories of choice: The acrobatic plays that thrilled us. The pyrotechnic performances that inspired us. The stubborn resiliency that moved us.

In mourning, we'll celebrate Kobe's furious passion and dedication, his pure love of the game, and of family. We'll pay tribute to his athletic feats. All those points (and all those shots!), all those clutch moments, all those timely passes to Shaq and Fox and Fisher and Gasol, all those awards, all those banners and rings, all that beautiful, fluttering confetti.

Me, I'll remember his humanity. (And I know, that part of Kobe's story is as complicated as the rest of him.) NBA stars live their lives in a swirling fishbowl, their every triumph and misstep filmed, framed and cataloged. For a Lakers star, that goes 100-fold. Fame warps everything.

I saw Kobe struggle with it all at times. Saw him alienate teammates, push away relatives, turn surly and insulated. That was the Kobe Bryant who emerged in the mid-2000s—jaws clenched, chin out, domineering, merciless, the Mamba.

But the Kobe I knew those early years was warm, charming, intellectually curious, eager to make a personal connection. "Howard, you need me?"

I'll remember the day his two older sisters, Shaya and Sharia, came to watch practice, and Kobe—the proud younger brother—warmly introduced them.

I'll remember the day his high school coach visited, and Kobe impishly introduced him as "the guy who taught me not to pass."

INGLEWOOD, CA - JULY 12:  (L-R) General Manager Jerry West, Kobe Bryant and Head Coach Del Harris of the Los Angeles Lakers stand together to present Bryant at a press conference on July 12, 1997 at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California.  NOTE
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

I'll remember that June evening in 2000, Kobe sitting on a trainer's table at Staples Center, drenched in champagne, a big goofy grin on his face, a young woman cuddled up next to him. "Howard, this is Vanessa."

A year later, the Lakers claimed a second title, this time in Philadelphia. A bouncing scrum formed at one end of the locker room, champagne spraying everywhere, as Shaq led them all in a chorus of DMX's "Party Up." All except Kobe, who was quietly sitting alone in the far corner, deep in thought.

Beneath that soaring bravado and entitlement, I always sensed a vulnerability. Kobe arrived as a teenager, playing in a man's league. As a cultured suburban kid who'd spent his childhood in Italy. As a brash MJ clone, trying to claim space next to the most powerful big man in the game. As a mild introvert who eschewed the clubs and parties frequented by his older teammates.

It wasn't easy those early years, even as Kobe evolved from wunderkind to superstar. On the court and off, he was just trying to carve out an identity and a secure place, like anyone else in their early 20s. Shaq kept him at arm's length. Older teammates, drawn more to Shaq's effervescence, found it hard to connect with the more reticent Kobe.

But Kobe yearned for those connections.

"Howard, do you golf?" he asked one afternoon, gesturing toward a locker-room TV with a tournament on. No, I said. Do you? "No," he replied. "I could never play anything that I couldn't master." And you can master basketball? "Absolutely," he said. "Absolutely."

"Absolutely" was one of Kobe's go-to replies, deployed generously in interviews—the perfect verbal tic for the most confident person I've ever met. Did Kobe think he could be the next Jordan? Absolutely. Win a zillion titles? Absolutely. Lead a team without Shaq? Absolutely. Go down as one of the all-time greats? Absolutely.

Did any of this seem preordained, or certain when Kobe entered the league? Not to anyone but Kobe.

Sure, he'd been a phenom at Lower Merion, possessed of slick moves, preternatural instincts and considerable hops. But Kobe was never the biggest, the fastest, the strongest or the springiest. Vince Carter jumped higher. Allen Iverson was quicker. Tracy McGrady was taller and longer.

What lifted Kobe above them all was his intense drive and absolute focus. No one worked harder, or longer, or studied more game tape. No one I've ever met, in any walk of life, was more dedicated to their craft. To greatness.

In those early years, critics chided Kobe for modeling himself after Jordan, for poaching his moves and even mimicking his vocal cadence. How presumptuous! How audacious! Yeah, he was all of that. And he came the closest of anyone to approximating Jordan, in style and approach. Do you know how hard that is? Do you know how many would-be heirs ran from that comparison? Kobe embraced it.

LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES:  Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls (L) eyes the basket as he is guarded by Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers during their 01 February game in Los Angeles, CA. Jordan will appear in his 12th NBA All-Star game 08 February w
Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Those stories about Kobe being in the gym at all hours? All true. The offseason? Never off. He once spent a summer working out alone, on an empty court, with a bunch of folding chairs serving as defenders as he practiced a variety of moves to get to the basket. It's the kind of story you might take with a grain of skepticism from anyone else. From Kobe? You know it was true. Absolutely.

Kobe didn't just dominate the game—he inspired others to do the same. An entire generation of NBA stars, from DeMar DeRozan to Kyrie Irving to Joel Embiid, counts Kobe as its role model, its inspiration, its muse (to borrow another Kobe endeavor). Damn near the entire league was on Twitter on Sunday, posting tributes and sympathies, expressing its grief.

Yet not a single team asked to cancel its games Sunday, which was appropriate. Kobe Bryant, who once shot free throws after tearing his Achilles, who played through every injury imaginable, would have been appalled by the mere suggestion. Would Kobe have wanted the games to go on? Fuck yes—and that's how he would have said it.

It wasn't just athletes who drew inspiration from Bryant. Amid the outpouring, I got a text from a friend who works in national politics, who said he "tried to model my work ethic after Kobe."

Kobe poured himself just as fully and passionately into his post-basketball career, making films and TV shows and children's books, winning an Oscar and an Emmy to go with his five championship rings.

He could have retired, relaxed, joined the PTA and drove his daughters to school every day. But that's not Kobe. He opened a basketball campus, the Mamba Sports Academy, and put a special emphasis on teaching girls the game. He championed female athletes, recently proclaiming that some WNBA players could compete in the NBA right now.

And he passed on that passion and meticulous work ethic to his second-oldest daughter, 13-year-old Gianna, who died in the same helicopter crash that killed Kobe on Sunday in Calabasas, California. They were, naturally, on their way to a game.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 29: (L-R) Rich Paul, Laviska Shenault Jr., Gianna Bryant and Kobe Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on December 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

It's been several hours since the news broke. My fingers are still trembling, my throat swollen, my head in a fog. In this job, you never know an athlete as well as you think you do, or would like to.

But I know this: Kobe cared deeply. About basketball. About legacy. About family. About being the best he could possibly be in whatever he was doing at that moment, whether playing, parenting or creating.

Weeks before he retired in 2016, I paid Kobe a brief visit after a Lakers game. I told him I wanted to say thanks and congratulations. I wasn't planning to attend his final game.

"What?!" he bellowed, with a glare and a smile. "You can't be here at 17 and not be here for fuckin' 37, man!" He smacked me on the chest with the back of his hand. "Come on, man! Finish the journey, man!"

And so I did—and got to witness the greatest send-off game a player has ever scripted.

I had the privilege of watching and writing about Kobe just about every day for seven years in L.A., and sporadically after moving to New York in 2004. We writers are only as good as the material we work with—the people we encounter, the performances we witness, the characters we explore.

Kobe provided so much, for so many. And for that, I'm forever indebted.

"Howard, do you need me?"

Yes. Yes, I did. Thanks, Kob.

     

Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017, and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.

Beck also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.

Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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