If I told you anything about Kobe Bryant’s basketball and professional career, it would be nothing short of marvelous.
5 NBA Championships.
2x NBA Finals MVP.
18x NBA All-Star.
A bunch of other basketball record stuff.
Millions of dollars.
At his height, Kobe might have been the most famous athlete in the world. He was a rock star in China — even ranked as the most famous athlete in China in 2016.
“I thought I was famous until I got here with Kobe.”
-LeBron James, on arriving to the 2008 Olympics with Kobe Bryant
In retrospect, it’s easy to think Bryant’s stature as a media icon and darling was inevitable, or a natural fit. He's a son of an NBA player, a Los Angeles icon, fluent in multiple languages, who also commuted via helicopter to games — he’s effortlessly outgoing, punctuated by his Oscar nod through his powerful delivery in Dear Basketball.
On the court, Bryant’s game was flashy, destructive, incisive. He was as tantalizing to watch as he was polarizing in his on and off court demeanor, and even had multiple books written about him, like Showboat (which he was referred to during his playing days in the early 2000s), and was excoriated by Phil Jackson in The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul.
To have multiple books published about how much of an asshole you were, the attention you brought (negative or otherwise), and the skill you have suggests that he possessed an egregious personality, and an indomitable, utterly “alpha” will that both intimidated and struck fear into teammates and adversaries.
Frankly, this picture sums up the mythos of Bryant to many diehard fans — a man unflappable in any situation and essentially inhuman.
However, the glamour and boldness of a sports legend insatiable in his conquest for success betrays a kid used to being an outcast, alone, and flat out having a difficult time relating to others.
Introverted By Nature and Circumstance
Early on in his career, despite enormous talent, Bryant had a notoriously difficult time connecting with others.
According to “Shaq Uncut”, an autobiography by Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe was virtually clueless when it came to team decorum and the brotherhood of an NBA team.
Kobe stands up and goes face-to-face with me and says,
“You always said you’re my big brother, you’d do anything for me, and then this Colorado thing happens and you never even called me.”
I did call him. … So here we are now, and we find out he really was hurt that we didn’t stand behind him. That was something new. I didn’t think he gave a rat’s ass about us either way.
“Well, I thought you’d publicly support me, at least,” Kobe said. “You’re supposed to be my friend.”
Brian Shaw chimed in with “Kobe, why would you think that? Shaq had all these parties and you never showed up for any of them. We invited you to dinner on the road and you didn’t come. Shaq invited you to his wedding and you weren’t there. Then you got married and didn’t invite any of us. And now you are in the middle of this problem, this sensitive situation, and now you want all of us to step up for you.
We don’t even know you.”
It doesn’t stop there.
“We used to rap on the bus all the time. We’d freestyle. We’d see something and go off. It could be anything — a guy with a big nose walking his dog, a guy on our team with a zit on his cheek. Kobe wouldn’t usually say anything, but he was sitting there observing. You could tell he wanted to join in, but he hung back. Maybe he was afraid he wasn’t a good enough rapper.
Kobe was a very intelligent guy. One day we’re on the bus rapping, and he starts in with his own rap. He’s using all these big words, and the damn rap sounds like a movie script or something. That was when we realized he was going home and writing stuff up, then memorizing it and coming back with it on the bus.”
Even after Kobe worked on his “friendships”, stating that Derek Fisher is one of closest friends after he was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunders, even Derek admitted he’s never been to Kobe’s house.
Kobe even described his own inability to make lasting friendships.
“But in terms of having one of those great, bonding friendships — that’s something I will probably never have. And it’s not some smug thing. It’s a weakness.”
It’s not like I’m saying, ‘I don’t need friends because I’m so strong.’… When I was growing up in Italy, I grew up in isolation. It was not an environment suited to me. I was the only black kid. I didn’t speak the language. I’d be in one city, but then we’d move to a different city and I’d have to do everything again. I’d make friends, but I’d never be part of the group, because the other kids were already growing up together. So this is how I grew up, and these are the weaknesses that I have.
From an early age, Bryant was an outcast — and it didn’t help being one of the youngest players ever drafted at the age of 17. Bryant was conflicted — the same person that would utterly dominate competition at UCLA would, at the same time, drive around the campus, questioning if he had made the wrong decision.
“One of the things that I always used to do is get in my car and drive around the campus of UCLA. I’d see kids hanging out at fraternity houses, walking around and i just wanted to feel that. And then I’d even wonder, ‘F-, did I make the wrong choice? Did I f- up?’ I could be going to college and laughing and hanging out with these kids and having a good time and enjoying it but no, here I am.”
Once you piece together anecdotes about Bryant’s upbringing and early adjustment, it’s clear to understand what he was going through.
Despite enormous talent, he just didn’t fit in. His attempts to try and fit in further alienated him, with people calling him insincere. He grew up as the only black kid in a foreign country, and his obsession with success marginalized his relationships with others to the point he had to craft an identity.
“It wasn’t that people thought I was soft,” he says, slightly wincing at the implications of the word. “It was more of a street credibility thing: ’He grew up in Italy. He’s not one of us.’ But what I came to understand, coming out of Colorado, is that I had to be me, in the place where I was at that moment.”
-Bryant, on trying to fit in and adopting a “plain vanilla” persona.
Embracing Your Nature
Bryant shows that despite a seemingly invincible constitution, infinite talent, and early track record of success, his achievements were never guaranteed. His journey and process towards self-actualization was notably marked by self-doubt, a longing for validation, vulnerability, conflict with peers, egotism, and perceived immaturity — all of which threatened to derail his talent and hard-work.
Eventually, Bryant realized that the criticism of the qualities he was assailed on had to simply be let go.
“So that’s when I decided that — if people were going to like me or not like me — it was going to be for who I actually was. To hell with all that plain vanilla shit, just to get endorsement deals. Those are superficial, anyway. I don’t enjoy doing them, anyway. I’ll just show people who I actually am…
Me sitting here, doing this interview — I don’t have to do this,” he says. “Ever since Colorado, I control my shit. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t fucking do it. Nobody is going to control my career or my life.”
So what can we learn from Bryant’s failures and vulnerabilities?
Moments of triumph are seldom accompanied by an understanding of the pitfalls, failures, and extended moments of doubt, whether you wonder if you made the right decision and when you question your self-worth.
Whether it’s better to be hated for what you are, or tolerated for what you aren’t.
If you read any Wikipedia page detailing someone’s success, you’ll read what someone did, but not necessarily how they did it, the processes they developed to combat obstacles, or the feelings associated with the moments of vulnerability that accompany novel experiences.
It’s almost like a stat-sheet of wins, or a list of reasons defending why they should even have a Wikipedia page in the first place.
Basketball — by virtue of being a sport with clear winners and losers, and the extra spotlight of the camera — helps succinctly define and capture each of these through moments in Kobe’s career.
In retrospect, it’s easy to interpret how Kobe’s success was inevitable.
But behind the brazen exterior rests myriad insecurities and flaws that posed serious threats to his personal and professional life. Despite this, he ultimately remained true to himself. These traits didn’t define him, or halt his journey. Rather, they emboldened his legacy and contributed to his ongoing folklore and public endearment.
“He believes himself. He believes he can do anything, simply through the power of will.”
His story is evidence that embracing yourself, rather than conformity, is paramount to actualizing your goals.
If someone could withstand financial loss, familial implosion, public backlash and talking head vitriol, and still find personal fulfillment being who they are— why can’t anyone else?