'Warrior' Kobe among handful of NBA's greatest legends

4 min

Los Angeles (AFP)

Kobe Bryant combined rare shooting skills, a tireless work ethic, fierce competitiveness, mental toughness and creativity to become one of the NBA's greatest players, according to his fellow basketball legends.

Bryant, who died on Sunday aged 41 in a helicopter crash, was recalled as an iconic figure on and off the court who inspired younger players and delighted fans worldwide, embracing a global audience that adored him.

"He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force," said six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan. "I loved Kobe -- he was like a little brother to me."

On purely basketball terms, Bryant was simply among the elite guards in NBA history, a maestro with dazzling drives to the hoop and the courage to take 3-point shots with the game on the line and the skill to sink them.

"I have no fear whatsoever," Bryant said of his clutch-moment hunger. "If I take the last shot and miss, so what?"

It's a bravado that he backed up more often than not with spectacular plays, making teammates better and rivals dig deep for their very best.

"There will never be a greater warrior in our sport," said Mike Krzyzewski, who coached Bryant on US Olympic gold medal teams in 2008 and 2012. "He was in constant pursuit of doing something special.

"We have tragically lost one of the greatest sports figures of our time."

Bryant won five NBA titles in seven trips to the final. He was an 18-time NBA All-Star, the 2008 NBA Most Valuable Player, the NBA Finals 2009 and 2010 NBA MVP and matched a record as a four-time NBA All-Star Game MVP.

Bryant finished with 33,643 points, 7,047 rebounds and 6,306 assists over 1,346 career NBA games, making history from first game to last.

As a rookie in 1996, Bryant was then the NBA's youngest-ever player, days after his 18th birthday. At 37 in 2016, Bryant scored 60 points in his final NBA game, the oldest player to crack the milestone.

"Kobe was a chosen one, special in many ways to many people. He went beyond the veil," said Phil Jackson, who coached Jordan and Bryant to a combined 11 NBA titles.

- 'Top two all-time' -

Outside the Boston Celtics 1960s dynasty, the only guard to win more titles than Bryant was Jordan.

Bill Russell, an 11-time NBA champion and star of the Celtics dynasty, called Bryant: "One of the best basketball minds in the history of the game."

It was grit mixed with heart and genius that made the self-styled "Mamba" the envy of fellow superstars.

"One of the all-time greatest players in basketball," said Lakers guard LeBron James, a three-time NBA champion who passed Bryant for third on the all-time NBA scoring list only hours before Bryant's death.

Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and James have scored more career points than Bryant, who began playing basketball at age three and adored the "Showtime" 1980s Lakers of Magic Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar.

Johnson said he was "heartbroken" and called Bryant "the greatest Laker of all time" while Abdul-Jabbar called him a "magnificent athlete who inspired a whole generation of basketball players."

One of those was 19-year-old rookie Zion Williamson, a phenom who played his first NBA game just four days before Bryant's death.

"I think he's top two all-time," Williamson said of Bryant.

- Legendary achievements -

Stolen with his passing was his possible impact on the sport as an elder statesman, having championed women's basketball before fathering four daughters and established careers as a children's book writer and an Oscar-winning filmmaker.

"Kobe was not only an icon in the sports arena, he was a man of the world and touched so many lives," said Celtics legend Larry Bird.

Bryant showed endurance as well as playmaking skills, fighting off injuries throughout his career, notably going to the free throw line with a torn Achilles tendon in 2013.

Only a handful of players in NBA history have played more seasons than Bryant's 20, none of them strictly taking the punishment of playing them purely as a guard and only Germany's Dirk Nowitzki managing the feat with a single team as Bryant did.

"For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.

"He was one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game with accomplishments that are legendary."

Bryant's inspiration for future generations and his achievements are destined to remain immortal in the basketball realm.

"Basketball is better today because of Kobe," Krzyzewski said. "And he deserves eternal appreciation for that."