Column: The evolution of Kobe Bryant from brash youngster to Hall of Famer

Kobe Bryant has a wry smile as he catches his breath during his final game with the Lakers.
Kobe Bryant has a wry smile as he catches his breath during his final game with the Lakers on April 13, 2016.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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The sports world will celebrate the glittering destination.

Few will remember the garbled journey.

Vanessa Bryant will elegantly represent him, Michael Jordan will eloquently present him, and Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett will grandly join him.

Forgotten will be the chaos that long accompanied him.

When Kobe Bryant is posthumously inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday, it will appear as if this hallowed place was where the late Lakers superstar belonged all along.

Yet his greatest accomplishment is in the circuitous route he traveled to get there.

During his 20 years on a Los Angeles basketball court, Bryant wore the same colors, but with wildly varying looks. He was Kobe. He was Bryant. He was Kobe Bean Bryant. He was so many different people at so many different times, changing his looks, changing his number, changing his perception.

He was the splashy teen. He was the selfish kid. He was the budding superstar. He was the raging bore. He was sweet innocence. He was Colorado awful. He ran Shaquille O’Neal out of town. He created his own championships without Shaq. He tore his Achilles. He soared into forever.


His ultimate victory can be found not only in games, but in growth. His induction is a tribute not only to greatness, but to evolution.

Kobe Bryant elevates past Hornets defender Carl Landry for a slam dunk.
Kobe Bryant elevates past Hornets defender Carl Landry for a slam dunk during Game 5 of the 2011 playoffs.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Kobe Bryant wasn’t born in the Hall of Fame, he artistically and nastily and beautifully and rudely beat the damn door down.

What follows is a snapshot of this winding journey, from the Los Angeles Times archives of a columnist who was along for the ride.


It begins with infatuation, his first spring, airballs and all.

May 12, 1997

Say this much for kid Bryant, who brings out the best in teammates despite 13 turnovers and only nine assists in the playoffs.


“I’m having a blast,” he said. “This whole thing is like a dream.”

There. That is what the Lakers need. Somebody who thinks like that.


The infatuation grows old quickly, Bryant trying to do too much, too soon, his second spring showing his age.

April 24, 1998

He wants the ball. He walks to the balcony of his Pacific Palisades home in the middle of the night, stares down at all the lights, dreams of getting the ball.

But he’s not old enough to know what to do with it.

Kobe Bryant soars for a reverse dunk.
Kobe Bryant soars for a reverse dunk during a game against the Timberwolves in 1998.
(Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

You have to love Kobe early, in the air, spinning and soaring and sparking the Lakers on a second-quarter run.

But it is still difficult to love him late, with his potential to spin and soar and spark the ball off the top of the backboard or into the seats.


By his third spring, the disillusionment is growing.

April 23, 1999

So that’s settled. Kobe Bryant’s most acrobatic moves are the ones he causes in our stomachs.

So now we’re totally confused. Is Kobe Bryant a future superstar, or sideshow? Is he about championships, or confusion?

If you watched the Lakers play Tuesday against Golden State, you would think one thing. (Hint: Michael Jordan.)


If you watched them 24 hours later against Portland, you would think another thing. (Hint: Michael Jordan with a baseball bat.)


Then, in his fourth season, he bounces off a sprained ankle to lead the Lakers to the first championship of the Shaq-Kobe era, and all is forgiven.

June 15,2000

INDIANAPOLIS — The kid has us in his clutches now, an entire city locked in his long arms, tucked below that sheepish grin, soaring toward that shiny basket at the far reaches of the imagination.

Kobe Bryant is flying, and Los Angeles is flying with him, our best ride in more than a decade, one final thrust before an NBA title and Los Angeles’ first professional championship since 1988.

VIDEO | 40:42
Kobe Bryant’s path to this weekend’s Hall of Fame induction

Kobe floats, but we’re the ones who are breathless. Kobe spins, but we’re the ones who can’t look.


A year later he is a beloved and dominant superstar.

May 20, 2001

SAN ANTONIO — He joyfully chews his gum. He chillingly shakes his head.

You don’t have a chance, the gesture says. You think you do, but you don’t.

He is the same self-assured, baggy-pants jock who five years ago walked directly from high school to Hollywood’s biggest sports stage.

Only now, Kobe Bryant is actually as good as he thinks he is.


