In commemoration of the one-year anniversary of NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s passing, a couple prominent Harlemites reflected on his local hoops history. Kobe, daughter Gigi, 13, and seven others died Jan. 26, 2020, in a Calabasas, Calif. helicopter crash. Kobe had several Harlem experiences prior to and after being the LA Lakers’ first-round pick in 1996’s NBA draft.
“Kobe was one of the best of his generation,” credited streetball legend Peewee Kirkland, also recalling playing against his father, Jellybean Bryant, decades ago. “He put in his work to develop his talents.”
Brother Shabazz, ambassador at Peewee’s School of Skillz basketball camp, added, “Jellybean brought Kobe to 125th Street [early ’90s] looking for [streetball legend] Joe Hammond. He wanted him to meet Joe so it’d hopefully inspire Kobe. They never met that day.”
While Kobe received many accolades for his five NBA championships and MVP awards throughout 20 seasons, one of his most memorable nights happened when he dropped 61 points on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in February 2009. Another stellar feat occurred on a drizzling 2002 summer day before several hundred during the EBC tournament at Harlem’s famed Holcombe Rucker Park. After his death his jersey numbers 8 and 24 were drawn on Rucker’s court, and posters placed on the fence in his honor.
Fresh off the Lakers’ three-peat, Bryant’s unannounced performance caused the already packed stands to swell even more as word spread to the nearby Polo Grounds. His entourage ushered him in akin to a championship boxer’s bout, and the crowd exploded upon his introduction unlike any other NBA baller amongst the galaxy of stars who have played there.
Unrestricted by NBA refs, he had the freedom of blacktop’s rules and played hard while still utilizing playground antics like dribbling off defenders’ backs, freezing opposition with crossovers, and bouncing reverse-layups off backboards. The game’s MC, “Hannibal” Banks, branded Bryant “The Lord of the Rings,” “Kobe-wan Kenobi” and “The Final Frontier,” among other monikers. His freestyle playing won over the hard-to-please crowd who were accustomed to elite talents; however, rain cut his 15 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds performance short.
“The memory I’ll definitely take away is the people down there at the game watching…and interacting with them,” Bryant said afterwards. “It’s the basketball knowledge and the passion that people have in the city.”
He returned to Rucker’s in 2009 for the World Basketball Festival as an instructor to youths. After his 2016 retirement Bryant started the Mamba League Youth Clinic in Los Angeles, and in 2019 extended it to Harlem’s Dunlevy Milbank Center. Previously he had sponsored Harlem’s Rice High School basketball team.
“I started Mamba League to help kids develop basketball skills and life skills. Our line for the league is ‘play, learn and grow.’ This is really important to me and reflects what I want to share with the young athletes about my own journey,” Kobe explained upon establishing the Harlem league.
Peewee concluded: “Kobe was an unbelievable basketball player, one of a kind, he was a scoring machine. He really impressed when he played point guard. God bless Kobe, Gigi and the seven other passengers who passed that day. He’ll be remembered as one of the best who ever did it.”