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Mamba: Origins - ‘The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality’

January 12, 2022
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Sports biographies tend to be a mixed bag. Sometimes, you get flowery hagiographies, other times, straight-up hit pieces. It all comes down to a confluence of circumstances – the author, the subject and the audience – and how they come together.

Take a figure like Kobe Bryant. Considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Bryant’s career featured plenty of controversies – his Colorado rape trial foremost among them – and he was in many ways a love him or loathe him figure, both in the context of his sport and in the greater celebrity sphere. Add to that his tragic and too-soon passing in a helicopter crash in early 2020 and his legacy only grows more complicated.

How do you tell this story?

With “The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality” (St. Martin’s Press, $29.99), longtime Philadelphia basketball writer Mike Sielski takes an altogether different tactic. This isn’t the story of Kobe’s life in the league, the tale of his successes and failures. No, this is an origin story. “The Rise” isn’t about Kobe the NBA baller, but rather, it’s about the journey that got him there.

This is the story about the quiet young man who spent his first years overseas as his dad made a living dominating Italian basketball. The story of a youngster who early on decided that he was going to be as great as he could possibly be on the court. A teenager who arrived in the States with an Italian accent, a chip on his shoulder and an unwavering desire to be the best.

Thanks to a deep connection to Philly’s scholastic basketball scene – high school and college alike – Sielski is uniquely suited to bring forth the story of Kobe Bryant before he was KOBE BRYANT. From his early years through his celebrated stint as part of the Lower Merion High School basketball team, “The Rise” documents Kobe’s, well … rise … with thorough reportage and insight gained only through a first-person understanding of the time and place in question.

We get a chance to learn more about Joe Bryant, Kobe’s father and a player whose idiosyncratic skill set was something for which the NBA of his day wasn’t quite prepared. Despite the circumstances of Joe’s departure – he would play for years in Italy, becoming a beloved athletic figure there – one never got the impression that he pushed Kobe in that direction, though Joe and the rest of the family were unwavering in their support (though one could argue that that support came with its own brand of pressure). It’s tough to deny that that father-son dynamic served in many ways to define both men going forward.

We learn about the young Kobe through the accounts of those who knew him best during that time. Sielski speaks with Kobe’s former coaches – middle school, high school, AAU – and some of his former teachers and teammates at Lower Merion. It’s here that we get a sense of who the young Kobe was – not as a player, but as a person. Even then, the embryonic beginnings of the cold-blooded, guarded Kobe of his Laker days are visible, but so too are the more sensitive underpinnings to his personality. The ego was present, but not omnipresent.

And in perhaps the most compelling aspect of it all, Sielski also gained access to a series of taped interviews that Kobe gave while still in high school, offering a window onto the young man who had not yet achieved all the goals he had set, but remained utterly convinced that he would reach them.

There are scores of books out there about Kobe Bryant, running the gamut from fawning to fault-finding. What “The Rise” does so elegantly is tell a part of the story that hasn’t received quite so much attention. Everyone has to come from somewhere, even a hardwood deity like Kobe Bryant; Sielski has given us the chance to examine the beginnings of Kobe’s particular brand of basketball brilliance.

We don’t get much from Kobe’s family, which is too bad – most of the familial stuff has been gleaned from other sources. While there’s no disputing Sielski’s thoroughness, a bit more information drawn directly from the family would have been welcome. Still, there’s no question that Sielski finds plenty of ways to paint a vivid and largely complete portrait of young Kobe’s development into the phenom who would become an all-timer.

“The Rise” offers an interesting twist on the traditional sports bio. Sielski’s admiration for his subject – and indeed, the admiration projected by all of these people – is extremely present, but we never get a sense that Kobe is being unduly elevated. Young Kobe’s faults aren’t glossed over, but rather engaged with in the context of the time and place – specifically, a teenager whose ambition at times overwhelmed all other aspects of his life. Ultimately, what we get is an in-depth look at a kid who believed himself destined to greatness … and was willing to do whatever it took to achieve it.

Every legend has an origin story. “The Rise” is Kobe’s.

Last modified on Wednesday, 12 January 2022 08:52

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