Regarded as one of the best American basketball players of all time, Kobe Bryant played a decisive role in Team USA’s Olympic triumphs of 2008 and 2012. He died tragically in a helicopter crash, at the age of 41, on 26 January 2020.
Born in Philadelphia, Kobe Bryant is the youngest of three offspring of former basketball player and coach, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant. By the age of three, he was already at home on the basketball court. Having spent the early part of his childhood in Italy, where his father was playing for the Rieti club, in 1996, aged 18 and 158 days, Bryant became the youngest player in history to start a game in the NBA - the US professional basketball league - when he made his debut for the Los Angeles Lakers. He would remain with the Lakers for the rest of his career, helping them to win five NBA titles and notching a record 30,000 points in the process.
Nicknamed “the Black Mamba”, Bryant and his co-star LeBron James were the leaders of the USA’s ‘Redeem Team’, which went to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing tasked with exorcising the demons of Athens 2004, where the USA had been eliminated in the semi-finals by Argentina. Bryant was in brilliant form throughout the tournament, not least in the final against Spain. With Team USA clinging to the most fragile of leads (91-89) with eight minutes left, Kobe went into overdrive, making his presence felt on every inch of the court. In the final quarter, he scored 13 points, chipped in with three assists, and produced two vital blocks at the other end to help secure a 118-107 victory in what is widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball matches of all time.
In 2009 and 2010, Bryant clinched his fourth and fifth NBA titles and was voted MVP (Most Valuable Player) of the final each time. At the age of 34, he then focused his attentions on helping Team USA defend their Olympic crown at London 2012. “It’s a huge honour for me, because I’ve always wanted to play for [Team USA],” he said, before revealing that London would be his Olympic swansong. “This will definitely be my last Olympic Games so it has a lot of symbolism to it.”
As captain of Team USA, Bryant lit up the London stage with each one of his appearances. Among the numerous highlights was a personal haul of 20 second-half points against Australia, which included four consecutive three-pointers, several decisive actions in the semi-final against Argentina, and 17 valuable points in the final against Spain, which helped secure a 107-100 victory and a second consecutive Olympic gold.
After beginning another fine NBA season for the Lakers, Kobe suffered a serious Achilles’ tendon injury in April 2013. During his recovery, he joined forces with the IOC ahead of International Olympic Day on 23 June, with a ‘call-out to people around the world to get involved: “I can’t run, I can’t jump and I can’t swim yet,” he said. “So I need you guys to pick up the slack for me and be doubly active.” It was a message that typified the boundless enthusiasm and civic spirit of this truly extraordinary athlete.
The end of Bryant’s career was blighted by injury, but the appearances he did make on the court saw him surpass the 33,000-point mark in the regular season and rack up more than 6,000 career assists. In December 2015, he wrote a moving open letter, entitled “Dear Basketball”, to announce his retirement from the sport. In his final NBA match on 13 April 2016, Bryant scored 60 points (making 22 out of a career-high 50 attempted shots and bagging 6 out of 21 three-pointers) to help the Lakers claim a 101-96 victory over Utah Jazz. On 18 December 2017, he became the first player to have two jersey numbers retired by the same team, having worn 8 and 24 over the course of his 20-year career with the Lakers. Bryant’s poetic retirement letter was subsequently made into an animated short film, which won an Oscar in 2018.
Tragedy struck the world of basketball and sport in general on 26 January 2020 when Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash in California at the age of 41. All nine people on board, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died in the crash. National and international tributes came flooding in from sports stars, fans and celebrities. Bryant truly made his mark on the history of basketball, and his death leaves an immense void.
“"The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great at whatever they want to do."”
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