From the very beginning, Kobe Bryant appeared born and bred to be a superstar — and carried himself as such. (Which famous R&B singer did you take to the prom?) Bryant has always been near the absolute top of his profession, and for better or worse, he was perfectly aware of that fact. It has made him one of the greatest players of his generation, one of the few good enough to be convincingly compared to Michael Jordan, and simultaneously one of the most polarizing.
The son of former 76ers player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe was named after the famous Japanese beef, and his upbringing was just as unique. With his father moving the family to Italy where he continued his professional career, Kobe learned Italian and Spanish, as alluded to in this fantastic early-2000’s Adidas ad.
Once Jellybean’s career was over, the family moved back to the United States, where Kobe blossomed into arguably the best high school basketball player in the country for Lower Merion High School, averaging more than 30 points as both a junior and senior. Inspired by Kevin Garnett making a similar leap the prior year, Kobe entered the loaded 1996 NBA Draft, where he was the first guard in the history of the league to be taken straight out of high school. Bryant was selected by the Hornets at No. 13; his agent, Arn Tellem, made it clear Bryant wouldn’t sign with Charlotte, but it was a moot point as the Lakers had already arranged to trade for him.
Kobe’s rookie season was a mixed bag. He came off the bench behind Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones and gradually carved out a definitive role. He also became the youngest player ever to win the Slam Dunk Contest. But the Lakers lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Jazz, who held Bryant to just 4-for-14 shooting in the game, including four pivotal air balls at the end of regulation and in overtime of the decisive Game 5.
That said, future rival Shaquille O’Neal pointed out that even in failure, Bryant demonstrated what would become an irrepressible desire to be the man. “I wasn’t upset that he shot those airballs,” O’Neal said. “He was the only one with enough guts to shoot the ball.”
Despite coming off the bench his sophomore season, Bryant doubled his scoring average to 15.4 points per game, en route to being elected the youngest All-Star starter in history. His scoring average would leap each of the next three seasons.
Just as Phil Jackson becoming the Bulls’ head coach helped Jordan take the final step toward an NBA championship, the legendary coach’s arrival on the scene in Los Angeles was the missing piece for the Lakers.
With O’Neal and Bryant establishing themselves as one of the greatest inside-outside combos of all time, Los Angeles would win three straight NBA titles from 2000 to 2002, despite stiff challenges from very good Portland and Sacramento squads. The 2001 season featured Kobe taking yet another step toward superstardom, as his scoring average leaped to 28.5 points per game, but as you might expect on a team with two future Hall of Famers and would-be alpha dogs, cracks started showing in the veneer of the Bryant-O’Neal relationship.
The 2002-03 season had its highs and lows: Bryant scored 30 points per game and reeled off a nine-game streak of 40 or more points, but the Lakers would lose in the conference semis to the Spurs, who would go on to win the NBA title.
The next season saw Kobe’s world come crashing down around him, by his own doing. Prior to the 2003-04 season, a married Bryant would be arrested and accused of sexual assault by a 19-year-old hotel employee for events which occurred in a resort in Colorado, where he was to have knee surgery. The charges were eventually dropped after his accuser declined to take the stand, but the damage was done. Bryant saw McDonald’s and Nutella drop him as a pitchman; Nike, who had just signed him to a contract, stuck with him, though they backed off on using him in their marketing efforts for a couple of years. His jersey sales, which at one point had been No. 1 in the league, fell to 90th. To finish his disastrous year, Kobe shot 35.1 percent as a Lakers team with four future Hall of Famers was upset in the NBA Finals by the upstart Pistons.
Jackson parted ways with the Lakers after the season, while O’Neal and Gary Payton were jettisoned and Karl Malone retired. It was finally Bryant’s team, but with a relatively weak team around him and turmoil at the head coaching position, Los Angeles missed the playoffs.
Jackson — who had referred to Bryant in his book as “uncoachable” — returned the following season, and things took a decided upturn. Bryant averaged 35.4 points per game to lead the league, and his 81-point masterpiece against Toronto was the second-highest scoring game of all time. In 2006-07, Bryant scored 50+ points in four consecutive games and saw his jersey, having changed from No. 8 to No. 24, once again become the No. 1 seller in the league. Aided by the fortuitous acquisition of Pau Gasol and the emergence of young center Andrew Bynum, the Lakers made the NBA Finals, where they lost to the loaded Celtics.
With a team that perfectly suited him and one of the best coaches of all time to help him make his game more efficient, it was just a matter of time until Kobe would reach the top of the mountain. The Lakers would defeat the Magic and future Kobe teammate Dwight Howard in the 2009 Finals, and they would win their rematch with the Celtics in a thrilling seven-game series in 2010. Bryant was NBA Finals MVP both seasons, with his performance against Boston in Game 7 uniquely impressive: He shot just 6-for-24, but scored 10 points in the fourth quarter as L.A. rallied from 13 down in the second half.
As impressive as his championships with Shaq had been, these two had to have been even sweeter. Though Gasol, Bynum and Lamar Odom were very good players, Kobe was the singular star on the team, and championship No. 5 afforded him a dig at his old teammate/rival: ”One more than Shaq’s more special to me [than being one title shy of Jordan], to be honest with you. Tied with Magic means I can have dinner with him.”
Of course, as Jordan, Shaq and Magic had already learned, time and gravity wait for no man. While pushing himself to the limit to attempt to secure a playoff spot for an underachieving 2012-13 Lakers team that had added Steve Nash and Howard, Bryant tore his left achilles tendon. The following season, he made it through just six games, averaging 13.8 points, before fracturing a bone in his left knee.
It’s reasonable to wonder how much Bryant has left; generally one injury tends to lead to quite a few more, and he has plenty of miles on those powerful legs. With two years left on his contract, however, it’s hard to imagine Kobe won’t take it to the limit right to the end, before staring down his own mortality, applying his competitiveness and intelligence to whatever he does next.
“You really have to lean on muses and mentors going forward, just as I did as a kid,” Bryant said recently. “It’s about having that next wave of things, which is scary as hell, but it’s fun at the same time.”