Thanks to the volatility of local traffic, Los Angeles Clippers forward Kobe Brown can never predict which way his GPS will send him when he drives downtown for a home game. But no matter how he gets there, the 24-year-old rookie knows the roads will invariably be lined with looming reminders of his name.
“It takes me a different route every time, and I always see murals of Kobe or his jersey or angel’s wings on the sides of buildings, restaurants, billboards — even places where I’m like, ‘How did they get that up there?’ ” Brown said. “He’s everywhere, and he’ll never be forgotten.”
Four years after NBA legend Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash alongside his daughter Gianna and seven others, on Jan. 26, 2020, his memory endures in many tangible forms. Close to 650 public art pieces honoring Bryant have been painted globally, with nearly 350 springing up throughout Southern California alone. Residents of Orange County annually observe Kobe Bryant Day each Aug. 24 as a tribute to his two Los Angeles Lakers jersey numbers, 8 and 24. And soon, another symbolically significant date — 2/8/24, Gianna’s favorite number followed by her father’s signature digits — will host the unveiling of a bronze statue of Bryant outside Crypto.com Arena.
Then there are those thousands of living, breathing testaments to Bryant’s lasting impact across the country and beyond, spanning many demographics yet all sharing the world-famous mononym by which Bryant was known. Two such namesakes made NBA history in June when Brown and Atlanta guard Kobe Bufkin became the first post-Bryant Kobes to get drafted, with Bufkin going No. 15 to the Hawks and Brown No. 30 to the Clippers.
“I never really thought about it until I realized that me and Bufkin were the first two to make it,” said Brown, who later beat Bufkin by four days as the first Kobe to play in a regular season game. “But it’s pretty cool that I’m part of this new age of Kobes.”
Sixteen more Kobes populate NCAA basketball rosters this season, among them multiple Kobe Johnsons. Another dozen Kobes have played for Division I men’s programs in the past, and there’s one Kobe on the women’s side: former Texas and James Madison guard-forward Kobe King-Hawea, whose nine siblings include a brother named Lebron and sisters named Kawhi and Jaylen-Rose). And that doesn’t account for the various homophonic variations available to parents seeking to keep the sound but not the exact spelling.
“I’ve met some C-O-B-Ys and a couple K-O-B-Ys,” said Kobi Simmons, a 26-year-old guard for the Toronto Raptors’ G League affiliate — and, it should be noted, the self-proclaimed true first Kobe namesake to appear in an NBA game. “I’m [going to] claim that title,” Simmons said.
But even sticking to K-O-B-E reveals an impressively large brood: From 1998 to 2003, a span that included three Lakers championships, it reached an average ranking of 258th on the Social Security Administration’s list of the nation’s most popular male names. The peak came in 2001, when the name was bestowed upon 1,552 newborns.
And now this next generation of Kobes is coming of age, individuals charting their own paths as adults whether they followed their forebear onto a basketball court or not. But while feelings for the name and the man who inspired it may vary, the Kobes also stand united by common experiences, from the comical reactions to the irrational expectations, and the ways those have shaped their lives.
As Bufkin put it: “That’s a big shoe to fill. But if we can get halfway there, I think we’ll be okay.”
‘The power in his name’
In his decades as a varsity boys’ basketball coach in Huntsville, Ala., Greg Brown has accompanied countless high-schoolers on college recruiting visits. But he will never forget the life-changing trip he took to La Salle University in Philadelphia during the 1995-96 season, thanks to the assistant coach who was handling the pursuit of one of Brown’s players: a towering, bespectacled former NBA and international center named Joe “Jellybean” Bryant.
One night there, at Bryant’s invitation, Brown sat down in the bleachers at nearby Lower Merion High to watch a game starring Bryant’s son, then a senior still weighing whether to enter the NBA draft after graduation. Hours later, having not only seen the young man effortlessly dominate on both ends of the floor but also heard him fluently speak multiple foreign languages to friends outside the locker room, Brown was impressed enough to make a bold promise about a teenager he had barely met.
“I said: ‘Joe, you didn’t tell me your kid was anything like this. If I ever have a son, I’m naming him Kobe,’ ” Brown recalled of the elder Bryant. “And he started laughing at me. I don’t think he took me seriously, but I was more serious than I’ve ever been.”
Four years later, at the dawn of a new millennium on Jan. 1, 2000, Brown and his wife, Sheryll, agreed to dub their firstborn Kobe Brown, the same one now playing for the Clippers in the same city where Kobe Bryant hooped for all 20 seasons of his Hall of Fame career. “What you might call the power in his name,” Greg Brown said, “I was hoping some of that would transfer over to Kobe.”
