For those who may not have followed NBA basketball over the last two decades, you may not recognize these two individuals.  They are Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant, two members of the Basketball Hall of Fame that dominated basketball for well over a decade.  Both are in the top 25 for points and steals in NBA history and both were named league MVP.  Still, their careers took very different paths regarding accomplishments and legacy.  Kobe was given the type of retirement season (despite being unable to perform as he had been and on a bad team) that most athletes dream about…celebrated at every arena and  showered with praise.  AI’s final season in the NBA was anything but…so much so that when team’s wouldn’t sign him, he played overseas for four years before retiring from basketball.  What things made these great men with all-world talents, what could have broken them, and what eventually did?

For those that follow NBA basketball, there are obvious differences in terms of personnel, coaches, and franchises.  I acknowledge those differences but I would say those same differences existed for Kareem, Magic, Dr. J and Sir Charles…all four of those men were and are revered, in spite of, not because of the differences in the makeup of their teams.

So the first question is what made these men into the greats that they were

  1. An insatiable drive to be the best (as they defined it)
  2. The guidance of men who know the game of basketball at a deep level
  3. Enough performance to make people look past their character flaws

An Insatiable Drive to Be the Best (As They Defined It)

  • Kobe Bryant was such a star talent that he was drafted to the NBA right out of high school.  Despite every major college basketball program trying to recruit him and many in the NBA coaching ranks saying that he wasn’t ready to play NBA ball yet, he decided to pass on college to go directly into the pro game.  Inspired by Michael Jordan (considered one of the best of all time), he opted to wear #24 when he came into the league.  Some say it was because that was the number he wore in high school.  Those who played with him say he chose it because it was 1 more than the #23 that Jordan famously wore.  He saw Jordan, his game, his moves, his accomplishments and his titles and used that as his barometer for success.  In the end, Kobe won 5 NBA titles (1 short of Jordan, his idol), 1 NBA MVP, and reached the NBA Finals 7 times.
  • Allen Iverson wasn’t as highly touted coming out of high school, mostly people underestimated what he could do because of his size.  Fortunate for him, he was recruited by Georgetown University and had the opportunity to demonstrate what he could do against some of the best talent in the country.  Coming out of college, he was the #1 overall draft pick (in the same year as Kobe Bryant was drafted) and then blew the doors off the league from the moment he stepped on the court.  He set his own pace and preferred to be his own definition of greatness rather than shoot to meet or exceed anyone else’s definition of greatness.  In the end, Iverson won 4 NBA scoring titles and 1 NBA MVP but his teams never won the NBA title and only reached the NBA Finals once.

The Guidance of Men who Know Basketball at a Deep Level

  • Allen Iverson benefitted from being guided by two Basketball Hall of Fame coaches.  First he was molded by John Thompson the legendary coach of the Georgetown Hoyas basketball team.  While Thompson was better known for producing amazing Centers (Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo), he took Allen Iverson and created not just a star player but a lead-by-effort captain that helped him raise his level of performance.  Allen Iverson was also fortunate enough to work with Larry Brown (with the Philadelphia 76ers, now the coach at the University of Houston).  Larry had the task of taking a me-first talent and teaching him how to be a team-first player that could raise the level of performance for the players around him.   This could be seen in the season where Iverson led the Sixers to the NBA Finals and won the league MVP, despite not winning the scoring title that year which had been his habit.
  • Kobe Bryant had an army of great basketball minds around him.  The first of which was his own father, Joe Bryant, who played both in the NBA and overseas in Italy while Kobe was a boy.  Growing into an NBA talent and playing for the Los Angeles Lakers he had a slew of great basketball minds around him (including Jerry West and Magic Johnson) but that all changed when Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal came to Los Angeles.  The architect of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and the most dynamic big man in the league took the Los Angeles Lakers, as a team, and Kobe Bryant, as an individual, to new levels.  Shortly after their arrival, the Lakers went on to dominate the league for the next three years and even after O’Neal left the Lakers, it was clear that Kobe was in a place to dominate basketball for years still to come.

