In the immediate wake of Kobe Bryant’s death on Sunday, one of the biggest things that stood out was his sheer influence on basketball today. Countless players shared their sense of shock, their condolences and their memories of Bryant over social media after learning that he had died. As teams across the league paid tribute to the Laker legend by intentionally taking a 24-second shot clock violation — in honor of Bryant’s final jersey number with Los Angeles — it was clear that practically every player in the NBA had a story about him, either personally or from afar. “I started playing ball because of KOBE after watching the 2010 finals,” Sixers star Joel Embiid tweeted. “I had never watched ball before that and that finals was the turning point of my life. I WANTED TO BE LIKE KOBE.”
In assessing the arc of Bryant’s life, many stories this week highlighted his drive to succeed, his intelligence and his ability to inspire others; some also did the necessary work of grappling with Bryant’s personal flaws, notably the sexual assault allegations against him in 2003. His personal legacy is complex — more so than most players. But his basketball legacy is also complex. We’ve often debated Kobe’s place in NBA history from a statistical perspective, but it is clearer than ever that Bryant’s significance as a player cannot be distilled into numbers.
Not that we haven’t tried. In the eternal comparison between Bryant and Michael Jordan, Kobe’s metrics never quite measured up. (Although, perhaps not coincidentally, as we got better at measuring what was important for winning basketball games, Bryant started to look better and better.) Statistically, he also usually ran behind LeBron James, his one-time rival — and, later, Laker successor — much to the consternation of his legions of ring-counting fans. Even before James passed Bryant on the all-time scoring list Saturday, any numerical accounting of Bryant’s place in history would not be able to elevate him to the Jordanesque level he so desired his entire career.
But players don’t seem to care much for the metrics when assessing Bryant’s importance within the game. Perhaps that was because his entire career overlapped their formative years — as my colleague Chris Herring noted earlier this week, Kobe debuted when the average current player was 3 years old, won his last title when they were 16 and retired when they were 22. Few active players — save for, say, Vince Carter — have any memory of MJ as anything other than the Hornets’ owner. For them, Bryant was the dominating force that loomed over basketball throughout their childhoods, his key metrics being team wins, jersey sales (which he led the league in six times between 2002 and 2011)1 and visibility as much as cold efficiency rates.
It helped that Bryant also carried on Jordan’s legacy in style, leading his generation in fadeaways, midrange jumpers and game-winning shots.
In many ways, he was one of the last players allowed to do those things in an age when an obsessive focus on shot selection has radically reshaped how and where players shoot. And he was allowed to do it because he was so good at ignoring defensive pressure and making tough shots. That type of playing style appeals to today’s players for the same reason Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram measured his justification for a contract extension in terms of whether he could beat his rivals one-on-one. Bryant’s technical virtuosity as a scorer spoke to the core of basketball as it is viewed by those who play the game, even if it didn’t move the statistical needle as much as the more quantifiable aspects of what boosts a team’s on-court efficiency.
That isn’t to say we should ignore the numbers when assessing Bryant’s place in history. But there is also space between any ranking based on value and one augmented by significance. The statistics might have missed exactly why there was so much outpouring of emotion across the game as news of Bryant’s passing spread. But Bryant’s fame always transcended data, one of the many things that makes his legacy more complicated than it would be with other players. Kobe made us rethink the numbers, and the numbers made us rethink him. Years later, we’re still unpacking what that means to the game’s history.