During practice or the national anthem or even a game, Kobe Bryant would sneak a glance at the rafters of the Staples Center and see the jerseys of Los Angeles Lakers greats hanging from the rafters.
Eventually, after a 20-year career in purple and gold, his jerseys — plural — took their rightful place alongside other Lakers legends. One generation of fans remembers him as 8, another as 24.
Bryant, 41, died along with eight others in a tragic helicopter crash Sunday in Calabasas, California.
Bryant introduced himself to the basketball world as an Afro-headed teenager wearing No. 8. How he landed on that number has to do with a combination of logic and nostalgia.
Before he was drafted, Bryant wore No. 143 at Adidas ABCD, a camp for highly touted prospects. Add up those digits, you get eight.
“When I first came in at 8, (it was) really trying to ‘plant your flag’ sort of thing,” Bryant told ESPN before his jerseys were retired in 2017. “I got to prove that I belong here in this league. I’ve got to prove that I’m one of the best in this league. You’re going after them. It’s nonstop energy and aggressiveness and stuff.”
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The first three titles he won in LA came while wearing that number. But trade demands, rape allegations (the charges were dropped and a civil suit was settled out of court) and an ugly divorce from teammate Shaquille O’Neal left Bryant seeking a change.
So before the 2006-07 season, he switched to 24 to begin a clean slate.
“Then 24 is a growth from that,” he told ESPN in 2017. “Physical attributes aren’t there the way they used to be, but the maturity level is greater. Marriage, kids. Start having a broader perspective being one of the older guys on the team now, as opposed to being the youngest. Things evolve. It’s not to say one is better than the other or one’s a better way to be. It’s just growth.”
Bryant wore 24 early in his high school career at Lower Merion in Pennsylvania, before switching to No. 33, which was retired by the school. As a rookie, Bryant desired to wear 33, according to the Lakers, but that had already been retired with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Remarkably, his offensive productive was nearly equal in both jerseys. Bryant scored 16,777 while wearing No. 8, and 16,866 as No. 24.