By Brady Rhoades
He’d shoot thousands of jumpers in a ghostly gym after a not-so-great game.
In the dim light of a long flight, while teammates slept, he’d map out formations and tactics on a white board.
He studied cheetahs to improve his body control.
Several months after Kobe Bryant’s shocking death, along with daughter Gianna’s and seven others on a helicopter in Calabasas, Southern California, the world still mourns and celebrates his life.
Emotions waver, but his legacy is bronze-solid.
The Black Mamba moved us in many ways, but let’s start with this: He made us want to work harder. Prepare better. Learn more. Become more excellent at what we do.
He came straight out of Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia and made the NBA all-star team in his second season.
He won five championships, was named finals MVP twice, made 18 all-star teams, won a regular-season MVP award and led the U.S. hoops team to two Olympic gold medals.
None other than Magic Johnson called him the greatest Laker ever.
Kobe Bean Bryant, son of former NBA player Joe Bryant and Pamela Cox Bryant, set out to be the greatest basketball player who ever lived, and he just might have pulled it off.
Act II of an extraordinarily purposeful life had just bolted from the starting gate with an Oscar Award for producing the Best Animated Short Film (Dear Basketball), big plans for girls and women’s sports, working to help the homeless, birthing a business empire and his most devoted role: husband and father.
Bryant lived to 41, but he packed a lot of living into those years.
He’ll very shortly be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
He’ll have a statue outside of Staples Center.
His two jerseys—No. 8 and No. 24—will forever hang in the rafters of what’s known as “The house that Kobe built.”
His wife, Vanessa, and his three surviving daughters will no doubt tells stories about him for the rest of their lives.
At a Celebration of Life service at a packed Staples Center on Feb. 24, Vanessa Bryant spoke about her husband and 13-year-old daughter, Gianna (Gigi).
“He always knew there was room for improvement and wanted to do better. He happily did carpool and enjoyed spending time in the car with our girls. He was a doting father, a father that was hands on and present. He helped me bathe Bianka and Capri almost every night. He would sing them silly songs in the shower and continue making them laugh and smile as he lathered them in lotion and got them ready for bed. He had magic arms and could put Capri to sleep in only a few minutes. He said he had it down to a science, eight times up and down our hallway.”
Of Gigi, she said: “Gianna made us all proud and she still does. Gianna never tried to conform. She was always herself. She was a nice person, a leader, a teacher, wearing a white tee, black leggings, a denim jacket, white high-top Converse and a flannel tied around her waist, and straight hair was her go-to style. She had rhythm and swag since she was a baby. She gave the best hugs and the best kisses. She had gorgeous, soft lips like her daddy. She would hug me and hold me so tight, I could feel her love me, and I loved the way she looked up at me. It was as if she was soaking me all in.”
At the same ceremony, Michael Jordan cried his eyes out as he called Kobe, “My little brother.”
WNBA legend Diana Taurasi said, “Kobe’s willingness to do the hard work and make the sacrifice every single day inspired me.”
We’ll tell stories, too.
There was the NBA finals performance against the Indiana Pacers in 2000, when Shaq fouled out and Kobe, barely old enough to order a beer, saved the day, making big shot after big shot on his way to 28 points.
There was the time he outscored the Dallas Mavericks team through three quarters, 62-61. There was the 81-point game.
How about when he tore his Achilles tendon and limped back on the court to drain two free throws?
Kobe—NBA icon Jerry West said the one word suffices—indeed taught us about work and commitment.
He also taught us to be lifelong students.
Earlier this season, this superstar who spoke at least three languages was seen courtside at a Lakers game with daughter Gigi, playfully talking trash to the Dallas Mavericks Luka Doncic—in Slovenian.
He devoured books.
He studied film like a technician.
He taught himself to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” by ear, as a special gift to Vanessa.
We were introduced to him when he was 17, in 1996, and we thought he was awfully brash.
But ESPN commentator Jay Williams said there was a reason.
“Some players are arrogant because they’re entitled. Kobe was arrogant because he worked harder than you.”
