Editor’s note: Following the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, STACK remembers his legacy as an athlete whose incredible drive and work ethic inspired millions. As illustrated here, youth sports and young athletes were also near and dear to his heart. This article was originally published in July 2019.
The name Kobe Bryant is synonymous with work ethic.
The internet is saturated with inspiration from the 18-time NBA All-Star. “I can’t relate to lazy people. We don’t speak the same language. I don’t understand you. I don’t want to understand you”—so goes one of Bryant’s most revered quotes.
Many young NBA hopefuls look to Bryant as a beacon of excellence in a mediocre world and aim to replicate the same work habits that helped the Black Mamba become a global icon. However, kids of today have a very different relationship with basketball than Bryant did during his youth.
A recent article by ESPN senior writer Baxter Holmes takes a look at how overuse injuries have become seemingly unavoidable for the new generation of NBA players. These issues can largely be traced back to early specialization and enduring too heavy a workload too early in their physical development. A big piece of it is that kids now feel extreme pressure to play on travel teams to gain greater “exposure,” which can lead them to play a daunting number of games week after week, month after month, year after year. And those travel teams now cater to age groups younger than ever before.
The entire piece is well worth your time (and a follow-up is slated to be published this Friday), but Bryant’s comments stuck out as particularly interesting due to his reputation for being one of the hardest-working athletes in sports history.
Bryant didn’t start playing AAU basketball until he was 15 or 16, and even then, he competed in a total of maybe five tournaments in his AAU career plus a small number of all-star games. Prior to that, Bryant spent much of his childhood living in Italy, where he says he played just a couple organized games a month.
“It wasn’t like I was playing 10 games every week or some s— like that,” Bryant told ESPN. “I didn’t play any games. You shoot a little bit every day, and then, by the time you’re 15 or something like that, you start kicking it up a little bit and that’s when you start training harder. But before that, it’s just skill s—. Can you dribble with your left? Can you shoot properly?”
“I grew up playing, like, no games. We just played a game once every two weeks before I came back to the States.”
In Italy, Bryant spent much of his free time alternating between soccer and basketball. When he did play games, they were usually pick-up style with kids in his neighborhood. The extensive soccer experience ultimately helped him become a more dynamic (and likely healthier) basketball player. “You’d play soccer and then you’d play basketball, and then you’d play soccer again and you’d play basketball again,” Bryant, who wound up playing an incredible 20 seasons in the NBA, told ESPN in 2017. “It went on and on for eight years.”
“(Soccer) taught me at an early age how to play in triangles and how to utilize space, which wound up helping me tremendously in basketball as well. I loved the idea of how quickly the ball moves and how quickly you have to process what’s moving right in front of you to make decisions.”
Now retired from professional basketball, the 40-year-0ld Bryant has faced questions many modern sports parents must ask themselves. His 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, has grown up a talented basketball player, which has opened Bryant’s eyes to just how much youth sports have changed in the last two or three decades.
“She’s looking around at different stuff and you see there’s a lot. They could literally play every single weekend in club organized basketball at 10 years old. It’s like, why? I had to be like, ‘No,’” Bryant says.
“You try to overload these kids and get them to be the best in one year…It’s just absolutely ridiculous.”
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