As a 17 year old recent high school graduate Kobe Bean Bryant was drafted 13th by the Charlotte Hornets, but traded to the Los Angeles Lakers immediately.
Back then fans didn’t pay attention to youth sports like they do now, so it was up to professional teams to send their scouts to watch players and invite them to workouts. Jerry West, the Lakers General Manager then, said Bryant’s workout was the best he’s ever seen. West was known for having a keen eye for talent so with his endorsement the deal was as good as done.
Fast forward to December 18, 2017 when Kobe’s two jerseys (#8 & #24) were retired and the question asked was: which was better #8 or #24? Bryant hesitated to give a definitive answer, but when forced he responded with #24 because the journey was harder.
Bryant’s career in either jersey is Hall of Fame worthy, but what impressed me most is the maturation of who he has become over the years.
In his teens and 20’s he was an athletic, arrogant and brash individual that would do anything to win. In 2004 when the Lakers lost the NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons, Kobe pondered jumping to another team, but once his counterpart Shaquille O’Neal was shipped to Miami he was talked into staying.
This was fresh off his sexual assault case in 2003 and the years to come were not fruitful as a Laker. Kobe’s best years individually came while the Lakers were down and before the 2006-07 NBA Season he changed his number to #24.
Once they acquired Pau Gasol at the trade deadline in 2008 the Lakers won 2 championship in the next 3 years. The end of his playing career saw him endure 3 season-ending injuries on bad teams, but here is where the real story begins.
Asking recently what advice he would have given his younger self he said “empathy.” Coming from an anti-social, ego maniac driven person in his prime that’s huge. Bryant was always a solo artist, working harder than teammates and chastising those who didn’t share the same values. Sure, he was great, but few wanted to be around him or play with him.
But sometime after his court case and Shaq leaving town it clicked. Bryant’s last 2 championships were sweeter than his first 3 because of how he did it. Yes he won Finals MVP in his latter two, but it’s more about how he embraced his teammates. Watching all his former teammates gather for his final game and jersey retirement ceremony shows how he has evolved as a person.
His retirement speech had more to do with his family and message to the youth than it did about his accomplishments. Bryant is arguably one of the smartest basketball players and you can hear it in his words. He’s at peace with his career transition and done what few professional athletes have after retiring: move on.
The funny thing is even before Kobe became a leader, he didn’t strive for adoration. Why he’s adored so greatly in China is because of his work ethic. Although selfish at times, you can never fault him for not trying. He played every game like it was his last.
Over the years he’s softened his approach towards media, fans and critics. That’s because he’s at peace with who he is and his priorities have shifted to his family. Never has their been an athlete so polarizing from the start transform into a truly likable individual over time.
Bryant’s transformation is inspiring because his story can be ours too. No matter where you are, you can always change for the better. It starts with the small choices you make daily. Kobe is starting a new chapter in his life and with 2018 here so can you. #mambaout