Editor’s note: Despite having retired more than a year ago, Kobe Bryant has just been named the most popular basketball star in China, with twice as many social media followers there as the runner-up, Steph Curry. Shanghai-based consultancy Mailman used metrics such as followers, engagement and digital presence to hand him the title.
So how’d he do it? He’s actually visited the country every year since 1998, has several endorsement deals with local brands and once performed a slam dunk on the Great Wall. In six of the past 10 years, he’s had the no. 1 selling jersey there, and the Lakers were the most followed team in China until he retired.
We could think of no better time to resurface what Sean Cunningham wrote just before Kobe retired, a roundup of lessons we can learn from Kobe’s failures—lessons the 18-time All-Star learned himself, in fact. Give it a look and maybe one day you, too, will be big in China.
This week Kobe Bryant completes a 20-year career that has seen him win five titles, but also lose in the first round or miss the playoffs completely seven times (including the past four seasons). He’s watched his Lakers implode, faced jail time and been humiliated in a very graphic rap by a former teammate while compiling his case for the Hall of Fame. Here are some notes on resilience we can take away from a rollercoaster of a career.
The Air Balls
The Situation: Coaches often don’t have much faith in rookies, particularly ones straight out of high school. Bryant demonstrated why in a playoff game against the Jazz, throwing up an air ball at the end of regulation and an incredible three more in overtime as the Lakers season soon ended.
How Kobe Handled It: This could have easily shattered a player’s confidence, but as anyone who’s watched him play knows, nothing can keep Kobe from shooting. He more than doubled his attempts the next year and hit key shots when his Lakers won the title in his fourth season.
The Lesson: Shoot smarter, but don’t stop shooting.
The Colorado Case
The Situation: By far the darkest chapter in Kobe Bryant’s career, it is worth noting Bryant was never convicted and the prosecution dropped the rape charge in 2004. (It is also worth noting Bryant paid his accuser a settlement and his statement “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not” remains deeply creepy.) Whatever occurred in that hotel room, it was at best a betrayal of his wife and at least one teammate, as he allegedly threw Shaquille O’Neal under the bus by telling police of O’Neal paying huge sums to handle “situations like this”, not to mention a massive distraction to his team.
How Kobe Handled It: Bryant averaged 24 points during the 2003-04 season and 24.5 points in the playoffs as the Lakers reached the Finals. He has not faced any additional accusations or charges in the years since – most tributes to Bryant barely mention this or omit it completely.
The Lesson: For better or worse, people will forgive and even forget.
The Phil Factor
The Situation: Having completed two three-peats as the head coach of the Bulls, Phil Jackson managed another with Bryant and the Lakers. Their relations splintered during the 2003-04 season, with Jackson later writing the charge against Bryant reminded Jackson of his own daughter’s sexual assault: “The Kobe incident triggered all my unprocessed anger and tainted my perception of him.” Bryant admitted his feelings toward Jackson were often, “F— him”, noting Jackson’s fondness for mind games even before the “Incident.” The season ended with Jackson out.
How Kobe Handled It: Jackson wasn’t the only one who left that season — we’ll get to that momentarily — meaning Bryant at last had a team that was all his. And it couldn’t even make the playoffs. Jackson returned the following season. With Jackson, Bryant has five titles. In nine seasons without him, Bryant has never even reached the Finals.
The Lesson: Some people’s shit is worth putting up with.
Being the Man
The Situation: When the Lakers won three straight titles, it was easy to give credit to Shaquille O’Neal — sportswriters sure did by giving him the Finals MVP each season. Eventually, it was determined that the Lakers weren’t big enough for Shaq and Kobe, with the older O’Neal traded to Miami in 2004.
How Kobe Handled It: Even after Jackson returned, the Lakers couldn’t get out of the first round for two seasons, while O’Neal won a title in Miami. The Lakers needed a center and he arrived in the form of Pau Gasol. Bryant knew the Spaniard was key to his success and engaged him through a strange combination of elaborate mocking (one incident involved a gold medal) and genuine affection, as he has described Pau as a “brother.” They won two titles and reached three Finals together — Bryant has not reached the playoffs since Gasol went to the Bulls.
The Lesson: You need somebody to get it done (even if it’s not the guy you currently work with).
The Taste Test
The Situation: Okay, Shaq had ample reason to be upset with Kobe by the time they went their separate ways… but Bryant still couldn’t have expected this NSFW freestyle. (O’Neal craps on Patrick Ewing as well.)
How Kobe Handled It: It was an answer years in the making. After winning his fifth ring, Bryant weighed in: “I just got one more than Shaq.”
The Lesson: The right response is worth waiting for.
The Situation: Kobe Bryant refused to acknowledge time, to the very end firing up enough shots to exhaust a player half his age. Unfortunately, he made fewer and fewer of them, so the Lakers brought in All-Star center Dwight Howard in 2012 (and MVP point guard Steve Nash) to create a “Dream Team”… that lost in the first round and lasted only a year before Howard split for Houston. Bryant regarding Howard as “soft” allegedly contributed to the departure—hilariously, Bryant would later insist he genuinely likes Howard because Dwight’s a “teddy bear.”
How Kobe Reacted: Asked how he felt about Howard’s departure, Bryant replied, “Honestly, man, I don’t really give a shit.” Since Howard left, the Lakers have posted their two worst seasons in franchise history. Howard’s Rockets made the conference finals last season and may stagger into the playoffs this year.
The Lesson: Sometimes having a teddy bear is better than being alone.
The Fabulous Finish
The Situation: As noted, these two seasons have been brutal for the Lakers, but also for Kobe personally. Bryant shot .373 in 2014-15 and somehow dropped to .354 this year as he’s flirted with one last bit of basketball immortality: He may be historically bad.
How Kobe Handled It: Fans are frustrated but the Lakers ownership stays upbeat, as they remain the NBA’s most profitable team thanks to the Bryant farewell tour. And they’ve compensated him accordingly: $48.5 million the last two years alone.
The Lesson: Nothing puts humiliation in perspective like money. Heaps and heaps of money.
Update: In his final game Wednesday night, Kobe poured in 60 points… on 50 shots, the most in an NBA game in the past 30 seasons… as the Lakers beat the Jazz 101-96… to finish the season 17-65, the worst record in franchise history. Mamba out indeed.