Before he was Mamba, before he was one of the greatest to ever play this game, Kobe Bryant was just a skinny, quiet teenager soaring through a makeshift gym in Cleveland.
On the day of his All-Star weekend debut in 1997, Bryant was lingering on the practice court inside Cleveland’s downtown Public Auditorium with the other dunk contest participants in advance of their big night. Bryant was quiet. He kept to himself. It didn’t take him long to develop the reputation as arrogant, even though he wasn’t starting and really wasn’t even playing much — averaging about 14 minutes a night.
But when his Lakers teammate Eddie Jones commanded him to stand and show the room what was coming, the Mamba in him came out early.
Bryant’s tragic death Sunday in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles, along with his daughter Gianna and seven others, shook the sports world and those who knew him. It also triggered career memories that have long been forgotten or were never shared. Like the time he won the dunk contest his rookie year without even using his best dunk.
Bryant beat a field that included Chris Carr, Bob Sura, Michael Finley, Ray Allen and Darvin Ham. As the six of them lingered on the practice court inside Fan Fest hours before the contest, none wanted to reveal what they were going to do that night. Then Jones, in town to play in the actual All-Star game the next day, began bragging to the other competitors that Bryant already had it wrapped up.
No one paid much attention to him until Bryant walked onto the court without getting loose, wiped his shoes, dribbled toward the basket and soared to the sky. He passed the ball under his legs, from his left hand to his right and hammered the rim with a windmill.
“I remember looking at Finley and saying, ‘If he does that tonight, we’re all playing for second,’” Carr said by phone Sunday afternoon.
It was the same dunk Aaron Gordon used in the dunk contest in 2016, but Gordon needed a mascot to hold the ball high to pull it off. Bryant did it alone in a gym before the days of YouTube and Instagram.