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Kobe Bryant’s devotion to family became paramount when his basketball career ended

Kobe Bryant poses with his family after getting his jerseys retired before a game between the Lakers and the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on Dec. 18, 2017.
Kobe Bryant poses with his family after getting his jerseys retired before a game between the Lakers and the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on Dec. 18, 2017.
(Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

It was December 2017, more than a year after Kobe Bryant had retired from basketball, and the Lakers great was expounding upon a fundamental truth of parenthood. Having spent much of his NBA career on the road, traveling from city to city, he talked about a new job, shuttling his daughters around Newport Coast.

“A lot of driving in a three-to-five mile radius,” he said. “Now, to have that, it’s absolutely wonderful. The time we spend in the car.”

Bryant’s life, which ended in a helicopter crash Sunday, might have seemed all big-time sports and celebrity from the outside, but there was something more basic at its core.

The world first knew him as the son of a former NBA player, a teenager who brought his parents along to Los Angeles when he joined the Lakers. Fans watched his whirlwind romance and marriage to Vanessa, an Orange County teenager he met on a rap video shoot.

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Theirs was a romance made of such commonplace things as going to the movies and Starbucks, and him learning to play “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano for her.

Kobe Bryant will be remembered for his NBA achievements, but was also a rare sports dad who encouraged his daughter Gianna to claim his legacy.

But not many families must deal with immense fame and overnight wealth. Not many have their laundry aired in public, a constant fodder for headlines. So the relationships with his parents and wife had good times and bad, enduring a sexual assault charge in 2003. There were rifts and reconciliations.

In recent years, Bryant transitioned to the less-sensational role of doting father, often seen in public with his four daughters, including 13-year-old Gianna, who also died in the accident. Only a few weeks ago, former teammate Robert Horry ran into them at a youth basketball tournament.

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“Kobe was just a happy guy,” Horry said. “He was so excited to be there.”

For all the glitz that swirled around Bryant, family was an essential part of his story.

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His parents had to cosign that first Lakers contract, a $3.5-million deal over three years, because Bryant was a few months shy of 18 when he arrived in Los Angeles, too young to sign for himself.

In those early days, much was made of his lineage, the fact that father Joe “Jellybean” Bryant had played eight years in the NBA and had moved the family overseas while he played for a time in Italy.

People said Kobe had basketball in his blood.

The Lakers rookie used some of his newfound wealth to buy cars for everyone in the family. His father, mother Pam, and sisters Sharia and Shaya moved into his large home in Pacific Palisades.

“We weren’t just going to let him come out here by himself,” Joe told Times columnist Bill Plaschke early in 2003.

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Former Laker Kobe Bryant sits courtside with his family before a jersey retirement ceremony on Dec. 18, 2017.
Former Laker Kobe Bryant sits courtside with his family before a jersey retirement ceremony on Dec. 18, 2017.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Three years passed before his parents finally got their own place. A quarter of a mile away.

“My family was always there for me,” Bryant said around that time. “I love them for that.”

An emerging superstar in the league, Bryant was maturing into a young man, his every move watched by the world. When word spread that the 21-year-old was dating a senior at Marina High, news crews descended upon the Huntington Beach campus; people wanted a glimpse of the mysterious fiancee Bryant referred to as “my star.”

By all appearances, he was smitten with Vanessa Laine, sending roses to the school office and picking her up after classes. The couple announced their engagement around the time of her 18th birthday and were married at a Catholic church in April 2001.

But the fairy tale romance was more complicated than it might have appeared. Bryant’s life was changing. He said: “It’s right there in the Bible. When you get married, your mother and father and sisters are no longer the priority.”

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His love for Vanessa was obvious. He provided security for her during games, rarely discussed her in public and once made a hurried visit home during a trip when she fell ill.

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“It’s an amazing relationship,” he said. “We’re like best friends. We just happen to be totally in love with each other.”

Behind the scenes, their romance opened a rift between Bryant and his family.

His parents did not come to the wedding or visit the couple’s new home. When Lower Merion (Pa.) High retired Bryant’s jersey in 2002, Joe and Pam sat in one section of the stands, Vanessa in another.

The reason for the tension? Bryant said his father felt uneasy about his devotion to Vanessa and did not like that she was Latina. Joe said: “Once he decided to get married, it’s his life now.”

A fan started a petition to honor Kobe Bryant by altering the NBA logo to feature the late Lakers star. More than 2 million people have signed it.

After the Lakers won the 2001 NBA championship in Philadelphia, Bryant was spotted standing in the locker room shower, clutching the trophy and crying. People guessed he was overcome by a long season that included in-fighting with teammate Shaquille O’Neal and coach Phil Jackson.

In truth, he was crying over his father.

“It’s about having somebody to go to the ballgame with, it’s about having somebody to hang out with,” he said later. “That’s what I miss.”

In January 2003, Bryant and Vanessa had their first child, named Natalia Diamante, and the athlete who called himself “Black Mamba” after an assassin in the movie “Kill Bill” faced a new challenge.

