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Resilience: The Career and Faith of Kobe Bryant

Feb. 02, 2016 - Los Angeles, California, U.S. - Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second half of a NBA basketball game at Staples Center on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2015 in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Lakers won 119-115. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)At the age of eighteen, Kobe Bryant anxiously sat on the famed Los Angeles Lakers bench and eagerly waited for his chance to play during that 1996–97 season. He was the youngest player in the history of the National Basketball Association. Coming straight out of high school to straight north of Compton, Bryant would ride the Lakers bench part of that first year while fans—including me—would chant his name. We had seen the video highlights, we had heard the myth-like stories, and we wanted to see it for ourselves.

For the past twenty seasons, we have watched Bryant. But on Wednesday night, audiences will watch Bryant play one last time.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1978, Bryant was named after a Japanese steakhouse, which is ironic, seeing that he was a source of strength (protein) and a source of concern (cholesterol) to his team over the years.

His father was a former NBA player, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant. After ending his NBA career, Jellybean took the family to Italy while he continued to play the sport he loved. With a professional playing father and two athletic older sisters, Kobe would learn from some of the best. When he returned to the City of Brotherly Love in 1991, Bryant would lead his high school team to four state championships in a row.

With that type of success, Kobe decided to forgo college and enter the NBA. This was the beginning of a stretch during NBA history when many high-schoolers would sense the immediacy of the moment and decide to skip the college level altogether. In the 1996 draft, Kobe was selected by the Hornets with the 13th pick, but then traded to the Lakers, where he would spend his career.

And what a career it would be.

Kobe began his career as the one and only Michael Jordan was ending his. Though Air Jordan did not technically retire until 2003, he started losing some steam after he left the Bulls in 1998. Talk swirled as to whether Kobe was the next MJ. Both had an uncanny handle on the ball, a powerful drive to the bucket, and a jump shot that could figuratively turn the lights out and diminish all hopes and momentum for the opposing team. But Bryant did not want to be the heir apparent to the Air throne.

"I don't want to be the next Michael Jordan; I only want to be Kobe Bryant."

So how do you replace a fourteen-time NBA All-Star, who won six NBA championships, ten scoring championships, two Olympic gold medals, and has sneakers named after him?

Well, you don't.

Kobe became an eighteen-time NBA All-Star, won five NBA championships, two scoring championships, a couple of Olympic gold medals, and obeyed his thirst while he was the face of Sprite.

But all was not perfect during Kobe's career. Much like Jordan lost his father, lost a lot of money and standing because of his gambling addiction, and lost time by retiring and trying to be a baseball player, Kobe had his trials as well.

In July 2003, he was charged with one count of sexual assault on a nineteen-year-old hotel worker in Colorado. He was later proved innocent of rape, but guilty of adultery. In 2011, he was fined $100,000 for calling a referee a derogatory slur. And this doesn't even include the on-the-court conflicts with the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, countless coaches, and his own Achilles tendon.

But if there is a theme to Kobe's career, it would be resilience. Living in Italy for his formative years, Kobe resiliently practiced despite being in a foreign land. Moving back to Philadelphia, Kobe showed resilience in winning four straight state championships. Transitioning to the NBA, Kobe resiliently sought to be the best and surround himself with the best. And through his failures and injuries, Kobe resiliently rested in his Catholic faith.

Difficulties came, and some of them he brought on himself. But difficulties only revealed what was already there—a firm belief in the God of the Universe. Growing up Catholic and raising his kids Catholic, Kobe found solace in knowing that "God's not going to give you anything you can't handle," as he told GQ earlier in his career. He understands there are things he can control, and other parts he can't. So according to Kobe, he will let go of what he can't control, move on when he can, and trust "God will carry me the rest of the way."

Kobe is right when he says that God won't give you anything you can't handle (1 Corinthians 10:13). But the beautiful problem is that you can handle more than you think (Ephesians 3:20-21). Apart from him, you can do nothing (John 15:5) but with him you can do all things (Philippians 4:13). God specializes in doing the impossible.

For the believer, you have God at work in and through you, the One who defeated sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:57-58). In your weakness, God is strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-12). The measure of your strength is tied to the level of your surrender.

On Wednesday night, when Kobe and the Lakers face off against the Utah Jazz, who knows how Kobe will do and if they can pull off the win. But what we can almost be sure of is this: God is not leaving Kobe and Kobe is not through with basketball.

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