The kid has become The Man.


Then, a year after the Lakers’ third championship, Bryant changes again, grows out of the cute stage, hogs the ball, shows his temper, blasts his arrogance.

March 4, 2002

A sweet kid has grown into a sassy young adult. The smooth guy has become a tough guy. Over his designer silk game, he has draped a crusty leather jacket.

Wonder Boy has sometimes become Wonder-What-On -Earth-Is-He-Thinking Boy.


Then, the next year, he is charged with rape, charges that were eventually dropped but never forgotten.


June 19, 2003

Kobe Bryant will never look quite the same.

His reputation is in pieces. His future is in doubt. His believers can no longer be in denial.

Those of us who naively thought we knew Los Angeles’ leading sports hero were reminded that those living on distant pedestals can never be known.

Those angry with Bryant for fooling us should realize that we were only fooling ourselves.

Said Bryant: “I’m innocent. I didn’t force her to do anything against her will. I’m innocent.”

Kobe Bryant and his wife Vanessa at a news in 2003 to discuss the allegations against him in Eagle, Colo.
(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)

Innocent of the crime until proven otherwise.

Innocence lost, forever.


By Bryant’s eighth year, his relationship with O’Neal is also lost forever.

June 13,2004

Ask one Laker about another Laker, and the conversation is brief and goes something like this:

Bryant on O’Neal: “We’re not worried about getting him more touches, we’re worried about winning the game.”


O’Neal on Bryant: “We are just relying on the jumper a little too much.”

Am not.

Am too.

Shut up, both of you….

Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal celebrate.
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal celebrate during an Easter Day game in 2001.
(Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles Times)

Even if they win the championship, does anybody really think O’Neal and Bryant can still play together? With O’Neal aging and Bryant reaching his prime, it no longer works.



Shortly after the end of the 2004 season, after the Lakers’ stunning loss to Detroit in the Finals, O’Neal is traded, coach Phil Jackson retires and Bryant takes the heat for getting rid of both.

July 16, 2004

So, yeah, Bryant may not have personally shoved Jackson or O’Neal out the door.

But he never lifted a finger to stop their departures. And the minute they were both officially gone, he became a Laker again.

Sounds like an endorsement to me.


Just when Bryant’s reputation appears to be in irreparable tatters, he pulls off another resurrection. Two seasons after he takes control of the team, Bryant proves again he is good enough to leap even the most massive of potholes.


Jan. 8, 2006

He’s cost his team games by being suspended, cost them games by being wild, cost them credibility simply by being Kobe.

But, goodness, he’s fun. And gracious, he’s good….

Maybe everyone needs to just shut up and clap.


But then, at the height of his personal comeback, he demands to be traded, and it’s Bad Kobe again.

June 20, 2007


When are you finally going to get it?

When are you Lakers fans finally going to realize that Kobe Bryant doesn’t like you nearly as much as you like him?

When are you going to get it into your painfully loyal souls that Bryant has taken everything you believe about him, casually wadded it up and tossed it on the floor as he heads out of town?

Kobe Bryant drives to the basket against the Nuggets.
Kobe Bryant drives to the basket against the Nuggets during the 2008 playoffs.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

You’re not his soul mate, you’re his sweat towel.

He has trivialized your loyalty, toyed with your faith and trampled on your tradition.

And still you beg the Lakers not to trade him?

When are you finally going to get it?


Of course, Bryant ultimately triumphs over his critics again, using the trade demand as leverage to force the team to acquire Pau Gasol and become contenders again. He celebrates this personal victory by playing like an embracing and empowering leader in being named the 2007-2008 MVP.

May 7, 2008


Kobe Bryant had just accepted the most meaningful, coveted most-valuable-player award of any sport, gripping it tight amid a hotel ballroom teeming with legends and love.

But I had to ask him.

Now that he is basketball’s official king of unselfishness, does he regret those times last spring when he was so selfish?

Now that he is basketball’s official portrait of teamwork, does he regret those summer days when he was the Lakers’ worst teammate?

“No,” he said, staring coldly. “I was right the whole time.”

He paused. The room fell silent.


“I’m joking!” he said suddenly with a laugh, and, filled with great and obvious relief, everyone laughed with him.

Maybe he was joking. Maybe he wasn’t. The only thing certain is that those five seconds symbolized a dozen years.