Not every next-generation Kobe draws as direct of a line between the basketball player and their parents’ inspiration. “My mom’s side of the story is that she just really liked the name, and there was no influence from Kobe,” said the Hawks’ Bufkin, 20. “We butt heads about it sometimes. In my book, I’m named after him.” (Also, Bufkin pointed out, “My brothers are named Isaiah and Michael.”)
The origins of the original’s name are no less random. “My parents must’ve been smoking some really crazy s—,” Bryant told the “Good Mythical Morning” comedy podcast in August 2018. “They sat down at a Japanese restaurant, they looked at the menu, they saw the name Kobe and were like: ‘Oh, that’s a cool name. Let’s do it.’ ” But whereas Joe and Pamela Bryant made their decision without fear of their son feeling pressure to become, say, a celebrity beef connoisseur, next-generation Kobes — no matter whether their parents liked the man or merely how his name sounded — know they will forever be linked with the player in others’ minds.
“Aw, man, all my life,” Brown said. “In high school, whenever a teacher or a classmate would shoot paper into the trash, they’d be like, ‘Kobe!’ And obviously they weren’t talking about me, but they’d always look at me at the same time. Or when people hear my name, they’re like: ‘Are you as good as Kobe? Do you play like him?’ I got that constantly growing up.”
Kobe Penn can relate. “Throughout elementary and middle school, I was picked first for a lot of teams because of my name — like, ‘Oh, we got to get that guy,’ ” said Penn, 25, a student services adviser at Union (N.J.) College. Unlike Brown and Bufkin, though, Penn didn’t quite measure up to his peers’ hopes on the court. “It was a disappointment when I started playing,” he said. “Up until middle school, I wanted a different name so badly.”
For Brown, his parents’ fateful decision made the choice simple when he was picking his favorite basketball player as a kid. “I wore the number 24, and when that was taken, I’d wear 8,” Brown said. “When I played rec league, I’d always beg our coach to make our name the Lakers. I used to have a lot of Kobe memorabilia, too. The most distinctive one was a purple-and-gold Lakers jacket with KB on it and his accolades going down the sleeves.” Plus, Brown added, “Whenever I was playing … all I wanted to do was shoot the fadeaway.”
Here Brown was far from alone in his fandom. Simmons proudly rocked his Christmas gift of a white Bryant jersey on his first day back at school around age 7, and later he hung a poster of a double-pumping, reverse-dunking Bryant in his bedroom. Bufkin wore out his pair of bright-blue Kobe 6 sneakers in middle school and cheered from the nosebleeds at Chicago’s United Center — a three-hour drive from his Grand Rapids, Mich., hometown — for Bryant’s last visit to face the Bulls.
As the basketball-playing Kobes began their own ascent in the game, Bryant often evolved into a model in other ways, too.
“Throughout my whole [four-year] college career [at Missouri],” Brown said, “if I was in a slump, I’d go to the arena by myself, shoot around in the gym with the lights still off and sit there thinking: ‘Man, I’ve got to make it work to get to where I want to be. Kobe would find a way.’ ”
But even non-basketball Kobes have taken broader lessons from Bryant’s legendary obsession with honing his craft. That’s why Penn, having finally outgrown his shame for the name after watching Bryant guide the Lakers to back-to-back rings in 2009 and 2010, kept a miniature figurine of a dunking Bryant atop his dresser at the entrance to his bedroom in high school.
“It was a reminder of what I was trying to do,” Penn said. “If Kobe’s working at 5 a.m. to do workouts, what’s my excuse to not get straight A’s? It’s difficult for young Black men to decide they want to be something greater than what they’re told they are. I’m really grateful for him showing me greatness at a young age, even if it’s just from having the same name.”
At the same time, the darkest part of Bryant’s past — his arrest in the summer of 2003 for felony sexual assault, for which the charges were dropped but nonetheless led to Bryant settling a lawsuit with his accuser and acknowledging in a public statement the woman “did not consent to this encounter”— forever altered his reputation. (In one sign, “Kobe” plummeted from 265th in 2003 on the SSA’s baby name rankings to 544th in 2005.) And some of the young Kobes were forced to reckon with his actions whether they wished to or not. “It definitely made things complicated as a kid,” Penn said. “People have asked me if I had a problem with it.”
Of course, Kobe is hardly the only popular first name out there tied to the reputation of a celebrity — let alone a big-time basketball player. Bryant’s former Lakers running mate is the figurative father of a cohort of next-generation Shaq Daddies, with more than five newborn Shaquilles entering the world daily during O’Neal’s rookie season of 1993. And perhaps no one has inspired more newborn names than Jalen Rose, whose Fab Five-era fame sparked an influx of thousands of fellow Jalens, four of whom were picked alongside Bufkin and Brown in the 2023 draft.
But two major factors separate the Kobes from the Shaquilles and Jalens and others. The first is how tirelessly Bryant toiled in every element of his life — as a five-time NBA champion and later, in retirement, an entrepreneur investor and Academy Award winner — displaying an extreme level of dedication often summarized as, simply, “Mamba mentality.”
