SINGAPORE — To get a sense of how great a basketball player Kobe Bryant was, consider this: for a sizeable chunk of his 20-year NBA career, he was disliked by fans, even those who supported his only team, the Los Angeles Lakers.
That he eventually won them over is testament to his relentless will to be the best in his sport and his willingness to constantly improve himself – as an athlete, as a teammate and as a person. By the time he retired in 2016, he was without a doubt one of the most admired athletes in the world.
The mass outpouring of grief following the news of his untimely demise on Sunday (26 January) reflected his immense popularity. Yet, when Bryant first came into the NBA as a scrawny 18-year-old in 1996, he rubbed so many people the wrong way.
Michael Jordan clone; ‘me first’ player
The first criticism he endured was that he was just another Michael Jordan clone, with his flashy but inconsequential slam dunks. Being roughly the same height and build as the Chicago Bulls great – who was still playing then – Bryant was an easy but unfair target of dismissive fans.
The second and more serious insinuation was that he was a “me first” player. This one carried some weight, as a young and callow Bryant tried to do too much on his own, and antagonised senior teammates – particularly Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers star centre whom the team were buiding a title-challenging team around.
The feud between the two alpha stars was eventually managed astutely by legendary coach Phil Jackson, who guided them to three straight NBA titles from 2000 to 2002. Yet fans – even Lakers fans – remain suspicious of the quieter Bryant, as the more media-savvy O’Neal tried to portray himself as the victim to Bryant’s ambitiousness.
Eventually it boiled down to contract extensions, and when the Lakers management decided to go with the younger Bryant and trade O’Neal to the Miami Heat, Bryant became a pantomime villain, a symbol of selfishness in a team sport that prides in the collective spirit.
Refusal to buckle under criticisms
It was down to Bryant’s iron will that he refused to buckle under those criticisms, and instead embark on a lifelong mission to prove naysayers wrong, and it made him such an admired global sporting icon.
Every off-season, he took it upon himself to learn a new move – whether it was refining a post-up move learnt from the legendary Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or extending his shooting range to the three-point line.
Eventually, fans came to realise and appreciate his relentless drive, and that it was his former teammates – O’Neal included – who could not keep up with him.
Yet, Bryant also came to realise that he needed to lift his teammates as well, in order to truly be a basketball great. With Jackson’s guidance, he became the consummate leader of his second title-winning Lakers team, earning two more championships in 2009 and 2010 with younger teammates.
Unbelievable heroics throughout career
It was during this period that basketball fans began to truly idolise Bryant’s will to succeed. With some of the younger NBA talents dabbling in distractions like rap music and fashion projects, Bryant’s dedication to basketball excellence became a refreshing example of single-mindedness that many latched upon.
Of course, his star power would be nothing without the unbelievable heroics that helped build his mystique as a superhuman athlete: a plethora of last-second winning shots, scoring 62 points in just three quarters to outscore the entire Dallas Mavericks team in 2014, memorably finishing his career with 60 points in his final game in 2016 – and of course, the mind-boggling 81-point outburst against the Toronto Raptors in 2006.
Yet, his utter dedication to basketball speaks as much to every budding player, that hard work and focus will be rewarded.
Relentlessness and showmanship
In 2007, I went to Manila to cover a Nike basketball clinic by Bryant with some young (and lucky) Filipino players. It was in the midst of the NBA off-season, and NBA stars usually sleepwalked through these sponsor engagements, thinking that all they needed was to show up and lend their star powers.
Not Bryant. During the one-hour clinic at an indoor sports arena, in front of a sellout crowd, he gave the players a brutal session – full of lung-sapping defensive routines and one-on-one offensive drills.
By the time he was done, the Filipino youngsters were drenched in sweat and breathing hard – and he rewarded them and the crowd by leaping over two of them for a dunk that brought the house down.
That summed up Bryant’s twin appeal – relentlessness and showmanship. In fact, the old criticism that he was a Jordan clone is wrong: it should be viewed as a gift to this generation of basketball fans that they were able to have an idol who was as gifted, as competitive and as single-minded as Jordan.
Bryant will be terribly missed by every basketball fan. Let’s hope that his dedication to the sport will live on in future talents.
The author has covered both Singapore and international sports for the past 17 years, and was formerly sports editor of My Paper. The views expressed are his own.