A year later, he leads the Lakers to a championship over the Orlando Magic in a victory that is deeply personal.

June 15, 2009

Bryant, the Finals MVP, becomes possibly the most unburdened player in NBA history as he finally wins a title without former teammate and nemesis Shaquille O’Neal, who had earlier won one without Bryant.

“I just don’t have to hear that criticism, that idiotic criticism, anymore,” said Bryant, who ended a week of growling intensity by literally gnawing at his fingernails in anticipation of Sunday’s final horn.

Kobe Bryant celebrates after the Lakers clinched the 2009 title in Orlando.
Kobe Bryant celebrates with teammates Paul Gasol and Trevor Ariza after the Lakers clinched the 2009 NBA title in Orlando.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Sitting with a Moet-soaked T-shirt in the interview room underneath Amway Arena, Bryant shook his head, grinning and chuckling, the taut and tough leader finally admitting that the Shaq rap ripped him.

“It was like Chinese water torture . . . it was just annoying . . . I would cringe every time,” he said. “I was just like, it’s a challenge I’m just going to have to accept because there’s no way I’m going to argue it.”

A year later he experiences his greatest basketball triumph, leading the Lakers to a championship over the hated Boston Celtics. Perhaps his most revealing moment in that series comes as his battered body limps to the team bus with Lakers trailing three games to two.

June 13, 2010

As Kobe Bryant emerged from another terse interview in another uncomfortable interview room Saturday, I followed him down a TD Garden hallway.

“What’s wrong with you?” I said. “You’ve been acting strange the entire Finals. You look hurt. You look like you’re not having any fun. And you look like you can’t close games.”


“You know me better than to ask me those questions,” he said.

“Is your knee bothering you again?”

“I swear, my knee is fine.”

“So what’s happening to you in the fourth quarter?”

“Haven’t you seen them guarding me with four people?”…

“Are you sure you’re not wiped out?”


Bryant stopped, turned to me, eyes suddenly bright, smile suddenly peeking out from underneath a 2-week-old mask.

“They think I can’t do this for two more wins?”

Then he laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

Kobe Bryant celebrates the Lakers' Game 7 victory over the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)


His championship legacy intact, Bryant spends the next three seasons cementing his leadership legacy.

April 27, 2012


After 16 years, I thought it was impossible to be startled by anything Kobe Bryant did with a basketball.

Until Thursday, when he gave it up.

He could have soared, yet decided to sit. He could have made individual history, yet decided to focus on a team championship. He could have played the star, yet decided to be the leader.

Needing to score 38 points in a meaningless season finale against the Sacramento Kings on Thursday night to win his third scoring title, Bryant instead decided to rest for the upcoming postseason…

On a night when much of Los Angeles thought he might take 100 shots, he decided to take zero.


Then, just when it seemed like he had finally outgrown his professional frailties and become the complete player and one of the best in basketball history, the Achilles’ tendon snapped.


April 13, 2013

He carried the Lakers for as long as his weary body could carry them, a relentless giant among underachieving mortals.

But, finally, in the last lap of his most difficult season, bearing the burden of a franchise in chaos, Kobe Bryant has finally crumbled.

In the final minutes of the Lakers 118-116 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Friday, after earlier falling to the floor twice with apparent knee injuries, Bryant suffered a probable torn left Achilles’ tendon that should end his season and perhaps his Lakers career.

Kobe Bryant writhes in pain after suffering a torn Achilles tendon during a game against the Warriors.
Kobe Bryant writhes in pain after suffering a torn Achilles tendon during a game against the Golden State Warriors on April 12, 2013.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)


After spending the next three seasons in recovery purgatory, Kobe Bryant appropriately ended his career with the thrill ride of a lifetime in a 60-point finale against the Utah Jazz.


The growth was done. The evolution was complete. The Hall of Fame was waiting.

April 14, 2016

He didn’t walk away, he flew away, on the wings of legend, through the clouds of Hollywood, with a final act unmatched in Los Angeles sports history.

In a retirement party for the ages Wednesday night, Kobe Bryant just wouldn’t quit.

He shot. He shot some more. He kept shooting. Shots from the courtside seats, from underneath the basket, on wild drives, off crazy dribbles, back to the basket, feet in the air, hands in his face, shooting forever….

“I gave my soul to this game,” an exhausted Bryant said afterward. “There’s nothing else I can give.”