Kobe Bryant was one of the greatest basketball players ever to play the game. From humble beginnings in Philadelphia, Bryant rose to fame as one of the most popular and successful basketball players in the world. He also became one of the most lucrative, earning nearly 700 million throughout his career, according to Forbes. While his career was not always perfect, plagued by sexual assault accusations and frequent injuries, he made an impact on the world that many will not soon forget.
Joining the NBA was almost destiny for Bryant. Both his father and his uncle played in the NBA. He began playing the sport from the young age of three and always wanted to follow in his family’s footsteps. When he was growing up, he always stated that the Los Angeles Lakers were his favorite team.
Bryant spent a significant part of his childhood in Italy, where his father played basketball after retiring from the NBA. During the summers, he would come back to the States to play in a summer basketball league. Finally, when he was 13, the Bryant family moved back to Philadelphia.
Bryant garnered national attention with his impressive high school career at Lower Merion High School. He managed to make the varsity team as a freshman. No freshman had managed to accomplish this in several decades.
Although the team got off to a rough start, they finished with an impressive record that attracted the attention of college recruiters and NBA scouts. In his senior year, he earned the title of Pennsylvania Player of the Year.
Even though Bryant received significant interest from college recruiters, he decided to go directly for the pros from high school.
1996 NBA Draft
Before the draft, Bryant spent some time working out with the Lakers, where he turned some heads. The Lakers had an arrangement with the Hornets that the Hornets would trade their pick to the Lakers in exchange for Vlade Divac. Minutes before the draft commenced, the Lakers told the Hornets to choose Bryant.
As a result of this selection, Bryant became the first guard drafted directly out of high school. He was only 17 when he signed on to play pro. As a result, his parents had to co-sign his initial contract. He was then able to enter into a second contract after his 18th birthday at the beginning of the season.
Starting in the NBA
Bryant began his professional career playing in the Summer Pro League, located in Long Beach, CA. He earned significant attention with a promising start. Bryant played in several games his first year, which at the time made him the youngest person in NBA history to do so. In his first season, he averaged 15 minutes a day.
At the end of his first season, he participated in the Rookie Challenge, where he became the youngest winner of the Slam Dunk Contest. His strong performance earned him a position on the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. While Bryant did get playing time in the playoffs of his first season, unfortunately, he could not help lead his team to victory.
In Bryant’s second season, he clocked more time on the court. In this season, he doubled his point average from 7.6 to 15.4 and began to emerge as a burgeoning talent in the league. This year, he also garnered recognition as the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. Additionally, with the help of fan voting, Bryant became the youngest starter elected to the NBA All-Star Game.
In Bryant’s third season, he started every game. He also cemented his importance to the Lakers and signed a $70 million contract extension for the next six years. At this point, sportswriters began to compare Bryant’s skills to those of basketball greats like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
Three Championships in a Row
Now that Bryant had established himself in the league, the Lakers set their sights on greatness. The team achieved its goals with three championship titles in a row in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal proved to be a dynamic duo under the direction of new coach Phil Jackson.
The 1999-2000 season was one for the record books with the Lakers winning 67 games and tying the record for the most games won in a single season in NBA history. This season saw Bryant named to the All-NBA Defensive Team. This nomination made him the youngest player to receive the honor for his defense.
In the 2000-2001 season, Bryant continued to perform well and even increased his point average per game by six points. This season signaled the beginning of disagreements between O’Neal and Bryant. Although Bryant continued to play well, the team won eleven fewer games than the previous year. However, the Lakers still came out on top with Bryant earning many honors, including nomination to the NBA All-Star Game, the All NBA Defensive Team, and the All NBA Second Team.
By 2001-2002, Bryant was now in his fifth season, but his gameplay was only improving. He was able to play eighty games this season for the first time in his career and perform remarkably well in the vast majority of those games. Along with many of the honors he had previously achieved, Bryant earned his first All-Star MVP trophy and his first nomination to the All NBA First Team.
After taking home the championship trophy yet again at the end of this season, at twenty-three years old, Bryant became the youngest player to win three NBA championships. Bryant performed exceptionally well in the last moments of playoff games throughout these years, which garnered him the reputation of a “clutch player.”
Running into Trouble
Although the 2002-2003 season was successful for Bryant individually, his team floundered in the playoffs and was incapable of bringing home a fourth consecutive championship. Nearly all of his statistics ended up being career-highs, and he finished third in the voting for MVP. In this season, Bryant also set a record for the most three-point shots by a single player in an NBA game with 12.
The 2003-2004 season was off to a rough start when law enforcement arrested Bryant for sexual assault before the season began. He was unable to play consistently due to having to make court appearances. However, Bryant was still able to turn in some impressive game-winning performances. His excellent play was not enough for the team to get another championship, though. While the Lakers did make it to the NBA Finals, they were upset in five games.
