The Rise: A Review of Mike Sielski’s Kobe Bryant Biography

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“I wanted to do Batman Begins for the Black Mamba,” Mike Sielski tells me as he describes the pitch for The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality. Over Zoom, the increasingly popular method of communication in the pandemic era, we discuss his recently-released biography of Bryant, which chronicles the formative years of the late basketball great’s life.

“I didn’t want to write a hagiography of him. I felt like if I told the story of his early life in the right way, you would be able to see everything else that came after it,” Sielski continues. The scope of the project would take the Philadelphia Inquirer scribe from the streets of West Philadelphia, the birthplace of Kobe’s parents Joe and Pam, to the bucolic landscapes of Italy before settling in Wynnewood and Lower Merion High School.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the narrative would have been lost in a fog of nostalgia, polluted with the rose-tinted recollections of people either inclined to withhold any criticisms of Kobe given his tragic fate or eager to portray themselves as uniquely farsighted in their analysis of Bryant’s career trajectory. After all, there are fewer vantage points better than the one hindsight offers for those in the prognostication business.

Instead, Sielski presents readers with a comprehensive portrait of a young man who is simultaneously just like and nothing like any other teenager. The Kobe Bryant that emerges from the pages of The Rise wrestles with the same existential questions that define any adolescent’s life: who am I? What do I want to be? On the basketball court, Kobe had all of the answers. He knew exactly what he wanted to be — an NBA superstar — and he combined an obsessive work ethic with his prodigious talents and a limitless confidence to ensure he would reach his professional goals. Bryant would spend most of his free time either honing his craft on a basketball court or watching tapes of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, studying their moves and the way they approached the game.

Off the court, the answers were less obvious. In so many ways, Kobe was an enigma to his peers and contemporaries. There are not too many cities with the provincial culture of Philadelphia, where one’s location is tied so intricately to one’s identity. Just think: how often have you been asked what parish you were from? What street did you grow up on, and what neighborhood? Where did you go to school? We don’t have a ready frame of reference for a teenager who hopscotched the country before settling in Europe for nearly a decade and learning how to speak fluent Italian before returning to the area for high school. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for a young Kobe Bryant to find his place in such an environment.

Not helping matters was the reverence in which the young basketball prodigy was held. Sielski captures the whirlwind that surrounds Bryant as he evolves from a local curiosity to a national phenom. From the college coaches and Adidas executive who, in Bryant, saw their next meal ticket to the growing number of fans who would line up seeking Kobe’s autograph after games while a team manager carried his bags, the scenes are surreal. You’re left wondering how anyone can grow into a well-adjusted adult in such circumstances.

Grounding Bryant, as Sielski explains, was a strong support system at home and on the Lower Merion court. Bryant, whose tendency to clash with coaches began long before his NBA career started, lucked into working with Gregg Downer, the head coach of the Lower Merion Aces varsity basketball team. Downer was able to strike a balance between recognizing the greatness that lay within his star player and challenging him every day to reach his full potential.

Bryant also benefited from forging his game in the crucible of the Philadelphia basketball scene, a community filled with young players unimpressed and unintimidated by Bryant. Sielski includes the recollections of Donnie Carr, who played against Bryant through high school before starring at La Salle University.

“I didn’t think he was that good,” Carr asserts to Sielski as he describes his first encounter with Bryant when the two were in 8th grade. “He wasn’t athletic. He was just tall. He could dribble, but you get underneath him and dictate his movements. He wasn’t anything special at that age, to be honest with you.'”

Sielski charts Bryant’s rapid development from a young player who didn’t score one point in 25 games in the Sonny Hill League during the summer of ’92 to a dominant guard holding his own against NBA players in summer pickup games just three years later. The transformation is a testament to Bryant’s obsession with the game of basketball and his relentless focus on getting to the NBA.

Making the jump from high school to the pros was a leap no player had attempted for two decades until Kevin Garnett landed with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 1995 draft. Still, no one thought a guard, even one as skilled as Bryant, could survive in the NBA without at least a year of college experience.

“Nobody else at the time could see him doing that,” Sielski tells me.

Included in the camp of non-believers was La Salle head coach Speedy Morris, who held out hope the lure of home and the possibility of playing for his father, Joe, who was an assistant coach with the Explorers, might persuade Kobe to spend his college years in Olney.

Sielski devotes some time to describing the state of La Salle’s basketball program in the mid-90s. After the graduation of Lionel Simmons in 1990, the program plunged into mediocrity largely because school administrators failed to make the investments necessary to keep the Explorers relevant. Instead of building a proper on-campus home court and giving Morris a competitive recruiting budget, La Salle’s athletic department decided to place all of its eggs in the Kobe basket in the hope his arrival would restore the program.

“He’s got Speedy Morris’s future in his hands,” Sielski affirms as we discuss Kobe and La Salle. “If he decides to go there, everything’s different.”

I’m skeptical after reading Sielski’s deep dive into the program that anything would have changed for La Salle long term had Kobe spent a year at Broad and Olney. It turns out, Sielski agrees.

“I’m not convinced it would have changed anything either. LaSalle would have had one year of glory, maybe,” he concedes. Besides, the author discovers, Kobe likely would have chosen Duke and Mike Krzyzewski had he decided to spend a year in the NCAA.

So, is the book worth your time? Before I started reading, I wasn’t sure I would be interested in a Kobe Bryant biography. I was never really a fan of Bryant. He seemed like an arrogant diva and a bad teammate who blew up the Lakers dynasty because he refused to play second fiddle to Shaq. He appeared allergic to passing the basketball, to buying into the concept of a team game that might lead to more wins but less time dominating Sports Center highlights.

What I found after reading is that the player I thought I knew was a lot more complicated. The cockiness that may have limited Bryant’s game also fueled his rapid rise, and in Sielski’s book you find a prospect struggling to find that balance between taking over and playing within structure. Yes, Bryant could be incredibly selfish — Sielski includes an anecdote from Bryant’s AAU coach who described a player who would work on refining his individual game at the expense of teammates trying to showcase their abilities for recruiters. He was nevertheless capable of raising the level of play of those around him to heights they never thought possible, as we see with the other members of the Lower Merion basketball team.

In short, you don’t need to like Kobe Bryant to appreciate The Rise. I found the book to be an excellent study of greatness, much like The Last Dance. Sielski is a very talented writer who has an ability to suck the reader into a scene. I really thought the games Kobe played against Chester High School and Rip Hamilton’s Coatesville squad were the biggest games of his life. For Kobe Bryant, in those moments, they were.

I appreciated the non-Kobe portions of the book as well, particularly one tangent where Sielski describes the city of Chester and The Pit, a basketball court surrounded by a project:

In the pit, those kids learned that the sport could be as vital to their survival and flourishing as their beating hearts. In the pit, the sinister pops of gunfire and foreboding blares of police sirens, the awful sounds intrinsic to their lives, would fall, to their ears, silent for a while. In the pit, there was nothing to dread. In Chester, the pit was where you went to climb out.

So, if you’re looking for a decent book to read that is well-written, you should consider giving The Rise a chance. Kobe may not have been from Philly, and he was probably better off in a city of transplants like Los Angeles. But his game was forged here, in suburban high school gyms and on city blacktops. If you want to understand who Kobe Bryant was, there is no better place to start than at the beginning.

You can buy the book here. Sielski has also released a companion podcast, I am Kobe, which is available wherever you get your podcasts.

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