NBA legend Kobe Bryant, who died tragically last year at age 41, will likely be best known for his gifts with the roundball. He was one of the best to take the court and one of basketball’s greatest ambassadors, heralding the men’s and women’s game at its youth, college, pro and international levels.
Yet the Los Angeles Lakers luminary was multifaceted — serving as a writer, producer, spokesman, philanthropist, mentor and #girldad. The Black Mamba appreciated greatness in all its forms — and saw sport as transformative.
He believed, like Nelson Mandela whom he quoted in an Instagram post in 2014, that “sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
This belief permeated the mission at Mamba Sports Academy, to which Bryant, daughter Gianna and seven others were en route when their helicopter crashed a year ago in the Santa Monica Mountains in Calabasas, California.
Here’s a look at the times he directed his considerable light on the world’s other sporting pastimes.
Sharia Washington, one of Bryant’s two sisters, played volleyball for Temple, with a sportswriter declaring in 1997 that she was “every bit the athlete Kobe is” (and she was able to dunk before her little brother!). Bryant’s oldest child, Natalia, followed in her aunt’s footsteps so, of course, he loved the game.
An enormous fan of the international game, Bryant spent time as a child in Italy, where he learned to play soccer and love AC Milan, one of the country’s most storied teams.
Game recognize game, as they say, so it should surprise no one that his social media is littered with references to the sport’s best players and teams, including the US Women’s National Team, the men’s Brazilian, German and Italian teams and stars Lionel Messi, Megan Rapinoe, Mia Hamm and Ronaldinho. He even once gave a shout-out to Clint Dempsey after the American slotted one off the post to open scoring against Ghana in the 2014 World Cup.
Paralympics and Olympics
Bryant joined Los Angeles’ bid for the 2024 Olympics (the city was selected for the 2028 Games instead) and appeared with fellow gold medalist Michael Phelps at the Golden Goggles to give yet a third gold medalist, Katie Ledecky, the 2017 female swimmer of the year award. He’s also been a stalwart for parasports.
“The lesson I cherish the most is how important it is to love what you do,” Bryant, freshly retired from the NBA, told Special Olympians in a 2016 video message. “If you love what you do and it’s making you happy, all the hard work and perseverance will pay off. When you know you’re truly giving it your all, there’s no greater feeling in the world.”
Bryant returned to the United States when he was 13. After middle school, he played ball at Lower Merion High School, outside of Philadelphia, before heading straight to the pros. The City of Brotherly Love was anything but when Bryant returned in the Lakers’ purple and gold. Philadelphians regularly booed their hometown prodigy, but Bryant always remained true to his Eagles.
He also spoke with reverence for stars like Tom Brady, Richard Sherman and Ray Lewis, who, like Bryant, fought to restore his image following criminal allegations away from the field of play. During a 2012 national championship matchup, Bryant showed his love for the college game, applauding Alabama’s AJ McCarron and Barrett Jones after a midgame scuffle.
Bryant often had the next generation on his mind, and Williams served as a muse for one of his literary creations, “Legacy and the Queen,” about a 12-year-old tennis player who must win a tournament to keep an orphanage open.
“I want kids to learn by reading our novels, and in our latest book, our main character has to learn to use her passion for tennis to rise above those around her and shine,” the father of four said of the book.
OK, OK, Bryant didn’t talk about auto racing so much. This header is more an excuse to include his “Mamba on the track!” post, featuring the Lakers shooting guard, during a trip to the town of Maranello, Italy, flying by in a canary-yellow Ferrari.
He grew up a Yankees fan, but Bryant said he always had love for the Dodgers. He once joined then-Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp, President Bill Clinton and Olympic gold medalist sprinter Allyson Felix for a roundtable about the importance of children playing sports.
A regular at Los Angeles Kings games, Bryant applauded the team after it twice in three seasons hung championship banners from the Staples Center rafters, where Bryant’s teams hung five.
Many National Hockey League players lamented his death, including superstar Alex Ovechkin. New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban, one of a few dozen Black players in the NHL, revealed after Bryant’s death that the baller had served as a mentor.
Hardly a shocker that when Bryant brought up snowboarding, he focused on the sport’s greatest, Shaun White.
Bryant and Lakers teammate Pau Gasol once owned an interest in a horse, Siempre Mio — Spanish for “Always Mine.” While that is a little-known factoid, better known is that Bryant took inspiration from the best, including the best of the best: Secretariat.
“I was like a wild horse that had the potential to become Secretariat, but who was just too f**king wild. So part of that was (Lakers coach Phil Jackson) trying to tame me,” he once said.
During “Dancing With the Stars,” Bryant backed actor and singer Zendaya, using the hashtags #differentanimalsamebeast and #beastmode, which he typically reserved for athletes he admired.
More importantly, this provides an opportunity to tidily end the story with a clip of a 12-year-old Kobe Bean popping and locking to a Vanilla Ice classic circa 1990.