Kobe Bryant’s Journey To Perfection

How the five-time NBA Champion evolved to become the man he always knew he could be.

It was early 2000, and 21-year-old Kobe Bryant was in his fourth season in the NBA. Fresh-faced and eager to please, he was the quintessential shooting star — rising above all others on the basketball court, yet also emerging as a venerable sports entrepreneur and new celebrity pitchman.

The essence of a modern-day sports prodigy in a land full of promises, the still-spindly young Kobe had just signed a six-year, $71 million contract, and he was endorsing everything from Sprite soda and Mattel toys to Nintendo video games and Spalding sporting goods. Giorgio Armani provided his wardrobe. Kobe flashed his bankable smile incessantly for the cameras and he worked just as hard on media photo shoots as he did on the basketball court. He was the perfect cover subject, the perfect pitchman, the perfect ball player. Certainly, most of us believed that Kobe was also the perfect son and perfect family man.

At least that’s what I expected to hear when I first contacted Kobe’s father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant to get his views on raising this brilliant phenom during his metaphoric rise to fame. During a telephone call, Kobe’s father acknowledged his son’s prodigious attributes, but he also said one thing that has resonated with me for years as it was an unusually candid assessment from the father of such a beloved national hero. 

“He’s a little cocky, a little arrogant,” Joe said, his candor more than a little jarring. Although his son was teeming with self-confidence, Joe was just as quick to point out that Kobe was never rude or offensive. “He’s not disrespectful,” he pointed out.

This was my first glimpse into what appeared to be a strained family dynamic amongst the Bryants and their only son. 

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The modern-day portraits of the Kobe Bryant we now know are based in the beauty of his wife and four daughters. As fans, we have followed his growing family for years, standing in the middle of it all and enjoying watching Kobe develop into a devoted husband and father. Then, we blinked, and he, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others were gone, just like that. 

Amidst the stories, memories, and touching tributes that will be made during the memorial service in his honor at the Staples Center on February 24, there are also elements of a complicated Black man whose journey to becoming the picture-perfect, doting husband and father was not always easy. Yet, in the end, Kobe will be remembered for becoming what so many of us discover is our own true essence: a son, brother, husband and father who ultimately realized that none of his achievements were greater than the family he was blessed with.

Before I flew out to L.A. to conduct the interview, I had that  conversation with Joe Bryant over the phone. His candid assessment came during his son’s early years as a pro. At the time I was a senior editor at Forbes magazine, where I was writing a cover story on the ascending NBA star. At least that’s what the Forbes cover would proclaim. Kobe, with his rapid rise as a celebrity endorser and a contract that at the time was the league maximum, represented one of the first “New Stars of Money.”

Joe told me that he was preparing to spend time in Italy, where Kobe had just purchased a 50 percent stake in Olimpia Milano, a storied but troubled professional basketball team in Milan, Italy. Kobe had gushed romantically about growing up in Italy with his two sisters, Sharia and Shaya saying at the time that the Olimpia Milano team, “gets me back to where I grew up.” 

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Kobe was surrounding himself with family in a hackneyed yet noble attempt to turn his budding good fortune into a lucrative family enterprise. The plan was for Joe to run the team and for his sisters to move to L.A. in order to support their brother and his new ventures. Kobe launched a music recording venture, putting Sharia’s husband at the helm. He bought a family compound in Pacific Palisades. Even his aunt moved from Philadelphia to work in his Los Angeles office. Kobe Incorporated was officially established—a burgeoning empire all built around the precocious bay of the family with a freak-of-nature physical talent at its helm. The prodigy was now fulfilling the promise.

Of course, it’s not easy to build a sports and entertainment empire, as the Bryant family soon learned. Their involvement with the Olimpia Milano came undone after just 10 months. Recordings of Kobe rapping received a lackluster response and never found their way into distribution. And after Kobe faced sexual assault charges — which were later dropped — his endorsement deals largely ended, but, the real tipping point for young Kobe’s family — as the legend now has it — came when 20-year old Kobe and his 18-year old high school sweetheart, Vanessa officially became a couple getting married in April 2001, much to the chagrin of the star’s parents, Joe and Pam Bryant

Soon after, Kobe’s family had all left Los Angeles, and pretty much disappeared from his public life. It’s not easy being a young, millionaire employer to many of your family and friends, but just as numerous professional athletes had experienced before them, the Bryant family learned that when you go along for the ride, it can sometimes be a bumpy one. As Kobe became increasingly estranged from his first family, he in turn became more intensely focused on the new life that he and Vanessa were building together. Before long, he had not only fulfilled his promise as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, he was also becoming an iconic family man as was proven by the aspirational photos or public appearances with his wife and girls. When they all flashed their wide and sincere smiles at games and charity events, we saw our own families the way we all imagined they could be: prosperous, happy, unified, and beautiful. 

RELATED: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Remembers Kobe Bryant As Family Man and Tremendous Talent

In the end, Kobe, the iconic sports star, died Kobe the iconic family man. As fathers, we become fans of the things that our children adore. We listen to their music idols, and we start to like them. We watch their television shows with them, and before we know it, the silly things they think are funny are actually funny to us as well. And when they play a sport, we cheer and support them as if their athletic endeavors are the first ones that we’ve ever experienced in our lives. When Kobe sat courtside with his daughter Gianna, it was apparent that even he was a smitten dad, giddy and wide-eyed just like many of us.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing and talking to Kobe a few times since that first interview. He was always a gentleman, always seemingly happy, and most of all – just like his father said – he was always confident, but respectful. He may have had some struggles adjusting to wealth and fame, but it was always clear that happiness and love were an existential part of his being. As his life’s sudden ending would underscore, Kobe came to represent more than athletic perfection. When the final buzzer tolled, Kobe Bryant’s greatest achievement was his family.

We lost the perfect son, the perfect brother, the perfect basketball player. But we are left with an indelible image of the perfect family man.

A veteran journalist, author and educator, Brett Pulley is a consultant at Weber Shandwick.

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