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“The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality” by Mike Sielski (St. Martin’s Press)
Serious basketball fans know the broad strokes of the Kobe Bryant story. The five NBA titles won during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, the sexual assault allegation against him in 2003 that was eventually dropped when his accuser refused to testify, the Academy Award he won for a short film about basketball following his retirement, and his tragic death in 2020 aboard a helicopter on a foggy Southern California morning while flying with one of his teenage daughters to her basketball game.
In “The Rise,” Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Mike Sielski focuses on what happened before any of that, when Kobe was just a kid. Sielski starts at the very beginning, on Kobe’s birthday — Aug. 23, 1978 — and paints a portrait of a kid from a loving family who spent his adolescence in Italy, where his father, Joe, played basketball, before they moved back to suburban Philadelphia in part so the family could nurture the basketball prodigy.
“He was a kid obsessed,” writes Sielski, as he chronicles the single-minded drive of the young Kobe, who if he wasn’t practicing his crossover or competing in weekend AAU tournaments, was watching VHS recordings of NBA stars Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, studying their moves with absolute conviction that someday he would be performing on the exact same stage. Sielski drew from a series of interviews recorded with Kobe in the mid-90’s by one of his high school assistant coaches at Lower Merion High School, a tony suburb on Philadelphia’s Main Line.
Stories gleaned from those interviews are complemented by interviews with more than 100 other people in Kobe’s life at the time. The result is a compelling origin story of a time that really wasn’t so long ago, but through the lens of tragedy, feels like forever.
Kobe-ologists will devour this book, reveling in the anecdotes about his intensity and the engaging game recaps as he leads Lower Merion to a Pennsylvania state championship in 1996. But while Kobe is undoubtedly the star, the book also focuses on the impact Kobe’s rise had on everyone around him. We hear a lot from his coach, Gregg Downer, from a slew of high school classmates and competitors, even from his teachers. The Internet was just getting started in the mid-90’s, so Kobe was one of the last of the high school hoop phenoms not to have his every utterance and accomplishment recorded by social media. Some of the book’s best moments are when Sielski describes something he’s watching on tape, like this end of the state semifinal in 1996, Kobe’s penultimate high school game: “Kobe caught up to the ball just inside the foul line and didn’t take another dribble, and when he leaped, the baggy white T-shirt he wore under his tank top billowed like a skydiver’s flight suit.”
The book bogs down a bit when the focus turns away from Kobe’s exploits on the court. There’s too much about LaSalle’s employment of Joe in hopes that he’ll recruit his son to play for his alma mater. Readers will also gloss over the scenes with Sonny Vaccaro, the sports marketing executive who was consumed with landing Kobe as an Adidas client to get back at his former employer, Nike. In the end, they’re just moons in orbit around Kobe, proof that his gravitational pull was extraordinary, but not nearly as interesting as the phenom himself.
“The Rise” ends in the summer of 1997, after Kobe’s first NBA season concludes with a loss to the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Semifinals. Our hero is still just 19, with all his professional accomplishments yet to come. But all that we’ve read to this point leaves him no doubt about how to move forward. After missing the potential game-winner at the end of regulation, he calls his agent’s assistant from the plane on his way home. His request? “Have Palisades gym open for me. I want to go shoot.”