From NBA Star to Devoted Family Man: Kobe Bryant's Life in Photos
The legendary basketball star, born Aug. 23, 1978, died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020
Kobe Bryant (here in a throwback photo with big sister Shaya, one of his two siblings) was born in Philadelphia on Aug. 23, 1978, to mom Pamela Cox Bryant and father Joe Bryant, a former NBA player, who played for the Philadelphia 76ers, the San Diego Clippers and the Houston Rockets. He spent much of his childhood in Italy, where his father moved the family after he retired from the NBA and began playing abroad, and moved back to the U.S. in 1991.
Before entering the NBA Draft as a teen, the high school senior brought a very special date to his prom: singer Brandy.
A standout athlete as a teen at Lower Merion High School, Bryant decided to enter the NBA straight out of 12th grade. He was the 13th overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, by the Charlotte Hornets, who traded his draft rights to the Los Angeles Lakers in a prior agreement.
Bryant became the youngest person to ever play in an NBA game when he began in 1996, at 18 years, 2 months and 11 days. And by 1998, he was the youngest starter ever in an NBA All-Star Game.
In 1999, a 21-year-old Bryant met 17-year-old Vanessa Laine. The two became engaged six months later and married on April 18, 2001, in Dana Point, California. In 2003, they welcomed their first child, daughter Natalia, followed by Gianna in 2006.
In December 2011, Vanessa filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences, but 13 months later, the pair announced they'd reconciled.
Bryant and teammate Shaquille O'Neal — who often had a contentious relationship — helped lead the Lakers to three consecutive NBA Championships from 2000 to 2002.
In 2003, Bryant made headlines off the court when he was accused of sexual assault by a 19-year-old hotel employee. Bryant admitted to an adulterous sexual encounter with the accuser but maintained that it was consensual. The charges were eventually dropped and a civil suit was settled out of court.
Coach Phil Jackson — fresh off his championship run with the Chicago Bulls — was an instrumental part of Bryant's career and legacy with the Lakers, coaching him to his first three titles with the team. Jackson left the team in the 2004 off-season and wrote a book about his time there, calling Bryant "uncoachable."
In 2005, Jackson returned, and addressed his comments in a chat with ESPN.
"When I came back for my second stint with the Lakers, Kobe and I worked it all out," he said. "I gave him more of a license to do his thing, as long as it stayed within the overall context of the triangle. And we did win two more championships. Anyway, I've always seen Kobe as a truly great player, an intelligent guy and a remarkable person."
After winning the league's Most Valuable Player honors in 2008, Bryant, Jackson and the Lakers went on to win two more Championships, in 2009 and 2010. "You know, I just wanted it so bad," Bryant told reporters after the game. "I wanted it so, so bad."
Abroad, Bryant won two gold medals for Team USA, at the 2012 London games (pictured) and 2008 Beijing games.
Following a string of injury-plagued seasons, Bryant announced via a poem on The Players' Tribune on Nov. 29, 2015, that he was leaving the NBA after 20 seasons.
"Dear Basketball," he wrote. "From the moment I started rolling my dad's tube socks and shooting imaginary game-winning shots in the Great Western Forum I knew one thing was real: I fell in love with you."
It continued: "But I can't love you obsessively for much longer. This season is all I have left to give. My heart can take the pounding. My mind can handle the grind. But my body knows it's time to say goodbye. And that's OK. I'm ready to let you go."
After his retirement, Bryant and Vanessa welcomed two more daughters: Bianka in 2016 and Capri in 2019.
In the months following his retirement, Bryant was honored everywhere, including with the Legend Award at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Sports Awards in July 2016.
He also earned the Icon Award at the 2016 ESPYs, along with Abby Wambach and Peyton Manning.
"We're up here because of 4 a.m. We're up here because of two-a-days or five-a-days. We're up here because we had a dream and let nothing stand in our way," he said during his speech. "If anything tried to bring us down, we used it to make us stronger."
"I believe that there's time for resting at the end, but for me that time is not now," Bryant continued. "Thank you for this tremendous honor and honoring my basketball career, but I'm far from done. My next dream is to be honored one day for inspiring the next generation of athletes to have a dream, sacrifice for it and never, ever rest in the middle."
In 2018, Bryant won his first-ever Oscar for his film Dear Basketball, an animated short based on his Players' Tribune poem.
"I don't know if [the impossible is] possible," Bryant said in his speech. "I mean, as basketball players, we are really supposed to shut up and dribble. But I am glad we do a little bit more than that."
On Dec. 18, 2017, the Lakers retired Bryant's two numbers, 8 and 24 (he switched to 24, his high school number, in 2006). It was an emotional night for the star, who was honored by fellow players and his family.
In his speech, he addressed his girls and their futures.
"You guys know that if you do the work, you work hard enough, dreams come true. You know that, we all know that. But hopefully what you get from tonight is that those times when you get up early and you work hard; those times when you stay up late and you work hard; those times when don't feel like working — you're too tired, you don't want to push yourself — but you do it anyway. That is actually the dream. That's the dream. It's not the destination, it's the journey. And if you guys can understand that, what you'll see happen is that you won't accomplish your dreams, your dreams won't come true, something greater will. And if you guys can understand that, then I'm doing my job as a father."
On Jan. 26, 2020, PEOPLE confirmed Bryant, 41, died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. His daughter Gianna, 13, was also killed. Celebrities and players from around the world remembered the star, with many crediting him for their careers. He is survived by Vanessa and their daughters Natalia, Bianka and Capri.