The sports world was shocked on Sunday at the news that basketball superstar Kobe Bryant and eight other individuals, including his 13-year old daughter Gianna, died when his personal helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain in Calabasas, California.
As dignitaries from former President Barack Obama to Michael Jordan sent their shocked condolences to Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, and his surviving children, many writers published articles in memory of the man and his impact upon the NBA and the game of basketball.
Bryant’s career spanned 20 seasons in the NBA, all with the Los Angeles Lakers. The guard finished his career with 33,643 points and was just passed on the all-time scoring list by fellow Lakers forward LeBron James the night before.
When Kobe hung up his sneakers, he had won five NBA titles, two NBA Finals MVP and the NBA MVP in 2008. He made 18 All-Star Games as a representative of the Western Conference and won four MVP trophies for that midseason exhibition.
Other achievements for Bryant included winning the Slam Dunk Contest in his rookie year of 1997, made nine All-Defensive First Teams, two Olympic Gold Medals and won two scoring titles in the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons.
And Bryant’s career was not just restricted to the NBA as he also won an Oscar in 2018 for producing a short film titled “Dear Basketball.”
Bryant was drafted in the 1996 draft by the Charlotte Hornets but dealt to the Lakers in a prearranged draft-day trade for center Vlade Divac. The Lakers were only going to make the trade if Bryant was still available at the Hornets pick at the 13th selection of the first round. When Bryant made it to the 13th pick, the two teams agreed to the deal and the Hornets selected the guard.
Bryant joined legendary center Shaquille O’Neal in Los Angeles and the duo created a popular partnership that fostered All-Star Game and playoff appearances over their first three years in the City of Angels.
But the Lakers had come up short for an NBA title over those initial three seasons of Bryant’s career, despite the young guard’s obvious superstar status. During the 1998-99 season, the Lakers secured Kobe’s future with a six-year contract extension worth $70 million. Coupled with his numerous endorsements, Bryant became one of the wealthiest athletes on the planet.
A huge part of Bryant’s legacy will rightly focus on what the Los Angeles Lakers accomplished over the three seasons that stretched from 1999 through 2002. Over that stretch, Bryant and the Lakers won three straight NBA titles once former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson took over the reins of the franchise.
Under Jackson’s tutelage, the Lakers, led by Bryant and O’Neal, won 67 games in the regular season and went on to defeat the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the 2000 NBA Finals.
The next season, reports began to surface of friction between Bryant and O’Neal, causing a sensational subplot that accompanied the Lakers’ push for back-to-back titles. Despite the noise, the Lakers defeated the Allen Iverson-led Philadelphia 76ers in five games.
Over the 2001-2002 season, Bryant played a career-high 80 games during the regular season and led the Lakers over the Sacramento Kings in a historic seven-game Western Conference finals. The Lakers won their third straight NBA Finals in the following series over the New Jersey Nets and the three-peat, not accomplished since the Jordan-led Bulls’ teams of the 1990s, was secured.
After the three titles in a row that ended with the 2002 Finals, Bryant went on to win two scoring titles and two more NBA championships over the next eight years. Bryant retired at the end of the 2015-16 season as the Lakers were in a full rebuild, winning just 17 games over that season.
Bryant’s legacy in the NBA was seen in the faces of players that had to play games just hours after the news on Sunday night. In widely distributed pictures, players were shown crying and grieving in real-time during pregame warmups and postgame interviews.
After Michael Jordan left basketball in 2003, the torch was passed to Bryant to become the face of the league, something the guard accepted and enjoyed with a relish that few athletes could ever achieve.
In what could become a league-wide possibility, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban announced that no other player for his franchise would adorn Bryant’s #24, one of two numbers that the player wore for the Lakers.
The Basketball Hall of Fame announced that Bryant will be inducted posthumously in August with the already announced 2020 class of inductees, including Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.
Bryant’s death at 41 years of age will undoubtedly have long-lasting effects on the league and its players for years to come. Expect that the league will honor Bryant’s legacy in some way at the upcoming NBA All-Star Game to be held on February 16th in Chicago.
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