He was fierce.
He once said of himself: “A lion’s got to eat. You can either run with me or run from me.”
You have to be hard-core to win five championships. Kobe upbraided Shaq for showing up to camp out of shape. He scolded teammates when he felt they weren’t giving their full effort. He famously shook a finger at a player and called him “Charmin-soft.”
“I think he was more sensitive than me,” chuckled Kobe.
For sure, ACT II was off to a startling start. Bryant had put in the toil and sweat to become a high-powered businessman.
In the twilight of his basketball career, he began building an empire, which included a venture capital fund and multimedia production company.
Bryant teamed up with entrepreneur Jeff Stibel to launch Bryant Stibel & Co., a venture capital fund that invested in LegalZoom and Epic Games, among others. The two grew the company into a $2 billion business.
Bryant also formed Kobe Inc., which focused on investing in sports brands. The company’s first investment was in the sports drink BodyArmor, which was valued at $200 million after Coca Cola bought a minority stake.
His next creation was Kobe Studios (later renamed Granity Studios), a multimedia production company focused on podcasts, books, television and films. Bryant wanted to tell stories that educated and inspired. Granity is where Dear Basketball was sired.
In 2018, Bryant wrote The Mamba entality: How I Play. Everyone from fans to motivational speakers to CEOs read it for insight on what it takes to be great.
When he won the Oscar for Dear Basketball, was anyone that surprised? Maybe a little, but you knew he’d settle for nothing less even if he didn’t win that year.
He’d found a new love in business and storytelling. He was not interested in getting involved in basketball, other than helping young NBA players hone their skills. When asked if he would consider coaching, he said: “Absolutely not.”
But 13-year-old Gigi was obsessed with the game, and really, really good. Kobe did not push his girls toward the sport he’d mastered, but when the opportunity arose, he couldn’t help himself. He trained Gigi, who became the “Mambacita.” He could be seen courtside at Lakers and Sparks games with her, pointing out what he always focused on: details.
On the Jimmy Kimmel show, he said he was a “girls dad” and related a story with humor and pride: “It’s funny. People come up to Gigi and me and say, ‘Don’t you want to have a boy to carry on your legacy,’ and Gigi is like, ‘Yo, I got this. I don’t need no boy.’”
A big part of his legacy is championing girls and women’s basketball. He was one of the first NBA players to regularly attend WNBA games. He reached out to young women playing collegiate ball and gave them tips.
His latest venture was the Mamba Sports Academy, launched in 2018 with Sports Academy CEO Chad Faulkner.
“Mamba Sports Academy is a 100,000 square-foot facility that houses five basketball courts, five volleyball courts, two beach volleyball courts, a turf field, combatives and self defense dojo, a comprehensive sports medicine practice for medical therapy and rehabilitation, a biomechanics lab, a worldclass cognitive training lab, an e-sports training ground, batting cages and pitching mounds, a mondo sprint track, a learning center for academic tutoring and training, and a yoga/cycling studio,” Kobe said on his website.
Of course, it’s known primarily for its basketball programs for girls and boys. This is not your garden-variety stuff. It features intense camps, clinics, and leagues for 5–17-year-olds.
Kobe coached one of the girls basketball teams and quickly transformed it into one of the most elite units in the nation. Gigi was one of the stars, but Kobe’s staff said he coached all the girls as if they were his daughters.
In typical fashion, he told Sports Academy coaches not to take it easy on the girls, but in atypical fashion, staffers and parents describe Kobe as patient, even laid-back. He did not want to micro-manage his players. He wanted them to go through struggles and emerge stronger.
In the past couple of years, we saw Kobe evolving into a different man than the one who’d clenched his jaw, pumped his fist and torched opponents for 20 years. He was, as they say, paying it forward.
And instead of one obsession, he had five: wife Vanessa and daughters Gigi, Bianka, Natalia and Capri.
Those were our last images—a family man with his family.
The Mamba Sports Academy has been renamed Mamba & Mambacita Sports Academy. You get the feeling Kobe would have smiled at that.