There was always a lot to say about Kobe Bryant. Reams will be written about the basketball legend, who died in a helicopter crash Sunday with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others. So maybe the best approach is just to say it simply: His on-court legacy is staggering. He was an all-time great, the likes of which we may not see again soon — especially with how much the game has changed in recent years. But his off-court legacy is harder to grapple with.
Let’s start with his career. Kobe was an unbelievable scorer; he once put up 81 points in a comeback win over Toronto. He wasn’t Magic Johnson as a passer, but he could serve as a floor general when he wanted; in January 2013, he shook off a four-game losing streak and ball-hogging criticisms by notching three straight 10-plus assist games, all of which were wins. Later in his career, some said he couldn’t play defense,1 but he managed to win 12 all-defensive team nods — pretty damn good when that’s not even your biggest on-court strength.
For anyone who didn’t follow this sport closely, perhaps this is the best way to think about Bryant: Many of today’s NBA players grew up watching Bryant play, likely viewing him as their generation’s Michael Jordan.2 Just as players wanted to wear Jordan’s No. 23 as he became the face of the sport, the number of players who donned Kobe’s No. 8 more than tripled during his 20-year-run in the league. (To get a sense of how popular Kobe was, consider this: He was voted into the All-Star Game3 as a starter in his second season before he had ever started a regular-season game for the Lakers. Winning the dunk contest as a rookie certainly helped.)
And while there’s an objective, unmistakable gap statistically between the two players, it’s not hard to see where the comparisons come from. Similar to Jordan, Kobe possessed an unmatched competitive fire. Bryant modeled his game and footwork after His Airness, and won five championships to MJ’s six. The one-time MVP served as a mentor for a handful of the NBA’s young stars, like Kyrie Irving4 and Jayson Tatum, much like Jordan himself offered Bryant advice as the young Laker was coming into his own.
The crash happened less than 24 hours after superstar LeBron James, now a Laker, passed Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. And he did so in Philadelphia, where Bryant grew up. After the game, James spoke for 10 minutes, laying out what Bryant’s game, support and friendship meant to him.
For all the incredible talent he possessed, and all the kids who grew up wanting to emulate him, stylistically there may never be another player like him, partly because teams are being taught to eliminate certain tough, inefficient shots — ones that Kobe wasn’t afraid of — from their diet. Today’s NBA is built so differently than the league Kobe first inhabited. For example: Watch almost any NBA game now, as the game clock is expiring, and you will rarely see a player take an end-of-quarter heave — they’re all protecting their shooting percentage. Kobe, on the other hand, never had that sort of hesitation. Especially when the game was on the line. This was true even in his first postseason, against the Utah Jazz, when he kept putting up jumpers late despite shooting airball after airball.
He took the toughest shots in the game — the most heavily covered ones, from the parts of the floor that teams now avoid like the plague. And up until his final, injury-plagued years, when the game had changed so much, Bryant often devastated opponents with those tough shots. He was explosive in his younger years, but even as he aged, he had the grace and skilled footwork to get the space he needed for challenging looks. And his willingness to take those shots, even when they didn’t fall, was part of why so many fans loved him. (One telltale sign of Bryant’s ability during the height of his career: Even his missed shots often held value. Those plays, where his misfires would lead to a teammate’s putback, were deemed “Kobe Assists.”)
We saw the height of the debate over his diminishing efficiency during his last season, one where he struggled mightily in what had become a hyper-efficient league. But fittingly, he finished his career by notching 60 points on 50 shots5 in his last game — against that same Jazz club that he once airballed four times against — going out seemingly the only way the Black Mamba could.
Bryant’s off-court legacy was much more complicated. In 2003, he was charged with the sexual assault of a woman who worked at a hotel he was staying at in Colorado. The charges were dropped after the woman declined to testify, though she filed a civil suit against Bryant that he settled privately. In an apology to the woman, Bryant wrote: “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.”
In 2011, Bryant was fined $100,000 by the NBA for using a homophobic slur toward a referee. He apologized, and two years later, he won praise from GLAAD for calling out fans’ homophobic tweets on social media. “I own it and learn from it and expect the same from others,” he tweeted at the time.
Some wondered how he would handle life after retirement, given how fierce a competitor he was. But Bryant embraced a second act. He won an Academy Award for best animated short film in 2018, and had a best-selling book come out later in the same year. And beyond that, Bryant became an enormous supporter — and perhaps the most visible fan — of women’s basketball. He often attended WNBA and women’s college games, and he even worked out with WNBA players during their offseasons. He seemed to take great pride in teaching Gianna the offensive tricks of the game, like jab stepping to create space against a defender. Bryant and his daughter were on the way to one of her games at the time of the crash.
Some will understandably find it challenging to make sense of his legacy off the court. Others may have hated his game, or his team, on the court. But at the most basic level, it’s not hard to see why this current generation of players would mourn his loss the way it has: A huge swath of the NBA grew up idolizing him as the best player they’ve ever seen.
Neil Paine contributed to this article.