James Nokise: Kobe Bryant was flawed, but indisputably an icon

8:28 am on 28 January 2020

By James Nokise *

Opinion - Eight NBA Games were played last night. At the start of each one, both teams took turns being penalised with either an eight-second or 24-second time violation.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - (ARCHIVE): A file photo dated on October 26, 2011 shows NBA legend Kobe Bryant attends an interview in Istanbul, Turkey.

Kobe Bryant came closest to emulating the feats of Michael Jordan, James Nokise writes. Photo: AFP

Eight and 24. The numbers Kobe Bryant wore during his career at the Los Angeles Lakers. The numbers they retired after he did.

As a 30-year fan of the NBA, I've never seen anything like it.

I'm not a Kobe Bryant fan. I'm not even a Lakers fan. But ever since my dad sat me down to watch Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls take on the Detroit Pistons, I've been a fervent NBA fan. And as a basketball fan, whether you loved or hated Kobe Bryant, you have to acknowledge an icon has died.

When Bryant was drafted in 1996, I was playing high-school basketball at Tawa College, joking with my mates about the cocky "wannabe-Jordan". Who was this ridiculous 18-year-old straight out of high school winning slam-dunk contests and becoming the youngest NBA All-Star starter?

When Jordan retired in 1999, we thought "that's it, we'll never see another like him". Three titles in a row, twice, in a decade. It was impossible.

Yet Kobe won his first title in 2000. Then another in 2001. And his third in 2002. Three in a row. Just like Jordan - all while being a high-scoring shooting guard, just like Jordan.

That was the most annoying thing about Bryant; not that he was playing for the Lakers, or that he was a better basketball player than me or almost anyone else, but that he was a bigger fan.

Kobe Bryant might have been the ultimate Michael Jordan fan.

He literally, shot by shot, manoeuvre by manoeuvre from the time he was three built his basketball style and then his career like our favourite player.

Oh, we all wanted to "Be like Mike", but we were all comfortable knowing that was a delusion ... till Kobe Bryant ascended.

He almost pulled it off. He scored more points than Jordan and in the 2000s he got to the NBA finals a staggering seven times, winning five. Not even his successor, the evergreen Lebron James, has enjoyed that much success.

 People mourn at a makeshift memorial at Mamba Sports Academy for former NBA great Kobe Bryant, who was killed in a helicopter crash while commuting to the academy on January 26, 2020 in Newbury Park, California.

Some of the tributes being left for Kobe Bryant at a makeshift memorial outside the Mamba Sports Academy in Los Angeles. Photo: AFP

But with this success comes the large asterix of his sexual assault trial in 2003. Though the charges were eventually dropped, the media frenzy and his lawyers' use of victim blaming resulted in Colorado's 'rape shield' laws being changed.

His statement after the trial, where he confirmed the victim's story but still believed consent was given, is one of the NBA's ugliest moments.

Some will always view his work championing women's basketball and the development of basketball for young women with a cynical eye.

He was outspoken in his support of WNBA (Women's National Basketball Association) players being able to keep up with NBA players, and by all accounts loved coaching his teenage daughter's basketball team.

He set up basketball academies for young players, and was always available to mentor young NBA players coming through. He eventually became, apparently, a very loving husband and father of four girls.

As a fan, one of the more heart-warming scenes in a game was the way Kobe would randomly pop in, post-retirement, with his young daughter Gianna (Gigi) whenever she wanted to watch a game. The meme of him talking tactics with her at an Atlanta Hawks game has become heartbreaking after learning she died with him in the helicopter crash that killed seven others.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 27: Gianna Bryant and her father, former NBA player Kobe Bryant, attend the WNBA All-Star Game 2019 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on July 27, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna at a WNBA All-Star game in Las Vegas last July. Photo: AFP

Perhaps the Atlanta Hawks coach, Lloyd Pierce, put it best: "It's the biggest transformation of a competitor to a human being I've ever seen."

So it is that basketball fans are mourning not just the passing of a great player, but the chance to see what the more human version of Kobe Bryant might have accomplished and been able to teach the young men trying to chase his legacy in basketball and beyond.

*James Nokise is a Billy T Award-shortlisted New Zealand comedian, and a 30-year fan of the NBA.

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