Enough Performance to Make People Look Past their Character Flaws

  • When many people think of Allen Iverson’s career, there are two things that first come to mind.  1) The Answer – this is the nickname that Allen Iverson carried from his high school years playing high school and street ball all the way through his Hall of Fame career.  If you watched him play, it was clear why the name suited him.  His brand of ball could answer any critic or any opposing player and his personal style was the answer that a generation of players and fans were looking for in a hip-hop era.  His personal style, from tattoos to cornrows to clothing style dripped “swag” years before anyone ever coined the term.  He wasn’t the polished superstar, didn’t do many endorsements and didn’t do many autograph signings.  By the end of his career, the same things that made some people love him were the same things that made some people hate him.    2) Practice? – In a famous media interview, he was questioned about his practice habits, which were notoriously bad for a superstar player and leader of his team.  He proceeded to go off about practice for one of the most legendary and insightful interview questions he ever gave…you can watch the video here.
    But when it comes down to it, he was an all-world talent and people will deal with a lot to keep that kind of talent on their team.
  • Kobe Bryant has his own flaws in his own way.  1) Ego & Entitlement – Kobe believed that his talent meant that he could have whatever he wanted…firing a coach (he went through three before Phil Jackson arrived and three more after Phil left), women (he dated Brandy, Sanaa Lathan, and was famously accused but not convicted of rape in Denver) and players (from Shaquille O’Neal to Dwight Howard to Eddie Jones to Nick Van Exel).  2) Black Mamba – Kobe took the nickname Black Mamba, named for the deadly snake, after the reference was made famous by the movie “Kill Bill”.  It was an appropriate name because Kobe was an assassin on the court.  Whether it was dropping 40 points without breaking a sweat, locking down defense, or making clutch plays at the end of the game he could kill you in a number of ways.  Ask any of the teams, big name players or coaches that went up against him.  This line from the movie Kill Bill, Vol. 2 sums up the reference well:

“In Africa, the saying goes ‘In the bush, an elephant can kill you, a leopard can kill you, and a black mamba can kill you. But only with the mamba is death sure.’ Hence its handle, ‘Death Incarnate.'”

  • Elle Driver “Kill Bill, Vol. 2” (2004)

So despite their strengths and their weaknessses, what really separated these two men that their careers ended on drastically different stages?  Ultimately it was maturity, ability to lead, and the ability to be a team player.  

  • Very few people would make the argument that Allen Iverson couldn’t still play when he played his last season in the NBA.  The problem was that he was an older player and was not prepared to take a secondary role after he left the Philadelphia 76ers.  He was The Answer and wanted to be the man wherever he went, which explains how a Point Guard ended up in the Top 25 of all-time NBA scorers.  He would find out in Denver, Detroit and Memphis that time had passed and he wasn’t going to be given that opportunity.  Ultimately he handled it poorly and when teams realized he was more of a distraction to their team than a benefit, he was cut and not signed (by anyone).  Ultimately, he was black-balled from the league for four years before he eventually retired without much fanfare.  Reportedly he also went broke despite having made more than $200 million dollars in his 15-year NBA career.
  • Kobe was fortunate to be on a team that, even though they fell on hard times after Phil Jackson and Pau Gasol left, made a place for him.  He had finally shown that he could be a leader for the team even after his body stopped allowing him from being the lead performer on the court.  In the end, his maturity allowed him to become an elder statesman for the league.  That combined with his titles and re-inventing himself as a team player earned him the respect of his organization and they allowed him to stay (several seasons past when other franchises would have let him go) and go out on his own terms. Kobe is estimated at having made more than $320 million dollars over his 20-year NBA career and has an estimated net worth of $320 million (that is remarkable for any pro athlete since they are notorious for spending incredible amounts of money).

The Goodwin Academy puts a premium on teaching the ability to be a team player, maturity and ultimately the abilities needed to lead.  When you are ready to take that next step toward building your dreams, we are ready for you.