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How Kobe Bryant Achieved Basketball Immortality

The NBA has never seen a more determined superstar than the late Lakers legend. Through sheer will and incalculable hours on the court, Kobe clawed his way to the top and became one of the greatest forces the league has ever seen.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kobe Bryant was a generational player, but he was not a generational talent. His physical tools were unusual, but not extraordinary. There are players with his size (6-foot-6 and 210 pounds) and athleticism in almost every draft.

What separates Kobe from almost every other player in NBA history is how he used his talent. He maximized every bit of his ability. Kobe could outrun and outjump most defenders in his prime, but he was still undefendable when those edges faded and he was hobbling around on one good Achilles tendon in his late 30s. That’s because he was a technician at heart. A lifetime of work in the gym allowed him to fine-tune his skill set to the point where he had no real flaws. There wasn’t anything on the court he couldn’t do at a high level—score, shoot, pass, rebound, and defend. Bryant died Sunday in a helicopter crash, but the legacy of what he could do on the floor will live forever.

Craftsmanship was the foundation of Kobe’s game. He had an answer for anything the defense came up with. He could shoot if they played off him, drive if they pressed him, and find the open man if they sent help. There was no game plan to stop Kobe. He never had any tendencies to take away. He just took whatever the defense gave him. And they always gave him something.

There was no wasted motion when he was on the court. Everything had a purpose. Every move was also setting up another move. They were all pieces of a bigger combination.

All the scoring barrages and game-winning shots were possible only because he was such a fundamentally sound player. He was the rare great athlete who didn’t rely on his athleticism to dominate. That’s how he was able to score 33,643 points in his NBA career (fourth all time) and 81 in a single game. And it’s why, at 37, he could score 60 points in his final game when his athleticism had all but vanished.

Kobe was as calculating of a player as there ever was. He didn’t always make the right decision with the ball in his hands. No player ever toed the line between hunting his own shot and making the right play more deliberately. There were plenty of times when he forced up difficult jumpers over double-teams instead of moving the ball. He’s the all-time leader in missed shots. Coaching him was never easy. Phil Jackson even wrote a book about it.

But the key distinction between Kobe and his countless imitators is that he never made the low-percentage play under duress. Even the best defenders couldn’t force him to do anything. It was always a conscious choice on Kobe’s part—for better or for worse.

My favorite quote about Kobe came from legendary assistant coach Tex Winter in Chris Ballard’s book The Art of a Beautiful Game:

“He understands the game. But—and don’t misinterpret this—he understands it a lot better than he plays it.” OK, Tex, so as not to misinterpret: Are you saying that he knows the right thing to do but sometimes chooses not to do it? “Yup, that’s it,” says Tex.

An entire generation of players grew up idolizing Kobe and mimicking his every move. But most of the followers missed what actually made him special. They copied his style and his game and the Mamba Mentality, but not the connective tissue that made it all work.

Just because a player really wants to win and has the confidence to take difficult shots at the end of games doesn’t necessarily mean anything. There are a lot of guys in the G League who aren’t scared of the moment, either.

Kobe’s confidence played a huge role in his success, but it was the source of his confidence that made him special. It didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from putting in an untold number of hours and shots in the gym.

His work ethic shocked even the best players in the NBA. Before the 2008 Olympics, the younger players on Team USA woke up at 8 a.m. for a team breakfast to see Kobe drenched in sweat from a three-hour workout already in the books. He set the tone and made everyone else follow.

But he didn’t just work harder than everyone else. He worked smarter than them too. No one is born with a perfectly refined game on both ends of the floor. That comes from making deliberate practice and film study a way of life. Kobe left no stone unturned when it came to working on his game. All you had to do is watch him play to see that.

Kobe climbed the NBA’s version of Mount Olympus. He just had to do a lot more work to get there than most of his peers. Look at the other top-10 players on the league’s all-time scoring list. Kobe and Michael Jordan are the only two under 6-foot-8.

Basketball isn’t fair. If everything else were equal, a taller player would always be intrinsically more valuable in a sport built around throwing a ball through a cylinder raised 10 feet in the air. But that wouldn’t stop Kobe, who won five titles in his 20-year career.

He will always be linked to Shaquille O’Neal, the no. 8 scorer of all time. Shaq was everything that Kobe wasn’t. He was a larger-than-life 7-footer who routinely came to training camp out of shape, took nights off in the regular season, and never bothered to develop a perimeter game on offense.

One of Shaq’s many nicknames for himself was Superman. It fit because a player with his physical gifts had greatness in his DNA. But if he was Superman, then Kobe was Lex Luthor, a genius born without any superpower beyond his own intelligence.

As a post player myself in high school, I preferred Shaq. At the time, I thought it was crazy and selfish of Kobe to blow up their dynasty. It wasn’t until I graduated and started my own writing career that I could appreciate his decision. Kobe put in too much work to take a back seat forever. Getting his own team was about more than just self-glorification. He had to see what he could do on his own.

In turn, he put together one of the most amazing one-man campaigns in NBA history in his second season without Shaq, averaging 35.4 points on 45.0 percent shooting, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game on a 45-win team on which no one else averaged more than 15 points. Kobe went into every game knowing he needed to score 40 points to win. And there were a lot of nights when he pulled it off. He wouldn’t win a championship playing that way, but how would he know until he tried?

The most underrated part of his dominance was his ability to sustain it. There are a lot of players who can string together a few great games. There was almost no one who could do it as consistently as Kobe, night after night.

The prime of a player’s career is usually from 27 to 31. For Kobe, those five years encompassed his two best individual seasons and his fourth and fifth championships. He played in 394 of 410 regular-season games in that span, while also playing in 79 playoff games and winning a gold medal. We may never see a run like that again in the era of load management.

Kobe squeezed every ounce of production out of his body that he could. He was still playing at an incredibly high level at 34, when he almost single-handedly carried the Lakers to the playoffs while averaging 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting, 5.6 rebounds, and six assists per game. That was the year when he finally broke down, snapping his Achilles tendon at the end of the season.

It’s not that Kobe was a basketball monk. He enjoyed the fame and the money that came with it, especially in a city like Los Angeles. He played to the crowd, and was a cultural icon in a way few players have ever been. He famously doted on his family and seemed well on his way to a successful second act as the head of a production company before his life was tragically cut short.

Kobe never cheated the game along the way. He knew that basketball could open a lot of doors in his life. He just never forgot how he got there once doors were opened. So he studied the game, mastered every element of it, and worked as hard as he physically could.

So much of the conversation about Kobe was always about how he compared to Jordan. But that missed the point. The two were different players in different eras with different bodies. It was not a debate that Kobe could ever win.

Kobe was the best possible version of himself. No player got more out of their own talent. That is the only comparison that ever really mattered.