Kobe Bryant in 2016 with his wife Vanessa and his daughters Gianna and Natalia. Tinseltown/shutterstock
When you crumple up a piece of paper in the waning hours of a long workday, eyes trained on that mighty garbage can 10 feet away what do you yell?
Well, if not “MJ” then definitely “Kobe,” the late great basketball player who passed away Sunday morning in a helicopter crash—news that reverberated far beyond sports. Kobe Bryant, 41, one of his daughters Gianna, 13, along with seven others were en route to a youth basketball game when their aircraft went down in the Los Angeles area.
This writer and lifelong hoops fan and player grew up rooting against the Lakers, his father’s beloved team. I put my money on the Blazers, the Kings, and any other hapless squad I hoped would topple the mighty Kobe/Shaq Lakers of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But the Lakeshow, armed with two legends, a “Zen Master” coach, and a faithful supporting cast, seemingly never fell.
Kobe Bean Bryant was born in Philadelphia but moved to Italy when he was a kid while his father played hoops abroad. He played high school basketball in Philadelphia’s suburbs at Lower Merion High School. Drafted straight from high school, he went on play in the NBA for 20 seasons—entirely with the Los Angeles Lakers—winning 5 NBA championships, 2 Finals MVPs, and a regular-season MVP. Bryant also faced controversy, culminating with a sexual assault case in 2003 which eventually ended in a financial settlement with his accuser.
Having retired a few years ago, Bryant was just entering a new chapter in life and won a 2018 Oscar for his animated film “Dear Basketball.” He also started writing children’s books. And given his range of interests, it’s hard to imagine philanthropy wouldn’t have been part of this new chapter, as well.
While Bryant was still going strong with the Lakers in the mid-2000s, he and his wife Vanessa launched what is now known as the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation (KVBFF), whose mission is to improve the “lives of youth and families in need, both domestically and globally, and encouraging young people to stay active through sports.” The foundation provides financial resources, as well as “develops unique programs and raises awareness for relevant issues in order to strengthen communities through educational and cultural enrichment.”
Through KVBFF, the Bryants were founding donors of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, contributing at least $1 million. Prominent black Americans like Wall Streeter Robert F. Smith and Oprah Winfrey helped bring the museum to fruition, and the Bryants are part of this story. In a tweet, Kobe wrote “Go. See. This. Museum. There is no greater testament to this country than the stories in this building. Honored to be a part of it.”
Meanwhile, in 2009, after helping bring home an Olympic gold in basketball for Team USA in Beijing, he launched Kobe Bryant China Fund to "raise money for education, sports, and culture programs for children from China and the United States.” It donated to help children affected by a quake that hit Sichuan Province.
Bryant, fluent in Italian and Spanish, always wore his international background on his sleeve—a particularly powerful image as a black American athlete. KVBFF has been involved in helping teach Mandarin and Chinese culture to middle-school students.
But while Bryant’s international background influenced his nascent giving, he and Vanessa, an L.A.-native, kept their eyes strongly focused on the City of Angeles through their foundation. KVBFF operates Mamba FC, a youth soccer club in Orange County that fosters young athletes as well as helps them develop leadership and wellness skills. The foundation is also concerned with youth homelessness, and partners with outfits like Step Up on Second, My Friend’s Place and United Way, where Bryant served as the honorary chair of United Way of Greater Los Angeles’s annual HomeWalk for several years. In 2007, Bryant launched the Kobe Basketball Academy, mentoring and training athletes ages 8-18. He also volunteered with places like Make-A-Wish Foundation, NBA Cares and The Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
Worth an estimated at $600 million when he died, Bryant and his philanthropic legacy will now live on through Vanessa and the family’s three surviving children. In life, Bryant was an advocate for the WNBA and female athletes, so perhaps more work in this area will take shape. Vanessa regularly visits the young parents at My Friend’s Place and hosts an annual holiday celebration for them and their children. Her unique philanthropic interests should be watched going forward.