At the end of the season, Bryant received an offer to play for the Los Angeles Clippers, but he declined, instead opting to continue his career with the Lakers. However, Bryant would no longer be playing with his star teammate O’Neal whom the Lakers traded to the Miami Heat.
The 2004-2005 season saw some abrupt coaching changes that left the team on shaky ground. Bryant continued to pump out some substantial numbers, such as becoming the league’s second-leading scorer. Still, without strong support from his teammates, the Lakers were unable to make the playoffs. This missed opportunity was the first time in over a decade.
On the whole, Bryant’s stature in the league took a bit of a drop with him getting a demotion to All-NBA Third Team. He also missed the NBA All-Defensive Team.
The following season Phil Jackson returned to the position of head coach. Bryant and Jackson appeared to be on the same page once again, helping the Lakers to return to the playoffs. Statistically speaking, the 2005-2006 season proved to be the most significant of Bryant’s entire career. Impressively, in a game against the Dallas Mavericks, Bryant alone managed to outscore his whole opponents’ team through the first three-quarters of the game. Bryant even managed to appear friendly with his former teammate and rival O’Neal.
In January of 2006, Bryant scored a career-high 81 points that ranked as the second-highest point total in NBA history. He also scored more than 45 points in four consecutive games. The month of January as a whole was particularly impressive, with an average point total of 43.4. He ended up coming in fourth place for MVP voting, with the trophy, ultimately going to Steve Nash. The Lakers performed decently in the first few games of the playoffs but not well enough to advance past the first round.
The next season, Bryant chose to change his number from 8 to 24 now that it was available again. In the 2006-2007 season, Bryant continued to play well but faced some on-court issues. He was on suspension for several games for repeatedly using an “unnatural motion” to strike another player. Even with these setbacks, Bryant earned his ninth All-Star Game nomination and second All-Star MVP award. By the end of the season, Bryant had also completed ten games scoring more than 50 points. While it may have been partially due to the face that Bryant played with a new number, his jersey was the highest selling in both the United States and China.
Back on Top
In the 2007-2008 season, Bryant became the youngest player to reach 20,000 points, which he was able to do before he turned 30 years old. Even though Bryant suffered an injury to his hand, he still managed to play every game of the season. This season, the Lakers found their way back to the NBA Finals, where they fell to the Boston Celtics.
The next season, the Lakers got off to a solid start and made it to their second consecutive NBA Finals. After winning his fourth championship, he received the NBA Finals MVP trophy. The 2009-2010 season ended with the same result, signifying that the Lakers were indeed back on top.
Looking for a Sixth Championship
With five championships already, Bryant was hungry for a sixth so that he could match Michael Jordan’s numbers. While he played well in the 2010-2011 season, his team fell out in the second round of the finals. However, Bryant garnered his thirteenth nomination to the NBA All-Star Game and came home with his fourth MVP trophy from the match. The season was not without its issues for Bryant as he amassed a massive fine for directing a gay slur toward a referee.
The next season, Bryant fell short of that sixth championship yet again. The Lakers got knocked out of the second round of the playoffs after losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder. In 2012-2013, the Lakers acquired more star power in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Even with this additional help, the team got off to an extremely sluggish start.
However, the Lakers took divisive action and instated Mike D’Antoni as head coach. This move was good news for Bryant because he and D’Antoni already had a personal relationship from when Bryant’s father played with D’Antoni in Italy. This season, Bryant also hit the milestone of 30,000 points before he was 35 years old. While the Lakers were able to make the playoffs, they got swept in the first round. The sixth championship continued to elude Bryant.
Dealing with Injuries and the Last Season
Bryant dealt with injuries on and off throughout his career, but the issues became more consistent between 2013 and 2015. He suffered an array of problems, including injuries related to his knee, Achilles, back, feet, calf, and shoulder. These injuries ultimately led to the star player’s decision to retire following the 2015-2016 season. Upon this announcement, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver lauded Bryant as “one of the greatest players in the history of our game.”
By choosing to play through this season, Bryant set a record for most consecutive seasons that started with the same team. However, he recognized that it was time to call it quits as his numbers had faded to a sliver of their former glory. He still managed to go out with a bang, putting up sixty points in his final game and becoming the oldest player to accomplish such a feat at nearly 38 years old.
After Bryant’s untimely death in January 2020, it became more apparent than ever that his record-setting twenty-year career in the NBA made a significant impact that the world will not forget. Although Bryant experienced ups and downs both personally and professionally, he taught his fans the importance of playing their hearts out and never giving up no matter what challenges they may face.