The second is that the self-dubbed Black Mamba is no longer here to do that work himself.
Bufkin was midway through his junior year of high school in Grand Rapids in January 2020 when he returned home from the gym one Sunday afternoon to find his mother, Kimberly Camp, sitting in front of the television, watching a report about Bryant’s death. Messages from friends and family soon began to ping Bufkin’s phone, but he paid them no mind as he plunked down, preferring to process the tragedy in silence. “I feel like everybody was speechless at the time,” Bufkin said. Minutes passed. Then, finally, he and Camp bowed their heads and said a prayer.
In Indianapolis, then-Butler University freshman Kobe Mosley initially thought someone was joking when a link about the fatal crash was dropped into a friend group chat. “I was like, ‘Dude, that’s not funny,’ ” Mosley said. “They know how I feel about Kobe.” But once reality hit, not knowing what else to do in his state of “shock,” Mosley put on his cherished No. 10 Team USA Bryant jersey and met a friend at a nearby gym to shoot around. Then, for the next 24 days straight, he wore the same purple Lakers No. 24 shirt in further memorialization of his name’s legacy. (“I washed it every couple of days,” Mosley added.)
Now a graduate student in sports journalism at Indiana University Indianapolis, Mosley had always looked up to Bryant, burning through his DVD copy of “Kobe Doin’ Work,” Spike Lee’s documentary on a game played during the guard’s 2007-08 MVP season, “maybe 20 times in middle school,” said Mosley, 22. “As weird as it may sound, he felt like a mentor I never met.” Until Bryant’s death, Mosley had dreamed of interviewing his fellow Kobe and writing an article about the name that bonds them. “It really hurt, knowing I could never do that,” Mosley said, but he didn’t despair for long. Rather, he explained, “My sense of responsibility to carry on his name intensified even more.”
Scores of parents nationwide clearly felt the same way as Kobe rocketed from 556th in the SSA’s male rankings in 2019 to 239th in 2020, with 844 more Kobes born last year. (Similarly, the name Gianna spiked from 79th in 2019 to 13th in 2020 on the female list.) And no doubt others are on the way. “I don’t know when and where,” Kevin Garnett, one of Bryant’s former on-court foes, said on “The Stephen A. Smith Show” in November, “but I’m going to dedicate a son to Kobe, man.”
More appear NBA-bound soon, too, notably Southern California guard Kobe Johnson — brother of Bufkin’s current Hawks teammate Jalen Johnson — and Ja’Kobe Walter of Baylor, a probable 2024 lottery pick who bears the weight of a mashup of multiple legends. “Kobe because that was one of my dad’s favorite players,” said Walter, 19. “Then the J came from Jordan.”
To Walter, as with other high-level Kobe hoopers, honoring Bryant in death has meant adopting his life approach. “Just how much of a dog he was, taking every rep personal, I try to have that mind-set going into games,” Walter said. “Of course, it’s very hard to match.” So hard, in fact, that chasing the Mamba’s mentality can prove more toxic than curative. “Obviously you chase the standards that Kobe has set,” Bufkin said. “But you don’t want to add any extra pressure.”
Still, Bufkin has sought to tap the resources at his disposal, chatting up “old heads around the league,” such as Hawks teammate Wesley Matthews, about how Bryant “approached the game, carried himself on the daily, little stuff like that,” Bufkin said. (Taking advantage of his new $4 million-plus salary, the rookie also has splurged on seven new pairs of Kobe sneakers over the past year, upping his collection to 15.)
Out in Hollywood, Brown basks in the fondness fans feel for his name whenever he heads to the scorer’s table at Crypto.com Arena and hears “Ko-be! Ko-be!” chants. “It’s not like I’m a star player or anything, so it’s cool to see that I’m a positive light to people,” Brown said. “Obviously I’m not on the same team, but I’m trying to follow in his footsteps, driving on the same streets and playing on the same floor and walking the same hallways.”
Then again, even Kobes on the other side of the country often feel Bryant’s presence on a daily basis. Kobe Martin received a reminder this New Year’s Eve when the Goldman Sachs financial analyst handed his ID over to a bar bouncer while out with friends in Manhattan. “He asked us if we were ready for the Kobe year, like 2024,” said Martin, 23, who also reported receiving several Bryant-themed Happy New Year texts after midnight.
“I work in finance, so I’m surrounded by Davids and Johns and these generic names all the time, and sometimes I think it’d be easier to not have a quote-unquote memorable name, for the ease of not having people think immediately, all the time, that I’m a professional athlete,” Martin continued. “But I feel like, these days, it plays to my benefit and it makes me more memorable.
“Now I don’t have any issues. I’ve really, really learned to love the name.”