Kobe Bryant commanded respect from multiple generations of NBA players

27 January 2020, 16:02 | Updated: 27 January 2020, 22:57

Kobe Bryant's influence on the modern-day NBA is most keenly felt in the respect he inspired in multiple generations of players that followed him into the league.

Bryant's basketball journey has been tragically cut short. His lifelong love affair with the game, one that began as a young child in Italy (where his father Joe 'Jellybean' Bryant played pro ball), saw him enter the NBA straight from high school at the age of 17 and embark on a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers that brought him five NBA titles, a league MVP, 11 All-NBA first-team selections, 18 consecutive All-Star selections and two jersey retirements.

A third act, as a doting father of a teenage daughter starting her own basketball journey towards college hoops and the WNBA, beckoned but was also tragically cut short on Sunday in Calabasas, California. Bryant will be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame this year. But we won't get to hear his speech and learn how much it meant to him.

The tributes that poured in from all corners of the sporting world showed what an ambassador for the game Bryant became. As befitting a global sporting icon - LeBron, Rafa, Magic, Ronaldo, Messi and Tiger - the world knew him by a single name. You didn't need to watch NBA basketball to know about Kobe.

The reactions of his peers and contemporaries across social media showed how influential Bryant was on the modern NBA. In the post-Michael Jordan-era, no player inspired more respect from his fellow professionals. No player got closer to Jordan's relentless competitiveness either.

The 'Mamba Mentality', Bryant's doctrine of hard work, professionalism, attention to detail, toughness (remember him sinking two free throws after snapping his Achilles in April 2013, knowing full well his season was over), a love of what you do that teeters on an obsession, never being satisfied and pushing yourself further and further to get better and better, has - consciously or otherwise - become the code of the modern NBA player.

That wasn't always the case. Wind the clock back 24 years and the teenage Bryant was seen through a very different lens. He struggled to connect with his Lakers team-mates. His ultra-competitive drive and obsession with emulating Michael Jordan's game often saw him cast as a selfish player, an outsider and sometimes even a bit odd.

The high standards he demanded resulted in conflict, most notably with Lakers' team-mate Shaquille O'Neal. Despite the combustibility of the Lakers superstar duo, they still delivered a hat-trick of NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

And it wasn't just a Shaq vs Kobe thing. No Laker was exempt from Bryant's ire if they didn't live up to his standards. In the seasons that followed O'Neal's 2004 trade to the Miami Heat and the Lakers officially becoming 'Kobe's team', his take on leading an under-talented team was often brutally harsh. Role players like Smush Parker and Chris Mihm became targets of savage criticism from Bryant. At one point, he even demanded to be traded away from Lakers.

Off the court, he failed to live up to his own code. In 2003, Bryant was charged with attacking a 19-year-old female employee at a Colorado resort. He had said the two had consensual sex, and the charge was eventually dropped. The woman later filed a civil suit against Bryant that was settled out of court.

Bryant's legacy looks very different if his story ends there but the Lakers' acquisition of Spanish center Pau Gasol in February 2008 triggered a second act. His team were championship contenders once more and Bryant won his sole Most Valuable Player award that season as the Lakers reached the Finals, losing to the Kevin Garnett-led Boston Celtics.

He led the Lakers to back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. Those victories gave him five titles, one less than his idol Jordan but one more than his nemesis O'Neal.

Bryant's participation in the 2008 Beijing Olympics marked another important step in building his legacy. A generation of NBA superstars - LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony - were on that squad and they got to see Bryant's methods up close as Team USA brought home the gold medal.

It is not a coincidence all four players had huge seasons in 2009. James won his first MVP, Wade led the league in scoring. Bosh posted his career-best scoring average and improved on it in 2010. Anthony helped his Denver Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals.

Bryant was an Olympian again in 2012 and the Oklahoma City Thunder's young trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden got their first taste of the 'Mamba Mentality' up close as Team USA took gold in London.

In 2014, Durant told the Los Angeles Daily News about Bryant's influence on him. "He is the greatest of all time. His skill is second to none. Him and MJ are neck and neck as far as skill," Durant said. "Kobe is the top two best ever in just having skill, footwork, shooting the three, shooting the pull-up, posting up, dunking on guys and ball handling. Kobe and Jordan are 1 and 1A."

Durant, Westbrook and Harden all have league MVP awards to their name. Along with James, they are now the superstar statesmen who set the tone and influence the latest generation of young NBA stars like Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Devin Booker. Much of the wisdom they pass on was given to them by Bryant, James and Wade.

Off the court, consider how James and Durant have developed their personal brands outside basketball, particularly in the area of content through founding production companies. Kobe was influential there too.

As Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press noted in his Bryant obituary, the Black Mamba was "as driven in his storytelling life as he was in his playing days. Kobe, Inc. was his world. He wanted to inspire kids through books that combined the worlds of sports and fantasy. He was toying with the idea of taking his stories to Broadway."

Bryant won an Oscar for 'Dear Basketball', a short animated film in 2018 that had been converted from a poem that he penned when he decided it was time to retire from playing the game. His curiosity, creativity and willingness to take risks did not end when he hung up his sneakers.

On Sunday night, Young donned a No 8 jersey in tribute to Bryant and scored 45 points in the Atlanta Hawks' 152-133 victory over the Washington Wizards. Thirteen-year-old Gianna Bryant, who died alongside her father on Sunday, considered Young to be her favourite player.

Speaking after the Hawks win, Young said: "It was a tough day to play basketball, for sure. I went to one his camps when I was in high school. He has always figured out ways of helping young kids learn. We got locked in together (through) my trainer."

Asked what Bryant's Mamba Mentality meant to him, Young said: "It is something that makes you turn up to another level. That is how it resonates with me. It is just a switch that makes you turn it up. Millions of kids around the world, not just me, took that mentality and made it their own."

"(Wearing the No 8 jersey) was something I wanted to do. A lot of things were going through my mind and I wanted to do something to pay homage to a legend."

Almost four years since his final NBA game and almost a decade after his fifth and final NBA title, Bryant's legacy lives on through the play of multiple generations of NBA players.

And it always will.