Making Kobe Bryant - A 17 year-old Kobe Bryant smiles while holding up a Lakers uniform sporting his last name.
AP Photo/Susan Sterner
Making Kobe Bryant - A 17 year-old Kobe Bryant smiles while holding up a Lakers uniform sporting his last name.
AP Photo/Susan Sterner

Kobe Bryant will go down in history as one of the NBA’s greatest players. Born into a basketball family, he was immersed in the game from his earliest moments. At age 17, Bryant became one of the few players to skip college and go pro. He’s a man whose story includes a spectacular rise, a public fall from grace, and a premature, tragic ending following a helicopter crash in early 2020.

On this episode of Making, we look at the whole picture of Kobe Bean Bryant. Join Making host Brandon Pope for a conversation about Bryant’s origin story with his high school basketball coach Gregg Downer and Bryant biographer Mike Sielski. Then, Pope leads a conversation on the complex second half of Bryant’s life, with ESPN senior writer David Dennis Jr. and former sports radio host, attorney and author Julie DiCaro.

This season of Making covers a different, iconic figure every week. Subscribe and don’t miss an episode.

Making Kobe Bryant - A 17 year-old Kobe Bryant smiles while holding up a Lakers uniform sporting his last name.
AP Photo/Susan Sterner
Making Kobe Bryant - A 17 year-old Kobe Bryant smiles while holding up a Lakers uniform sporting his last name.
AP Photo/Susan Sterner

Kobe Bryant will go down in history as one of the NBA’s greatest players. Born into a basketball family, he was immersed in the game from his earliest moments. At age 17, Bryant became one of the few players to skip college and go pro. He’s a man whose story includes a spectacular rise, a public fall from grace, and a premature, tragic ending following a helicopter crash in early 2020.

On this episode of Making, we look at the whole picture of Kobe Bean Bryant. Join Making host Brandon Pope for a conversation about Bryant’s origin story with his high school basketball coach Gregg Downer and Bryant biographer Mike Sielski. Then, Pope leads a conversation on the complex second half of Bryant’s life, with ESPN senior writer David Dennis Jr. and former sports radio host, attorney and author Julie DiCaro.

This season of Making covers a different, iconic figure every week. Subscribe and don’t miss an episode.

ARCHIVE: Bryant goes to work, Bryant with the drive. OH! KOBE BRYANT WITH THE RACK ATTACK.

Brandon Pope: He’s an 18-time all-star …

ARCHIVE: Oh my goodness. Kobe Bryant with Pietras all over him.

Brandon Pope: A 2-time gold medalist…

ARCHIVE: Kobe’s got it, above the three point line, taking a little time, one dribble, pull up for the win, HE’S GOT IT! 

Brandon Pope: A 5-time NBA champion, 

ARCHIVE: Kobe around him, Kobe down the middle, DUNKS IT HOME!

Brandon Pope: And a 2-time finals MVP.

MUSIC - Hip Hop Carousel

ARCHIVE: Bryant for the win! BANG!! He is hard to believe!

Brandon Pope: He had a public fall from grace in 2003.

ARCHIVE NEWS TAPE: … to determine whether there's enough evidence to prove Kobe Bryant on trial for sexual assault … 

Brandon Pope: A fall he rebounded from, until his life was tragically cut short in 2020.

ARCHIVE NEWS TAPE: NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, 41 years of age, was killed in a helicopter crash. 

Brandon Pope: From WBEZ Chicago, this is Making Kobe. 

ARCHIVE: I love you forever and always, Kobe Bean Bryant.

Brandon Pope: Today, the whole picture of Kobe Bryant, featuring Kobe biographer Mike Sielski, and Kobe’s high school basketball coach, Gregg Downer.

Gregg Downer: To me he was my Superman. And it might sound corny but Superman is not supposed to die.

Brandon Pope: And then later, author and former sports radio host Julie DiCaro and ESPN writer and commentator David Dennis Jr.

David Dennis Jr.: We have the story that has never quite gotten the cultural reckoning that it should…

Brandon Pope: What made Kobe Bryant, Kobe Bryant? Today, on Making.

ARCHIVE: Number 24, the black mamba, Kobe Bryant!


Brandon Pope: This is making Kobe Bryant. I'm Brandon Pope. Today, I'm joined by a few folks who can speak to the early life of Kobe. First we’ve got Gregg Downer, Kobe's high school basketball coach at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, where he still coaches and teaches to this day, Greg, thanks for being here.

Gregg Downer: No problem. Thanks for having me.

Brandon Pope: How long would you reckon you've been coaching?

Gregg Downer: This is going to be my 33rd year with the aces.

Brandon Pope: Man, quite a storied career. We appreciate you spending some time. We also got Mike Sielski, a journalist with the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of the biography The Rise: Kobe Bryant and The Pursuit of Immortality. Thanks for being here, Mike.

Mike Sielski: It's my pleasure, Brandon. Thank you for having me.

Brandon Pope: You know, Mike, I'm wondering what the first word that comes to your mind when you think about Kobe Bryant.

Mike Sielski: I think driven. I think that was the biggest revelation to me in researching and writing the book, the degree to which he pushed himself and the lengths that he was willing to go to be the best basketball player on the planet. I think, of course, that was always his reputation. But it still surprised me how far he was willing to push himself to be that great.

Brandon Pope: Kobe Bryant was immediately immersed in the game of basketball from the earliest moments of his life.


ARCHIVE: Jam by Joe Bryant over Callwell Jones. It’s the Joe Bryant show here in the fourth quarter.

Brandon Pope: His father was Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a basketball journeyman.

ARCHIVE: Nice move by Jellybean!

Brandon Pope: Kobe grew up courtside at his father’s home games in places like Philadelphia, San Diego and Houston.

ARCHIVE: Nice move by Bryant! He works every second he’s out there.

Brandon Pope: It was after a somewhat spotty 8-year NBA career that Joe Bryant quit the NBA and joined a league in Italy. He took his family with him – a turning point for his 6-year-old son.


ARCHIVE KOBE: We packed our bags and moved to Italy.

ARCHIVE KOBE: I started first grade over there. In an Italian school.

Brandon Pope: Kobe became fluent in Italian …


ARCHIVE KOBE: Italy became my home. My heart is there. It will always be there.

Brandon Pope: And with his dad now playing only once a week, they spent a lot more time together. 


Brandon Pope: Joe showed Kobe tapes of NBA games.

ARCHIVE: There’s the spin move by the Magic Man. Chicago just getting it back and there’s Jordan!

Brandon Pope: On the weekends when his father played, Kobe worked as a ball boy and a mop boy. During intermissions, Kobe would practice his shooting. One player called halftime “the Kobe show.”


Brandon Pope: He was a natural athlete with a passion for basketball, an adolescent honing his craft.

Brandon Pope: So we just talked a little bit there about Kobe Bryant's father who played in the NBA for eight seasons. Mike, I'm gonna start with you. How did growing up in NBA arenas and getting to know pro players, just being around the game overall? How did that shaped Kobe's childhood?

Mike Sielski: It's like anything else. I think, Brandon, when you grow up immersed in that kind of environment, you're going to learn by osmosis. You know, Kobe spent a lot of time watching his father play both in the spectrum and Philadelphia, in San Diego when he was, you know, three, four or five, six years old. He would watch his dad's games on TV when Joe was playing with the San Diego clippers, and he would toss a towel over his shoulder and say to his mom, “Mom, I'm sweating just like dad,” and he would mop his brow he was constantly watching, and taking in everything that Joe was experiencing during Joe's career in the NBA. And because he emulated and spent so much time watching veteran NBA players. His grandfather would send him tapes of guys like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Magic Johnson. He would wear goggles when he played pickup games, even though he didn't need them to see because he had seen Kareem Abdul Jabbar wear goggles when he played for the Lakers. And then of course, once Joe went on and played in Italy, Kobe could be on the court with him, you know, amongst these other professional players, who were Joe's teammates and competitors. 

Brandon Pope: Yeah. Mike, let's let's talk about Italy a little bit. And Kobe’s time there. Was it different versus childhood in the United States? How was that for him?

Mike Sielski: Yeah, it was very different. For one thing, you know, the entire Brian family moves to Italy, when Joe decides to continue his professional career there. And they're going to be a bit isolated just for the geographical and cultural distance that they now have from the United States. You know, here they are living in Italy, they don't see a lot of other people, other families who look like them. They're the rare Black family that's living in Italy. And so they become very, very tight knit, And then you have Joe who is now a star as a pro player in Italy. He's reached a level in Europe that he never really reached in the NBA. 

You know, as you describe him, Brandon. He was kind of a journeyman. He played for a lot of different teams. He was the kind of guy who might miss practice missed the bus to practice, you know, a bit of a ne'er do well when he's playing with the NBA. So here he is in Italy. He's a star. And the stars son, who also wants to be a player is there with him at practices and games, and Kobe is dribbling the ball and keeping an eye on Joe's teammates. How are they playing? What is their footwork like? One of the things that if you talk to NBA aficionados and experts about Kobe Bryant, they will tell you that the thing that said Kobe apart from all the other players, not only is his generation, but really of all time is that no player had better footwork. No player could manipulate his feet on the court to get his shot off. Even an unusual kind of acrobatic, how did he do that kind of shot, better than Kobe Bryant. And you can check trace that directly to him being 6, 7, 8 years old, at floor level in Italy, watching the way those players went through their drills and look through their footwork. 

Brandon Pope: Really interesting analysis there. And Greg, I want to bring you in here to kind of get your thoughts on that when you coached Kobe in high school. Did you notice anything in particular that stood out for him and he picked up from Italy?

Gregg Downer: Well, I think a U.S. kid you know is in love with the three point line. I think us kids dribble too much. You know, Allen Iverson was a big example. And Philadelphia is just this amazing raw talent, played a very fancy style. I'm not knocking American basketball. But I've heard that Europeans play a lot of three on three. I hear that Europeans shoot on the appropriate size rims when they're younger. And they may be onto something with some of these things. You know, when I first met Kobe, I found him to be very fundamentally sound. Not a real fancy player. Good shooting form, good dribbling skills, good passing skills. And you know, Joe deserves a lot of credit. You know, if the European experience was 50% of this, I think 50% of this was having a knowledgeable father, and a knowledgeable family surrounding him that could give him the ingredients to be a good player.

Brandon Pope: Sticking with, you know, that relationship with his father there, which is really fascinating. When he moved to Italy, Joe's team played once a week. So Kobe, he had a lot of time with his dad. Mike, how important was that?

Mike Sielski: As Greg just said, it was vitally important. You know, Joe had lived the life that Kobe wanted to live, he could advise him on it. He would bring Kobe on some of his lengthy road trips to these games. As you said, Brandon, they would play once a week, usually on Sundays. And there was one trip in particular where Joe was sitting with a teammate, another American player on the bus. And Kobe as a young boy kind of joked with Joe and his teammate to say, I'm going to be better than both of you guys. And as he kind of went to the front of the bus, Joe turned to the teammate and said, you know, he's, he's going to be better than me, you know. And he framed it in terms of almost like a family prophecy or something like that, that there was a legend that someone in the Bryant family would come along and take the family to new heights that it had never experienced before. And Joe said, it's not going to be me, but it might be this kid.

ARCHIVE KOBE: I didn’t want to come back and my sisters didn’t want to come back.

Brandon Pope: The Bryant family moved back to the U.S. when Kobe was barely a teenager.

ARCHIVE KOBE: It was very hard getting adjusted, simply because I had a lot of trouble understanding English and the slang, but one thing I had in common with some of my other students and classmates was basketball.

Brandon Pope: That’s Kobe at age 17, giving a presentation for his English class and the cameras at ESPN.

ARCHIVE KOBE: So on Fridays and Saturdays I would go in my rec room with my basketball and basically dribble myself to sleep.

Brandon Pope: As high school started, his goal was to win a spot on the McDonald’s All American Team by his senior year. 


Brandon Pope: That meant Kobe had work to do. His freshman year, Kobe was immediately named a starter. The Aces of Lower Merion only won four games. But the losing wouldn’t last. Over Kobe’s next three years, the Aces won 77 games. As a junior, Kobe averaged over 30 points and 10 rebounds a game. He was named Pennsylvania player of the year. 

ARCHIVE STATE TITLE GAME: … From the Hershey park arena, we present high school basketball …

Brandon Pope: And then, as a senior year, Kobe carried the team to the state championship game. 

ARCHIVE STATE TITLE GAME: If you remember Lower Merion’s last championship well then you probably remember pearl harbor.

ARCHIVE STATE TITLE GAME: …the champions out of the east with a record of 30-3 the Aces of Lower Merion featuring the best player many believe in high school basketball, Kobe Bryant. 

Brandon Pope: The Aces opponents knew what they were going to do: put the ball in Kobe’s hands. 

ARCHIVE STATE TITLE GAME: … Kobe Bryant to jump it up against John Trockie and we’re underway …

Brandon Pope: They threw a unique defense at him, and Kobe started the game cold. 

ARCHIVE STATE TITLE GAME: Who woulda thunk it. Kobe Bryant scoreless in the first quarter here tonight …


Brandon Pope: But he adjusted.

ARCHIVE STATE TITLE GAME: Bryant give and go Griffin, oh what a play! He’s gonna step into a 3, missed it, and that’s gonna do it. It’s over. Lower Merion has won!

ARCHIVE KOBE: What is it, 1996? Year of the Aces, what up.

Brandon Pope: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Gotta love those memories. Now, Greg, around this time, you were a fairly new coach, correct? 

Gregg Downer: Yes. 

Brandon Pope: And so the Bryant family moved in town. And you heard rumors about a young basketball phenom while he was still in middle school, so much so that you went to watch one of his middle school games. Can you tell us that story about what that was like for you?

Gregg Downer: Dr. Smith was the coach's name and I was hearing a lot about this person named Kobe. I rarely ever will go down to a junior high game even to this day, but I went to watch him play and the coach was old school and pass it X amount of times where you might find a seat on the bench. Really not a lot of up and down not a lot of transition, not a lot of chances for really anybody to display their skills, let alone Kobe. So I didn't get a great look at him then. But the buzz was high enough that I invited him to practice on a weekend with our current varsity. And he came in there and he stepped into like a one on one drill. And he was just ripping people apart. And, I just turned to one of my assistant coaches and I said this kid is going to be a pro.

Brandon Pope: So you invited Kobe to a high school scrimmage. He was in middle school when this happened, correct?

Gregg Downer: Mhmm.

Brandon Pope: Wow! And he was able to hold his own. 

Gregg Downer: Yeah, I mean, we weren't great back then. But it's rare that a, that a 13-year-old just physically can can stay with A 17 or an 18-year-old and I mean a little bit more about me like I saw his 6’10 father standing in the corner. I knew genetically who he was. I was a kid probably at the age of 12 or 14 that was watching Joe Bryant, watching Darryl Dawkins, watching Lloyd free. Doug Collins, like some of these guys were my idols. But when I patch it together, you know, with who he was genetically, I knew I had something really special

Brandon Pope: At the onset of that high school career. You see this outstanding talent? Did you develop a plan in a sense for Kobe Bryant was it a four year plan? What was your kind of coaching mentality for him?

Gregg Downer: I did, I challenged him. I thought when I first saw him, he was probably amongst 100 other candidates to be really back then what was the most prestigious honor for anybody, a McDonald's All American. And our plan was to try to shave that in half year by year 100 becomes 50. 50 becomes 25. 25 becomes 12. We had a concrete plan, you know, some of these kids will fall off with bad academics, some of these kids will fall off with bad choices. Some of these kids will fall off with lots of talent, bad, bad work ethic. And once I got to know his insane work ethic, and the parents were really good parents, and he was making a lot of good decisions off the court. 100 did become 50, 50 did become 25. He and I followed the plan together and the plan worked and he wasn't McDonald's, all American and the Naismith National Player of the Year.

Brandon Pope: I want to rewind to a key moment in his high school career. It was Kobe, his junior year, the Aces made the playoffs, but they were bounced out. Notably, they lost a game that was tied with 10 seconds left, and the ball was in Kobe's hands. Greg, what happened in that game and what happened afterward?

Gregg Downer: We were at Hazleton, you know a really basketball rich area. 3,000 fans in the stands. 2,900 of them rooting for Hazleton, 100 people traveling from Ardmore rooting for the Aces. You know, I thought worst case scenario, we're going to overtime here. And ideally, you want the best player in the country to obviously take the last shot and we threw the ball to one of our players, to Rick Wilson standing by half court, they weren't even guarding us. And shockingly, he dropped it out of bounds. If he doesn't drop that ball and he pitches it right back to Kobe. Perhaps, it would have been a different outcome. But it turned out to be you know, a really painful learning experience. And in some ways, it paved the way for our for our '96 state title.

Brandon Pope: I'm sure after a game like that, he just, I'm sure it showed how unhappy he was with that.

Gregg Downer: I mean, there were some emotional moments in the locker room. You know, for the seniors, that's that's the last time they're going to wear the uniform and you know, some people are crying. Some people aren't as a coach. You never know emotionally how different kids are going to handle situations like this. So we went around the room and you know, some kids were kind of softly thanking one another. And then, you know, it's time for Kobe to grab the mic. And you know, it was interesting to see what he was going to say. And just a quick goodbye to the current seniors and you know, a little bit of profanity maybe a little bit more than a little bit of profanity. And just told anybody returning in the locker room that there's no way this is going to happen again under his watch, and you better spend the next six to nine months preparing your skills to make sure that none of us have to feel this feeling again.

Brandon Pope: Sounds like a champion to me. Mike, I'm gonna bring you in here. I want to talk about the summer of 1995. Kobe gets invited to a scrimmage against college and NBA players. How did that come to pass?

Mike Seilski: Well, at the time, the 76ers head coach was a guy named John Lucas, who had had a long career in the NBA had coached to coach the San Antonio Spurs, I believe before coming to the Sixers, and he and his family lived in the Lower Merion school district. So one night, Lucas sees Kobe playing in a district playoff game, and thinks to himself, If I'm still the coach of the Sixers in two years, that's who I'm going to draft is Kobe Bryant. So he invites Kobe to join these pickup games and scrimmages. And so Kobe starts going up against guys like Rick Mahorn, and Vernon Maxwell. And of course, the guy who had been the Sixers first round pick the year before Jerry Stackhouse. He's playing against these guys, and pickup games and scrimmages and holding his own, and then some. And that is the pivotal. And I think Greg would agree with this. That is the pivotal summer in a way of his basketball career. Because that persuades him. Yeah, I'm really smart. And I could go to any college in the country that I would want to go to. But you know what, I don't need to go to college, I can jump straight from high school to the NBA. I'm proving it every single day that I'm going up against all these NBA players, these high level college players. And so that that really convinces him, you know what, I'm going to go straight to the league. And that becomes the summer that in some ways changes everything for him.

Brandon Pope: Straight to the league. Straight to the NBA. He even had a press conference about it

ARCHIVE KOBE: I, Kobe Bryant, have decided to take my talents to … (pause for laughter) … No, I’ve decided to skip college and go directly to the NBA.

Brandon Pope: Greg, were you surprised about the decision by Kobe to forego college go straight to the league? Were you supportive of it?

Gregg Downer: I was a little concerned about it, you know. Can, can somebody that young, you know, get a million dollars into their wallet and, and survive the temptations of the adult world. But in all reality, his dream was to get on the court with Jordan as quickly as possible. And I think Mike makes a good point, you know, those scrimmages at the St. Joe's were very revealing. And I think that planted the seed in his head that, you know, maybe he could do this,

Brandon Pope: Mike, at this time, how common was it for a kid out of high school to say, "Hey, I'm just gonna go to the NBA and actually be successful at it."

Mike Seilski: It was not common at all, Brandon. It had happened the year before 1995 when Kevin Garnett had done it, and that was the first time in 20 years. The difference between that situation and Kobe's though, was that Garnett was a seven foot center. He was 18 years old, but he was physically developed to a point already, where teams felt like okay, we're willing to take a chance on this kid. Kobe is Greg, as alluded to, even with all the physical development that had taken place over his four years of Lower Merion was still a six six guard. Not only that, and believe me, Greg is one of the best coaches in Pennsylvania, high school basketball history. But at the time, Lower Merion didn't have the reputation of being a top notch high school program, then that it does now, at the time, people were saying to themselves, who is Kobe Bryant playing against, he's playing against these other suburban Philadelphia schools that aren't really elite level high schools. He doesn't play in the public League of Philadelphia, he doesn't play in the Philadelphia Catholic League. How good can he really be? So I mean, in retrospect, it sounds kind of silly to kind of think of, you know, other analysts and general managers thinking this way about Kobe Bryant, but at the time, only so many People knew how good Kobe really was. There was a lot of skepticism around him, I think.

Brandon Pope: Yeah, when you got interest from places like Duke, I mean, that's one of the greatest what ifs. I feel like in sports. What if Kobe went to Duke, and had a run there, what could have happen? I mean, it's fascinating stuff. But But clearly, he made a decision that was right for him because he gets to the NBA, Greg, he bursts into the NBA. He held his own with these greats. He even won the slam dunk contest his rookie year. Greg, when you saw this early success, how were you feeling as a coach?

Gregg Downer: I mean, I knew that he would ultimately have a lot of success. But I wasn't sure how quickly it would come. And there were a lot of bumps along the road initially with with Del Harris and, and the air balls versus the Utah Jazz.

ARCHIVE NBA PLAYOFFS: Seven seconds, here’s the three pointer, airball again by Kobe Bryant! Another airball! And it’s over! It’s all over!

Gregg Downer: And he just wasn't physically quite ready to play in a man's league. But but his Moxie and his arrogance and his confidence. I knew that would be there. And it just was a matter for me. Like, how long is it going to take for him to figure this out. And once he does look out.

Mike Seilski: One of the things that struck me, Kobe had a friend who was a couple years older than he was, Anthony Gilbert. So Anthony and Kobe would go around to basketball courts and playgrounds in and around Philadelphia, and play ball. Anthony had two jobs when he played with Kobe, number one was to rebound for him. And then the other job that Anthony had was to scream at Kobe, while he Kobe went through all these drills. You're soft, you couldn't play in the public league. You go to a white school. Kobe wanted him to do this because he knew he was going to continue to hear this throughout his career in basketball. And he wanted to kind of don this emotional armor to be prepared for it to get ready to deal with it. There's a famous clip of Kobe's NBA career where he's standing in front of a player named Matt Barnes who was playing for the Orlando Magic at the time.

ARCHIVE: Matt Barnes and Kobe Bryant say hello to each other. 

Mike Seilski: And Barnes is going to inbound the basketball. And Kobe standing there guardian and Barnes fakes as if he's going to throw the ball in Kobe's face. Kobe doesn't flinch. He does not move.

ARCHIVE: You're not gonna get into the head of Kobe Bryant. When you have a pillow flight and somebody fakes a pillow at you don't you at least flinch? Kobe Bryant that's the play of the game. He didn't even flinch.

Mike Seilski: And there's no way he could know that Barnes was going to do that. And yet he does not move. I maintain you can trace a line from that moment, all the way back to those unique basketball games and workouts he was having with Anthony Gilbert that prepared him for a moment like that.

Gregg Downer: Yeah and I didn't get a chance earlier to play that play the one word game, but for this segment, I will. You know, just winner. You know, is there any doubt that he's going to get the redeem team turned around? No. Is there any doubt that he's going to be able to win a couple of rings without Shaq? Now? Is there any doubt that he's going to get the 1995 Aces season? Turn it from kind of like a silver medal to a gold medal? No. There are a handful of winners, you know, Brady, Tiger, Kobe, Derek Jeter, Gretzky, whatever list you want to come up with. But he is the winner of all winners. And he paid a steep price to become that winner. It was not a straight line. There were there were a lot of crooked lines in there. But to me, he was my Superman. And you know, it might sound corny, but Superman is not supposed to die. The shame of it all is that. You know, we lost him, we lost his beautiful daughter who was looking to be a great athlete. And there were many more championships to come for that family.


Brandon Pope: We’ve got more Making Kobe coming up in a minute, but first, thank you to Gregg Downer and Mike Sielski for joining us today. This was an amazing conversation.

Mike Sielski: Thank you Brandon. This was great.

Gregg Downer: Thank you Brandon

Brandon Pope: After the break, a conversation about the complicated legacy of Kobe Bryant with two new guests. Back in a minute.


Brandon Pope: Kobe Bryant exploded into the league.

ARCHIVE: Kobe Bryant, who just last week became the youngest player ever to start an NBA game …

Brandon Pope: There were a few hiccups, a few airballs … but he immediately made an impression.

ARCHIVE: Kobe Bryant is guarded by Michael Jordan, and Bryant with a knockdown three pointer. That’s the future right there, even Jordan will tell you.

Brandon Pope: He won the slam dunk contest his rookie year …

ARCHIVE: Oh between the legs! Kobe Bryant! Check him out! Check him out!

Brandon Pope: And he helped his team reach the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. But it wasn’t until 2000 that Kobe – alongside that year’s unanimous league MVP, Shaquille O’Neal – won their first NBA title.

ARCHIVE: And the Lakers are the 2000 NBA champions!

Brandon Pope: They won it again the next year.

ARCHIVE: Best all time playoff winning percentage in the history of the league.

Brandon Pope: And the year after that.

ARCHIVE: The Los Angeles Lakers have made it three straight NBA championships.

Brandon Pope: Kobe was climbing the NBA mountaintop. Then, a year later, it came crashing down. Kobe was charged with sexual assault in 2003. 

ARCHIVE NEWS TAPE: A preliminary hearing is underway in Colorado to determine whether there's enough evidence to prove Kobe Bryant on trial for sexual assault.

ARCHIVE KOBE: I’m innocent. I didn’t force her to do anything against her will. 

Brandon Pope: Just an amazing rise there for Kobe Bryant. Three NBA championships in three years. But then, for many people, a career overshadowed by what came next. Here to talk about the challenging issues that surround this time in Kobe’s life, I’m joined by Julie DiCaro, former sports radio host, attorney and author of sidelined sports culture and being a woman in America, which came out this year. Julie, good to see you. Thank you for joining us.

Julie Dicaro: Hey Brandon. It's great to see you.

Brandon Pope: Also here with us is David Dennis JR. He's a senior writer at Andscape. That's the ESPN Sports and pop culture website formerly known as the Undefeated he's also the The author of the movement made us a father, a son, and the legacy of a Freedom Ride, which also came out this year. David, thanks for being here.

David Dennis Jr.: Thanks for having me, man.

Brandon Pope: Absolutely. So Julie, I'm going to start with you on this one, Kobe Bryant. He already had, I mean, one of the most successful NBA careers of all time in 2003. And it was shortly after his third championship with the Lakers that he was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman in a Colorado hotel room, a hotel she worked at. And you wrote about this in your book, and the sort of cultural impact of it. Can you just outline for us what happened before the young woman involved here, but also in broader strokes for Kobe Bryant?

Julie Dicaro: Yeah, so back in the, you know, the early 2000s. 2003 I believe. Kobe Bryant was staying at a hotel in Eagle, Colorado, which is near Vail. He was staying at a resort and spa and, you know, had checked in and asked a 19-year-old hotel employee to give him a tour of the hotel. She did. Afterwards, they sat down and talked a little bit in his hotel room. Apparently, there was some consensual kissing. And then what happened after that accounts diverge wildly, She claimed she was sexually assaulted. He claims that everything was consensual. And you know, at the time, it was sort of like a bombshell going off. But at the same time, there was no social media. So you know, we didn't have... We had message boards back then. So we didn't have sort of people talking about it on Twitter, or Instagram, like we would have today or making TikToks about it. 

So in that sense, I think that you know, the only people who really felt what was happening, were following it, what you're getting from the nightly news and reading in the newspaper. You know, wasn't like today where people are sharing articles, and everyone's clicking on it. So, you know, I think that things may have been different if we lived in a different time, or if social media was, you know, something that everybody was involved in back then. But ultimately, what happened was that the woman's name was disseminated in violation of Colorado shield law, rape shield law. Her name went out all over the place on message board, she started getting harassed by fans from all over the country. And she eventually dropped the charges. And they settled, as they say, out of court. Kobe had to issue an apology. And he said in that apology, that he understood that she did not consider that encounter to be consensual. And a year later, he got a huge extension from the Lakers. Nike eventually took him back. And it was sort of just back to business as usual.

Brandon Pope: Julie, can you give us a sense of how common a case like this was? Was? Was this something that had happened in the news before, at least to this level? Give us a little breakdown on that.

Julie Dicaro: Not that I can recall. I mean, that was someone with the stature of Kobe Bryant, I mean, you know, I guess the closest thing we could think of would be Tiger Woods, when that whole situation sort of blew up. But it was huge. And I think people need to realize how rare it is for a sexual assault case to even be charged by prosecutors, especially when there's a very high profile person involved, right? Because they have not only an attorney, but they have a PR team. They have an agent, they have, you know, their sports team behind them. They have the lead behind them all their fans. So there's this wildly disproportionate power imbalance between the accuser and the accused. And I don't know if we'd really seen anything like it before at that time.

Brandon Pope: David, you've written about this. So let's go a little deeper. What was the cultural reaction to the story? Back in 2003?

David Dennis Jr.: I mean, I distinctly remember I was in, I was in high school at the time, and there was a large belief amongst my friends, people in my community, that this was a white woman, taking down a black man. You know, that's what we thought at the time, right? Is that we've heard this story a million times, black men at the peak of his career in Denver, Colorado, right, gets trapped up by this white woman. Right? And that was sort of the narrative again, like Julie was saying. We weren't getting all the details on a daily basis. And I think some of us a lot of us, as young men didn't want to know the details. Right? We just said this is what happened. Kobe, you know, was was wrongfully accused. Free Kobe. Right. And I mean, even at the time, there was where he would go to his court cases, and come back and hit game winners. And it was like this heroic thing that Kobe was doing to persevere through these, these trials and make a shot. Right? And, I mean, that was sort of, I think that that plays into a lot of why he was accepted, you know, back and it wasn't until much later, when I was older and started reckoning with with my relationship to how we talk about these things and treat women that I was able to, you know, have a more nuanced and truthful look at what happened in Denver and Kobe's role in that, and his, you know, quite frankly, just being wrong. You know, and there was I mean, a lot of that came from from some of the me to stuff lie that came from the social media stuff and and it feels like, as a lot of people are grappling way too late with this for the first time, I think especially coming out of him winning an Oscar and thinking about, you know, the Me Too stuff going on in Hollywood. He... He dies, right? And so then it becomes what now we can't talk. We definitely can't talk about it because you're dishonoring the dead and we have the story that has never quite gotten the cultural reckoning that it should, especially in the overall look at how we talk about Kobe’s career.

Brandon Pope: Yeah, David, you hit it right there on the head. I vividly remember Gayle King, the interview she had with Lisa Leslie

ARCHIVE GAYLE KING: It’s been said that his legacy is complicated because of a sexual assault charge which was dismissed in 2003, 2004. Is that complicated for you as a WNBA player? [It’s not complicated for me at all]

Brandon Pope: And all the vitriol and pushback, Gayle King got, you know, from Snoop Dogg, people like that. 

ARCHIVE SNOOP DOGG: Gayle King, out of pocket for that. Way out of pocket. What do you gain for that?

Brandon Pope: David, why was this such a common sentiment that you know what, let's not talk about this. Let's, let's stay away from this discussion.

David Dennis Jr.: I mean, it's uncomfortable, if some, I mean, I was teaching at Morehouse at the time, which is, you know, all male, you know, HBCU and I mean, these kids had, like Kobe had been there their entire lives, right. And there was so much, you know, mythmaking when it mythmaking, but just legend around Kobe, and you know, Mamba mentality, which, ironically, it sort of came out of this, quote, unquote, perseverance of him, you know, getting over this case. And, you know, there was so much about him as a winner, as a champion. And then even later, as a father, as somebody was supporting the WNBA. And this case, complicates all that stuff in a way that makes people just, it just makes it all yucky. You know, it makes it all, all, not as cut and dry as we'd want to say, because we just really want like, I would love to be here talking to you guys for 30 minutes about Kobe Bryant winning championships and the documentary on Netflix like that's the comfortable conversation to have. But this just makes it more icky in a way that a way that a lot of people just don’t want to deal with. And of course, on top of that, is the long history of this country and its treatment of black men, especially black men in relationship to white woman that converges intersects with the story, and in a very nasty way also.

Brandon Pope: Yeah, that racial subtext is really fascinating. Julie, Kobe released a statement after the criminal charges were dismissed, I'm going to read it here. He said in part, although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not, and does not view this incident the same way I did. After a month of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter. Julie, what do you hear there in Kobe's words?

Julie Dicaro: Well, I think it's as close to an admission as we've ever gotten from an athlete, right? I mean, you know, it, you have to have consent from both parties in a sexual case, right? Or when sexual intercourse or you know, whatever, so it's both parties have to turn their keys on the submarine. So, um, you know, I think it's a really extraordinary statement. And, you know, I think there needs to be room for, for young men to learn different things about consent and to grow and to mature in that sense. And I think that we're seeing a little bit of that from Kobe and that statement, although I think it's probably heavily vetted by lawyers, and there were other people involved in writing it, but I think it was a really extraordinary thing to put out there. 

And, you know, when I, whenever Kobe comes up online, you immediately get attacked by all these young men and women who say, she was proven to be a liar in court, the charges against Kobe were dropped. He was found innocent, and that's become the narrative now is that you know, that this was thrown out of court because the judge decided that she was a liar, and the whole thing ended. And that's, that's not what happened. And I think that the statement sort of speaks for itself in terms of, you know, how he felt about it afterwards. You know, I appreciated Kobe's support at the WNBA, his support of young women's sports, the whole girl dad thing, you know. I mean, those are all great positive things. I'm not sure that those are things that make up for, you know, having committed sexual assault if that is indeed what happened. And I think from that statement, it seems that that's probably more likely than not. Um, you know, I, I loved Kobe Bryant too, you know, I didn't. And you know, Brandon, you and I are in Chicagoland, like, we're aware of Emmett Till. I mean, white women are aware of the history, white women have accusing black men as well. And so it is really uncomfortable to talk about and, you know, in there are all those racial tensions as well that factor into this as well as just tensions between men and women. Yeah, I don't really know. I mean, that that statement, I think, like I said, we I don't think we've had anything like it from from anyone else, celebrity, who's who's been accused of this kind of thing. It's just kind of amazing to me that when there is a statement that is so rare, that the narrative has still become, you know, this case got thrown out of court because the judge determined she was a liar. And I think that's really kind of disturbing.

Brandon Pope: Yeah, I think I think the tough part is when you know, we're talking about Kobe’s legacy here, we want to talk about the entire picture, right? So I guess the big question is, how do you hold all of these things? In the same hand? Right? You know, Julie, how do you reckon that? Are you able to, you know, see the life as you know, not black, not white, but just kind of gray, and you think it should be just revealed as is.

Julie Dicaro: I think I'm getting closer to that. I mean, full disclosure, I'm a sexual assault survivor, myself. I know. So I, you know, I tend to identify with a victim or a person who's saying they were assaulted, I know what that's like. And I know what that terror is like. But I've really come to understand that you know, no matter what you do in your life, you are more than the sum of your your worst deed, to a lot of people. And I know that he meant a lot to a lot of people. And I tried to sort of keep that side you know, close whenever I think of that, whenever I think of his case, but at the time it happened it was wait for the facts to come out. We don't know anything. Well rarely do we get trials, like in the OJ case, where you can sit there and listen and judge for yourself. When it was over, it was now it's over. Why are you trying to dredge it up? And then when Kobe passed, it was why are you trying to slander a dead man? So like, when is ever the time to talk about powerful men assaulting women, it's like, we never have that opportunity.

David Dennis Jr.: Yeah I mean, I think it’s important to talk about this in talking about Kobe and not erasing it because the latter 20 years of his life were spent doing the things that, I don’t want to say retribution, but they were doing things that colored what happened. The way that he did stand up for women, and honestly it’s not for me to say that made up for it because this is something that people have to put their own judgment on. I think that like Julie was saying does your worst moment define you. But it’s complicated by the fact that if you have done this incredible wrong, how do you spend the rest of your life and what does that mean? Everybody has a different answer to that and that’s what makes Kobe’s legacy so complicated especially toward the end of his life.


Brandon Pope: In the aftermath of Kobe’s sexual assault charges, he lost many of his sponsorships. He started getting booed in stadiums.

ARCHIVE, CROWD CHANTING: Kobe sucks! Kobe sucks!

Brandon Pope: He faced no punishment from the league, and he continued to amass wins on the court, including two more NBA championships. 

ARCHIVE: The Lakers are NBA champions once again!

Brandon Pope: Off the court, as a philanthropist, he was just as successful. He granted over 200 wishes with Make-A-Wish. He sponsored disaster relief and after school programs. And he dedicated significant time and money to ending youth homelessness.

ARCHIVE KOBE:  It’s a problem that we can address, it’s a problem we can solve, and we’re gonna go after it and solve it.

Brandon Pope: He took a creative turn, writing and narrating an animated movie that won him an Oscar. 

ARCHIVE: And the Oscar goes to Dear Basketball, Glen Keane and Kobe!


Brandon Pope: And then in 2020, he passed away in a tragic helicopter accident, along with his daughter Gianna and seven others. 

ARCHIVE: A tragedy has befallen the world of basketball. Earlier today, Kobe Bryant …



Brandon Pope: Hundreds of thousands of mourners visited the Staples Center in LA, his basketball home.

ARCHIVE WASHINGTON POST: He’s the definition of LA. When you think about Kobe and LA, it’s hard to think of LA without Kobe.

ARCHIVE WASHINGTON POST: I met Kobe Jellybean Bryant in February of 2000. I’m a make a wish kid. I can’t even cry right now, man, I can’t. Because I’m still remembering how happy I was that day, and the motivation it gave me to survive.

ARCHIVE WASHINGTON POST: I grew up going in the bus to see his games and see him, it’s just unreal. And the following year, he was posthumously elected into the basketball hall of fame. His wife Vanessa accepted the award on his behalf.

ARCHIVE VANESSA BRYANT: You’re a true champ. You’re not just an MVP. You’re an all time great. I'm so proud of you. I love you forever. And always. Kobe Bean Bryant.


Brandon Pope: That’s Making Kobe Bryant, without question a legendary basketball player; a man whose story took asymmetrical turns, a story that ended tragically and prematurely. The last words we’ll leave you with today come from our interview with Kobe’s biographer Mike Sielski, who summarized this complicated life:

Mike Sielski: You know, you use the word at the top of the program brand and complex. And I think that's the best one to use to describe Kobe and kind of his place in our society. There was a lot there. There was a lot there on the court, there was a lot there off the court. And how you view him and how he touched you in a certain way. Depends an awful lot on the stage of his life that you encountered him. Complex. I would say the road the road to greatness is complex.


Brandon Pope: This episode of Making was produced by Justin Bull and Heena Srivastava. I’m your host Brandon Pope. Our executive producer is Kevin Dawson. 

Special thanks to our guests, Gregg Downer, Mike Sielski, David Dennis Jr., and Julie DiCaro. And be sure to check out their amazing books, including "Rise, Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality," by Mike Sielski. "Sidelined: Sports, Culture, And Being A Woman In America," by Julie DiCaro. And David Dennis Jr.’s "The Movement Made Us: A Father, a Son, and the Legacy of a Freedom Ride."

More episodes are on the way. Be sure to press the subscribe button. And we’ll see you next week. 

WBEZ transcripts are generated by an automatic speech recognition service. We do our best to edit for misspellings and typos, but mistakes do come through.