(Reuters) – Kobe Bryant became one of the greatest players in basketball, a transcendent star who went straight from high school to the game’s biggest stage and brought “Showtime” back to the Los Angeles Lakers for two glittering decades.
But Bryant, who was killed in a helicopter crash in Southern California on Sunday at the age of 41, was not initially rated by National Basketball Association (NBA) scouts as a can’t-miss prospect.
After deciding to skip college and go straight to the NBA, at the time an unusual career path, he was not taken until the 13th pick in the 1996 draft, by the Charlotte Hornets, who immediately traded him to the Lakers in a pre-arranged deal.
NBA teams at the time were wary of teenagers straight out of high school. The 1996 draft was also particularly strong, though some of the players taken before Bryant turned out to be complete busts.
Acquiring Bryant from the Hornets was one of the best pieces of business the Lakers ever did, as he led the team to five NBA championship rings and was the face of the franchise during his 20-year career that ended in 2016.
A small forward and shooting guard, Bryant made his debut at age 18 and averaged 25 points over no less than 1,346 regular season games while twice leading the NBA in scoring.
But he did more than just rack up points, equally proficient in defense while playing with an intensity night after night that few could match.
In a league with a grinding 82-game regular season, he turned up with his game face on every time, never just mailing it in, no matter how seemingly meaningless the game.
Bryant was an 18-times NBA All-Star who wore the jersey numbers 24 and 8 – both of which were retired by the Lakers – and continued the “Showtime” tradition of the storied franchise that has been home to the likes of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal.
The fourth-highest scorer in NBA history with 33,643 points, Bryant only gave up the third spot on the list on Saturday night to LeBron James.
On Saturday, Bryant used Twitter to extend his congratulations to James: “Much respect my brother,” he tweeted.
A few hours later, Bryant perished in the crash. He is survived by wife Vanessa, with whom he had four daughters, one of whom, 13-year-old Gianna, also died in the accident.
Born in Philadelphia, Bryant spent eight years of his childhood living in Italy, where his father played professionally, an upbringing that gave him an urbane and worldly outlook that helped him become a global superstar.
Eventually giving himself the nickname “Black Mamba” – a venomous snake native to Africa – he spent his entire career with the Lakers before retiring in 2016.
Apart from the five championship rings, he made 18 All-Star teams and in 2008 was named the NBA Most Valuable Player.
Internationally, he won two Olympic gold medals, part of the United States team in 2008 and 2012, helping spread the gospel that has made basketball arguably the second biggest global sport behind soccer.
Part of a legacy that will live much longer than his 41 years.
Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Marguerita Choy