As news broke of the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, it was hard to fathom how someone who had created such a lasting legacy in the NBA could be gone so soon.
Bryant’s presence could still be felt even after he retired back in 2016. Only recently he came back into people’s consciousness after LeBron James passed him in the all-time scoring list.
Gianna Bryant at just 13 years of age was already tipped for a future in the WNBA and was set to continue the family’s legacy. It is incredibly sad that we won't get to see her follow in her father’s footsteps and see Bryant cheer her on from the sidelines like he did so many times.
There are plenty of people who were close to Bryant and are better placed to speak about the kind of person he was. With that in mind, this piece will focus on him as a basketball player and how his influence went far beyond the sport. For Irish sport fans, Bryant was the biggest name in the NBA for nearly two decades and he is synonymous with the LA Lakers.
To fully understand the player he became, you have to know about one man, Michael Jordan. The comparisons between the two are eerily similar; both standing at 6 ft 5 in shooting guards who could play both ways (defense and offense) and both fearsome competitors.
While both players were picked high in their respective drafts, it took some time for them to adjust to the NBA.
Obviously, the transition for Bryant was much tougher as he was the first guard to be drafted straight out of high school at the age of just 17. Each of the iconic pair also had to overcome major hurdles to win their first NBA championship.
The most striking similarity between them though is how they played. At times it almost felt like Bryant mirrored how Jordan played on the court. Both had lethal turnaround jumpers, silky smooth long-range jumpers and both could dunk with the best of them.
DNA-wise, they both had one major thing in common; the clutch gene.
If you could pick any two players to have the ball in their hands in the fourth quarter, it would be Jordan and Bryant. While he always strived to be like Jordan, in the process he became the most decorated player of the 2000s.
Bryant was so much more than a Jordan clone and there is no doubt that Black Mamba - as he was often referred to - carved out his own identity as a player. The Mamba mentality, as it became known, has become iconic and he epitomised the saying, 'Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work'.
It was all the unseen work day-in, day-out that really separated him from his peers and cemented his legacy.
While sports stars like Roger Federer are popular because of their relatability, Bryant's popularity was based on his relentless pursuit of greatness. In that pursuit, he won a total of five NBA championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, the 2008 Regular Season MVP and was an All-Star 18 times. As a lifetime Laker, Bryant helped resurrect a franchise that was living on past glory.
While he may have been more successful when he teamed up with Shaquille O'Neal winning three championships in the early 2000s, his most impressive championships wins were in '09 and '10 when he was the focal point of the team. He averaged 32.4 points and 28.6 points in back-to-back finals, helping the Lakers capture the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Stats and numbers though don’t fully capture the impact of Bryant’s legacy.
Far beyond all the accomplishments and accolades, he was one of the most influential basketball players to ever to play the game. While Jordan may have brought the NBA to the mainstream, Bryant brought it to the masses.
He helped spread basketball across the globe and countless players have said Bryant inspired them to play the game. Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embid said in his tribute to Bryant that he was inspired to play basketball after he watched Bryant play in the 2010 NBA Finals. Dwayne Wade, who was one of his biggest rivals, also spoke about coming into the league back in 2004, and how he was always chasing Bryant.
Stories like this are common as athletes from all sports have spoken about his influence on their careers. Whether it was his work ethic or how he always seemed to answer the call when needed, there were countless reasons to be inspired by Black Mamba. Even in Irish basketball circles, so many people cite Bryant as their greatest inspiration and the reason they play the sport in the first place.
While off the court he was a supportive father who spoke three languages, on the court he was the ultimate competitor. That's what people were drawn to and will continue to be drawn to in the future. Current stars like Trae Young, Luka Donicic and Bradley Beal have all spoken about how Kobe is the reason they play basketball and there is an entire generation of players who grew up idolising Bryant.
There are countless people who have been touched by Bryant's greatest and were inspired to fall in love with basketball, as he did.
That was his greatest gift as a player; spreading the gospel of basketball to whoever ever needed to hear it. Ultimately, Kobe Bryant knew that basketball is more than a sport, it gives you a chance to become the best version of yourself.