“There’s a fine balance between obsessing about your craft and being there for your family,” he wrote in his 2018 book “The Mamba Mentality.” “It’s akin to walking a tightrope. Your legs are shaky and you’re trying to find your center. Whenever you lean too far in one direction, you correct your course and end up over-leaning the other direction ... that’s the dance.”

Shortly after Natalia’s birth, Bryant and his parents moved toward a truce. Plans were made for the grandparents to meet their granddaughter.

“Sure, I hope we can get back together,” Bryant said of his father. “When the time is right, if he wants to come and sit down and discuss things, we can do that.”

Then, in July 2003, Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault.

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The star player had traveled to Colorado for knee surgery when he allegedly raped a 19-year-old hotel employee in his room. He insisted the sex was consensual and worried about the fallout.

“If it becomes public,” he told authorities, “I’ll lose my wife.”

A charge was brought and he held a news conference in Staples Center with Vanessa by his side.

“I sit here in front of you guys furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making the mistake of adultery,” he said. “I loved my wife with all my heart. She’s my backbone.”

The case would stretch for more than a year, marked by evidentiary problems and bungles by prosecutors and the court that included the release of sealed transcripts to the media. The accuser, whose name was mistakenly made public, began to lose faith.

Kobe Bryant exits the court with wife Vanessa and daughter Natalia after scoring 81 points
Kobe Bryant exits the court with wife Vanessa and daughter Natalia after scoring 81 points
(Noah Graham / NBAE / Getty Images)

Eventually, she decided not to testify in the criminal case and the charge was dropped. In March 2005, Bryant and his accuser reached an undisclosed settlement in civil court.

Amid the turmoil, Bryant had bought Vanessa an eight-carat purple diamond ring worth an estimated $4 million. The couple had a second daughter, Gianna, in 2006.

Theirs was not the first marriage to hit a rough patch. And it wasn’t just Bryant who faced criticism.

Vanessa had become a somewhat polarizing figure who was parodied on “Saturday Night Live” and got into a squabble with then-Laker Karl Malone.

In December 2011, after 10 years together, Vanessa filed for divorce in Orange County Superior Court. There was talk of resolving the dissolution in private, but it wasn’t too much later that rumors of a reconciliation began to percolate.

In January 2013, the couple made it official by way of social media.

“We are looking forward to our future together,” she posted on Instagram.

He wrote on Facebook that “when the show ends and the music stops, the journey is made beautiful by having that someone to share it with.”

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His family troubles were not completely over.

In 2013, Bryant clashed with his parents again as Pam tried to place some of his memorabilia, including a high school uniform and a signed basketball from the 2000 NBA All-Star game, for auction.

The dispute landed in court before the sides reached a confidential settlement. The parents issued a statement that read, in part, “We apologize for any misunderstanding and pain we have caused our son and appreciate the financial support he has provided over the years.”

Once again there were hints of a reunion, with Bryant telling HBO’s “Real Sports”: “The relationship with family is extremely important, but you also can’t force things.”

Meanwhile, the retired superstar showed all the symptoms of settling comfortably, happily into domestic life. A third daughter, Bianka, was born in 2016 and a fourth, Capri, last year.

Chris Sacca, a billionaire investor who served as his business mentor, recalls a pattern to their telephone conversations.

Among the impediments as investigators seek to determine the cause of the crash are the wide debris field and the lack of a black box recording.

“When we spoke, it was almost always during hours when his kids and mine were in bed already,” Sacca said in an email. “The priority for him was always being at home in time to be with them.”

Former teammate Horry saw the roots of this change far back, about the time one of his sons and Natalia were born. He mentioned that when the kids got older, maybe they might date.

“Nah,” he recalled Bryant saying with a frown, “my daughter is never dating anybody.”

It became a running gag over time, Horry teasing the protective father. Recently, he saw the edges begin to soften around a man who had been so fiercely competitive during his NBA career.

“It was two different dudes,” Horry said. “He was in another chapter of his life.”

Over the last few days, much has been written about Gianna drawing her dad back into basketball. She wanted to learn the game, asking him: “Can you teach me?”

Bryant began coaching her youth teams, installing the same fundamentals and triangle offense he had gleaned from his Lakers days playing for Jackson and the late Tex Winter. In 2017, he posted video of “Gigi” shooting a basketball, comparing her technique to that of WNBA star Diana Taurasi.

Father and daughter became a frequent sight on television, the cameras showing them courtside at pro and college games. As a youth coach, Bryant was known to be calm, never jumping up to yell or complain about calls.

“At that point you become so attached to the kids,” he said. “It’s been wonderful.”

On Sunday, he and Gianna were flying with seven others, traveling on a foggy morning from their Orange County home to the Mamba Sports Academy, an upscale gym he owned in Thousand Oaks.

There was a tournament scheduled, with boys’ and girls’ travel teams playing. It was much like the event three weeks earlier when Horry, who has a son playing, ran into Bryant outside the restroom.

Long gone were their days as NBA stars, earning millions of dollars, performing before raucous arenas. They had stepped out of the spotlight into something completely different.

“He was excited to coach his daughter’s game and that’s what it all boils down to,” Horry said. “When we get done playing, the reality is, our kids are the most important thing in the world.”

Times writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.

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