THE RISE: Kobe Bryant and the pursuit of immortality. By Mike Sielsky. Saint-Martin Press. 384 pages. $29.99.
Serious basketball fans know the basics of Kobe Bryant‘s 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 Oscar that he won for a short film about basketball after 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 his basketball match.
In “The Rise,” Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Mike Sielski focuses on what happened before all of this, when Kobe was just a kid. Sielski begins at the very beginning, on Kobe’s birthday – August 23, 1978 – and paints a portrait of a child from a loving family who spent his teenage years in Italy where his father, Joe, played basketball, before returning to suburban Philadelphia. in part so the family can nurture the basketball prodigy.
“He was an obsessed kid,” writes Sielski, as he recounts the determination of the young Kobe, who, if he wasn’t practicing his crossover or competing in AAU weekend tournaments, was watching VHS recordings of NBA stars Magic Johnson and Michael. Jordan, studying their movements with the absolute conviction that one day he would perform on the exact same stage. Sielski was inspired by a series of taped interviews with Kobe in the mid-’90s by one of his high school assistant coaches at Lower Merion High School, a tony suburb on Philadelphia’s Main Line.
The stories from these interviews are supplemented by interviews with over 100 other people in Kobe’s life at the time. The result is a compelling origin story from a time that really wasn’t that far away but which, through the lens of tragedy, seems eternal.
Kobe-ologists will devour this book, reveling in the anecdotes of his intensity and gripping recaps of the game as he led Lower Merion to a Pennsylvania State Championship in 1996.
While Kobe is undoubtedly the star, the book also focuses on the impact Kobe’s rise has had on everyone around him. We hear a lot about his coach, Gregg Downer, a lot of classmates and high school competitors, even his teachers.
The internet was just getting started in the mid-’90s, so Kobe was one of the last high school hoop phenoms to not have all of his words and accomplishments recorded on social media. Some of the best moments in the book are when Sielski describes something he watches on tape, like that late 1996 state semifinal, Kobe’s second-to-last high school game: “Kobe caught the ball just inside the foul line and didn’t take another dribble, and when he jumped the baggy white t-shirt he wore under his tank top billowed out like a skydiver suit.
The book gets bogged down a bit when the focus shifts away from Kobe’s exploits on the court. There’s too much going on about Joe being employed by LaSalle 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 absorbed in Kobe’s arrival as an Adidas client as revenge against his former employer, Nike. In the end, these are just moons orbiting Kobe, proof that its gravitational pull was extraordinary but not as interesting as the phenomenon itself.
“The Rise” ends in the summer of 1997, after Kobe’s first NBA season ended with a loss to the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinals. Our hero is only 19 years old, and all his professional achievements are yet to come. But everything we’ve read so far leaves him in no doubt as to how to move forward. After missing out on the potential winner at the end of settlement, he calls his agent’s assistant from the plane on his way home. His request ? “Open the Palisades gym for me. I want to go shoot.