The Brilliance of Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bean Bryant was a relentlessly curious individual and a good listener — not the most common attributes associated with professional athletes.
As a thoughtful teenager so prodigiously talented that he skipped college altogether, Kobe was forced to navigate the NBA and the trappings of superstardom without a roadmap but with the world watching. He found himself charged with the task of restoring the Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA’s greatest-ever franchise (not arguably the greatest; stop).
But he knew enough to know that he didn’t know enough. And the notion that the smartest people have the most to learn was central to his upbringing in Italy and, later, Pennsylvania. So my most distinct memories of Kobe begin after his junior year of high school, and revolve around conversations that dealt with anything other than basketball.
While most players would fill those interminable hours between practices and games with trivial pursuits, you were more likely to find Kobe sitting alone reading, or engaged in conversation with a visitor about art, culture or that person’s work.
It’s not as if the game that made him wealthy bored him, it’s just that his study of it was intense: Thousands of his hours were spent modeling his workouts, in-game skills, speech and leadership after the game’s greats, and articulating that obsession became frustrating and exhausting. Whereas younger players were often blinded by fame, Kobe was a solitary figure in the gym, through early mornings and late nights, crafting his legacy in real time.
You don’t make it to the NBA without being competitive, and Kobe’s competitiveness was legendary; yet he always seemed to turn inward onto his own abilities first. And so, in later years, when he eventually lost a step, he made up for it by sharpening his midrange jumper, for example. When his injuries began to mount, he became more sympathetic to his teammates’ fallibilities; he began to better understand that not every player could see the floor as he did.
Kobe finished his two-decade career after the ’15 season as a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer, with far more awards than shelf space. But it was the graceful way in which he closed one door and reopened another that was so extraordinary.
He was determined not to play the ceremonial “all-time great” role, so he threw himself into family, philanthropy and myriad business ventures. In 2018 he won an Academy Award for the animated short Dear Basketball, which he wrote and narrated. His approach to everything was disciplined and precise.
Nowhere in those calculations was the notion that he wouldn’t live to see his 42nd birthday or enjoy his Hall of Fame enshrinement as one of the NBA’s greatest and fiercest players. That he wouldn’t live to see his children make their way in the world and see his commitment to his wife deepen. That he’d never witness his influence in countries he’d never visited and on people he’d never met. That those few short years of “retired Kobe” would have to tell an accurate story to the world of what might have been.
At the end of the day, when mortality is playing out its string, a person begins to ponder weighty subjects like impact and legacy — if he or she will be missed, not just by loved ones but by the countless others who may have passed through their orbit at one time or another. It’s a necessary moment of self-reflection that was stolen from Kobe Bryant the instant he and his daughter Gianna perished in that accident.
But, Kobe being Kobe, he’d probably already given it a lot of thought.
Tony Gervino is TIDAL’s executive vice president and editor-in-chief of programming and editorial. He was previously editor-in-chief at Billboard, SLAM, NBA Inside Stuff and HOOP magazines.
Photo: Bryant in Hollywood in 2016. Credit: Mike Windle/Getty Images.