Kobe Bryant was a unicorn — one of those people recognized worldwide by a first name — driven to succeed in sports, business and the arts — until his life shockingly ended Sunday.
Bryant, 41, and his daughter, Gianna (“Gigi”), 13, a budding basketball star, were among nine victims as his leased helicopter crashed in dense fog west of Los Angeles en route from Orange County to a game at his Mamba Academy, 80 miles away.
He was named after a steak served at a Japanese restaurant. His father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, was a National Basketball Association journeyman. His mother’s brother, Chubby Cox, played briefly in the NBA.
From age 6, he grew up in Italy while his father played in Europe. He learned Italian. He did a grade-school book report in Latin.
He returned home as a basketball prodigy at Lower Merion High near Philadelphia, escorting pop star Brandy to his prom. He was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in the 13th round and traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. He then became the youngest ever to play in the NBA.
In 20 years with the Lakers, Bryant scored 33,643 points — fourth all-time after being passed by LeBron James Saturday night. He won five titles, made 18 All-Star teams, won a regular-season MVP award and two in the NBA Finals. He scored 81 points in a game, 40 points or more in nine straight, and 50 or more in four straight.
He was brilliant and divisive. Coach Phil Jackson called him “uncoachable.” He feuded with co-star Shaquille O’Neal. After winning three titles together (2001-03), O’Neal was sent packing to Miami, winning a ring in 2006. Bryant teamed with Pau Gasol to win two titles in 2008-09.
After bowing out with a record 60 points in his final game, Bryant embellished his resume in business and the arts. He called on billionaires to improve his financial acumen and the likes of author J.K. Rowling to hone his storytelling.
Bryant Stibel & Co., a venture capital firm, had assets exceeding $2 billion with stakes in sports drink maker BodyArmor; Epic Games, which produces “Fortnite”; Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and Dell. Forbes put his net worth at $680 million in 2016.
“The Mamba Mentality: How I Play,” was a best-selling book. His children’s series featured Legacy, a tenacious 12-year-old female tennis player in the magical kingdom of Nova: “For Legacy, it’s the only thing getting her through the long days taking care of the other kids at the orphanage.”
In 2018, he was the first pro athlete to win an Oscar, turning his poem, “Dear Basketball,” into an animated short film, which he wrote and narrated.
Yet the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences denied him membership because of a 2003 incident at a Colorado resort when he was accused of raping a 19-year-old employee. His legal team and social media vilified her as a gold digger, although her family was wealthy.
Bryant eventually apologized, claiming he thought it was a consensual act. She dropped criminal charges. A civil suit was settled for a rumored $2.5 million.
Jackson wrote the allegations didn’t surprise him: “Kobe can be consumed with surprising anger, which he’s displayed toward me and his teammates.”
Then Bryant transformed himself.
On the court, he adopted the Black Mamba persona, after an assassin in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies. “I read up on the animal and said, ‘Wow, this is pretty awesome,’” Bryant said. “This is a perfect description of how I would want my game to be.”
Off the court, he saw himself as the angry Hulk changing into mild-mannered David Banner, devoted to his wife, Vanessa, and daughters, Natalia, 16, Gianna, 13, Bianka, 3, and Capri, 7 months.
In retirement, he didn’t attend many Lakers games, saying, “I have a life and I have my routine at home. It’s not that I don’t want to go, but I’d rather be giving B.B. a shower and sing Barney songs to her. I played 20 years and I missed those moments before.”
As YouTube videos attest, Gigi (aka “Mambacita”), a prodigy with UConn aspirations, emulated dad on the court. “It’s a trip to see her move and some of the expressions she makes,” Bryant said. “It’s a trip how genetics work.”
Other lives lost Sunday also were filled with promise or achievement: Gigi’s teammate Alyssa Altobelli and parents, Keri and John, a legendary junior college baseball coach with five state titles and more than 700 wins; teammate Payton Chester and her mother, Sarah; Christina Mauser, an assistant coach and mother of three. Pilot Ara Zobayan had ferried Bryant constantly above the traffic-congested L.A. area.
So many people tragically taken before their time, including one constantly evolving unicorn destined for the basketball Hall of Fame this year with so many other gifts waiting to be unwrapped.
— (Iowa) Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier