You know our love for Kobe Bryant, we’re unapologetic in our praise and admiration for the Los Angeles Lakers’ all-time leading scorer. Not just for what he brought to basketball, but for his influence beyond the court, from style to social justice. On this day 24 years ago, he made his record-breaking debut for the team he would play for throughout his illustrious career. The team he would go on to symbolise more than anybody else, the team that paid special tribute to him when they won their first NBA championship in a decade last month. But what do we know about the rookie Kobe Bryant, the 18-year-old? We take it back to where it all began for the man that became Mamba….
Youngest player in NBA history thanks to a $3.5m contract
The young Kobe began making history from the get-go. He became a millionaire virtually overnight when he signed a three-year contract with the LA Lakers, worth $3.5m. And he went down as the youngest player in NBA history when he took to the court for the start of his pro career, aged just 18 years, two months and 11 days. He was clean out of high school, where he was named USA Today’s National High School Player Of The Year, and took pop singer Brandy to his prom, with pictures popping up in People magazine. Of course he’d go on to earn an estimated $680m over the course of his illustrious career, but this was where it all began.
Wins $48m sneaker deal before being drafted
Before the emergence of the Black Mamba, the Kobe System, and the most-worn line of signature shoes in the NBA, Bryant belonged to adidas. Weird, right? New to the pros, the teenager signed on the dotted line in a six-year deal believed to be worth $48m. A deal that was offered to him and his parents before he was even drafted. His first kicks from adidas were called the EQT Elevation, and in his maiden year he made a statement in them by winning the 1997 national Slam Dunk Contest. A new generation of basketball fans sat up and took notice of adidas for the first time. Of course, we know it didn’t last. Kobe bought himself out of his adidas contract in 2001 and jumped ship to Nike and the rest... well, you know the rest.
The young Kobe took method acting to a whole new level
Fresh out of the NBA draft in October 1996, Bryant made a guest appearance as himself in the hit sitcom Sister, Sister. He shows up at school to supposedly shoot an ad, and comes out with the memorable line, “When I’m not in training, I’m headed for Wally’s Waffles, home of the hot-buttered flapjack.” Flexing his acting skills further, later that same year he appeared in another teen smash called Moesha. But this wasn’t much of a flex, his ‘character’ was a high school star basketball player who asks Moesha (played by Brandy, yes, prom night Brandy) to take his tests for him so he doesn’t lose his sports scholarship. Method acting on another level. There were also appearances on chat shows, including The Tonight Show and the Rosie O’Donnell Show.
Here’s the important/astonishing part, this all happened without him playing a single second of NBA or college basketball. Extraordinary. Kobe continued to dip in and out of acting (read: playing himself for fun) throughout his career, but in 2018 he landed himself an Oscar for Best Animated Short. He was executive producer on the animated short film, ‘Dear Basketball’, which was based on a poem he wrote about his retirement. Even more extraordinary.
Rolling Stone profile predicts problems between the rookie and Big Shaq
Brad Pitt, U2 and Salt-n-Pepa... just some of the major showbiz names to feature in Rolling Stone magazine in 1997. Kobe Bryant, still only 18, was also of interest to the iconic publication. The writer was in the changing room (I know, can you imagine a reporter allowed inside a Premier League changing room?!) not to interview Shaquille O’Neal, the biggest name in basketball at the time who’d just signed a $120m contract, but to speak to the rookie fresh out of high school.
Rolling Stone’s Chris Mundy was on a mission to find the real Kobe Bryant, the teenager who was already being hyped as the new Michael Jordan. And his profile, which came out in 1998, revealed the tension that existed between the man they called Shaq and the newcomer we’d come to know as Mamba. The pair fell out spectacularly after winning three consecutive NBA titles together from 2000 to 2002. Mundy wrote about the swarm of reporters gathered round Bryant, even though the kid hadn’t even started the game, and asked Shaq if he resented the attention the rookie, who he liked to call ‘Showboat’ was getting. “This is all about business,” he told the Rolling Stone writer. “Attention is like money – there’s enough to go around for everybody.”
Mundy goes on to write that seconds later Shaq began to sing to the tune of Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All: “I believe that Showboat is the future/Call the play and let that mother-fucker shoot.” The tension was real and it was there from day one.