Early life of Kobe Bryant compellingly told in new book

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How is greatness born? In Mike Sielski’s new book, The Rise, he tries to answer that question by looking at the early life of NBA legend Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant burnished his legacy every way he could, attempting to translate his faults into virtues, his failures into lessons. He loved telling stories and the tale of his journey to basketball immortality was the best one he ever told. With Kobe’s tragic death in 2020, his ability to tell those stories himself ended, but the impulse to memorialize and celebrate his life from others remained.

Mike Sielski’s new book, The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality, looks at a Kobe that few got to witness and that even fewer really knew – the Kobe Bryant of Lower Merion high school. Throughout The Rise, Sielski convincingly shows just how important this phase of Bryant’s journey was for his development as a person and a player. As he writes near the end of the book, “It was there that his personality and persona had been molded and first made manifest.”

Indeed, many of the attributes that defined him in his later years could be found in his youth. There were, according to Sielski, “the cockiness, the competitiveness, the warmth and the coldness…, the boyish insecurities, the comfort with fame,” but perhaps most crucial was Bryant’s “beyond-his-years commitment to basketball brilliance and the preternatural understanding of what it took to achieve it.” And indeed, Sielski does a very good job at showcasing the traits that Kobe possessed, even at that young age, that allowed him to so singularly focus on basketball.

Kobe Bryant grew up in a very different basketball world than the one we know today

The book succeeds at being more than an account of Kobe as a young man. Sielski is also able to showcase the unique ecosystem that allowed Kobe to thrive and grow as he did. Most crucially, he paints a very full and detailed picture of Lower Merion and the socioeconomic and cultural environment that Kobe grew up in. Doing so, he also describes the lives of those who intersected with him, showing how those brief years together have stayed with them.

The Rise also captures a bygone era when high school athletes were not quite yet the big business they are today. Today, he would much more likely be transferred to IMG or another private prep school and every game would be broken down publicly by scouts and fans.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a player of Kobe’s talent and stature remaining in a public high school or staying practically anonymous on a national level for so long. It also brings back that brief period when a player entering the NBA straight out of high school was still possible before the NBA outlawed it less than a decade later. While Sielski does little to emphasize just how long ago and how different things were in 1996, the gaps between the basketball world of then and now are often interesting to glimpse.

Mike Sielski is, in many ways, the perfect author for such a book. As a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, he is entrenched in the world that Bryant emerged from and has working relationships with several of the key figures in this story; in the months after Kobe’s death, he co-authored a piece with Gregg Downer, Kobe’s high school coach. Also, most crucially for his research and the book’s new revelations, was a cache of tapes and transcripts containing interviews with a young Kobe Bryant, “the fresh thoughts and memories of a Kobe who was not yet twenty years old.”

In addition to these tapes, Sielski interviewed over 100 people and it shows as this is easily the most detailed and thorough account of this period of Bryant’s life yet presented. It can be difficult, when looking back at a famous person, to look back at their early life and not see evidence of greatness in every little thing they do. It’s a tendency that makes sense but one that, in practice, can lead to works that border on hagiography.

That is a trap that Sielski sometimes falls into here. Everyone he interviews is understandably in awe of Bryant’s greatness, but that means that traces of nuance are often lost with all of Kobe’s faults, shortcomings, or blind spots recast as virtues necessary to his greatness. It’s not that in his pre-2003 life that there was any major failing that needed to be addressed, but that the occasional idealizing of Bryant feels false. Too often it is a book about a future star rather than one about a high school athlete.

The world of basketball is a much less interesting place with Kobe Bryant around. For over 300 pages, though, Mike Sielski makes it possible for readers to spend more time with him – in the years before he became an icon and was just an ambitious and talented high schooler, desperate to achieve his yet-to-be-fulfilled dreams. This is a more innocent and naive version of Kobe, one whose worldwide celebrity and Hall of Fame career still lies ahead of him. For any NBA fan, as well all who were inspired by Kobe’s life and success, The Rise will be a satisfying read, filling them in on the origins of one of the most compelling athletes of the last three decades.

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